The NFL Offseason is one of my favorite times of year. Players flipping back and forth, trades, scouting, signings, releases. It’s a time in the NFL where everything and nothing happens at the same time, and the teams deal in the emotional currency of hope. It’s a magical period of Adam Schefter twitter watching, page refreshing, and reactions of both shock (!the Matt Kalil contract!) and awe (!Brandin Cooks for the 32d pick!). A time of year where it really feels like with enough draft capital and capology, anything can happen for any NFL team. This article my attempt to capture some of the significant changes to the Vikings roster before the start of the NFL season, and to provide some insight and perspective on how these moves affect the team.
To get right out in front of it, I hate the b/s “grades” or the like that every sports site gives out. Giving the signing an A or B or Q mere days after a signing is asinine. Who’s to say whether a signing is good or bad until a game is played? No one. That’s who. Let alone me. So there are no grades, or definitive scores contained below. Instead, just facts and opinions, and maybe sometimes feelings (promise to keep those to a minimum). Only time will tell if a signing is a 100, or a B, or a λ.
As a Vikings fan, I have the pleasure of watching “Slick” Rick Spielman wheel and deal his way into potential Viking stardom. Going into the 2017 offseason Spielman had a lot on his plate (just like every GM), but his main objectives were:
1) Address the offensive line (that leaked like a sieve in 2016)
2) Address the offensive line (TJ Clemmings may have literally been a sandbag at LT)
3) Figure out what to do with Adrian Peterson’s cap hit
4) Did I mention they desperately need to fix that O-Line?
Following the 2017 NFL draft, Slick Rick has addressed all of these points and more. So without further ado, let’s dive right into the Vikings’ major offseason moves:
1) Decline option on Adrian Peterson’s Contract
First thing’s first: Adrian Peterson is a Viking legend and will go down as one of the best Viking RBs in history. He will be remembered as a man beast who was the face of the Vikings for a generation of fans, and will continue to be one of the faces of this franchise far into the future. This is exactly what made the decision to decline Adrian Peterson’s $18 million dollar option a difficult one.
What made this decision easy for the Vikes was the gargantuan size of Peterson’s cap hit for the 2017 season. Peterson was sitting at a cap hit of $18 million, which would have ranked as the NFL’s top RB salary by $5.82 million and would have outpaced the cap hit average of the top 32 RBs in the NFL by $14.87 million. That cap hit was significant and burdensome for the Vikes. It was certainly too large for an aging NFL legend who has had major injuries in the past two years, and who rushed for a total of 72 yards in 2016(with a YPC of 1.9). There was no way the Vikings were getting appropriate bang to buck ratio with this contract, the way the terms currently stood anyways.
This decision was a classic R. Kelly scenario (“my mind is telling me no, but my body, my body is telling me yes”). In this case, the mind won out, the Vikings made an extremely prudent decision and went away from Adrian Peterson. Time will tell if this is a permanent divorce, or just a trial separation. But all signs are certainly pointing towards AD being on a different roster at the start of the 2017 season. With this choice, the Viking freed up a significant amount of cap space which they then used to improve the guts of the team, and the team’s biggest weakness of last season: The Offensive Line.
UPDATE: Adrian Peterson signs 2 Year $3.5M Contract with New Orleans Saints
2) Sign Riley Reiff to a 5-Year $58M Contract with $26M guaranteed
To address the biggest need of the offseason, the Vikings went in an unanticipated direction and decided to acquire the services of LT/RT Riley Reiff. The logistics of the deal work so that Reiff will, almost assuredly, be with the Vikings for the next two years. Following those two years, the Vikings can choose to cut Reiff for a minimal cap hit of $6.6M in 2019, $4.4M in 2020, and $2.2M in 2021.
Now that the numbers are out of the way, what does this mean? Answer: the Vikings paid a significant price for a non-premier talent on the O-Line. According to SportTrac, Reiff has the 7th most guaranteed money on his contract for all Left Tackles. Ranking ahead of some names like Nate Solder, Tyron Smith, and Jake Matthews. Looking at those names, it would be a stretch to say that Reiff is being paid commensurately with his talent. So why is that?
From an objective standpoint, this looks like Reiff made out like a bandit and took advantage of the Vikes. From a circumstantial standpoint it looks a little bit less ugly, but you get the same view with a caveat. All things considered, this seems like a desperation move instead of a misguided and uninformed one and unfortunately a move that the Vikes needed to make. In 2016 the Vikings O-line gave up the 10th most sacks and provided for a league worst 3.2 yards per rush attempt. Basically, they had what equated to a set of drill dummies on dollies playing the tackle positions, so a fix was sorely needed. But unfortunately, the talent on the market just didn’t match the Vikings’ need. The premier or even above-average free agent options at the position were snatched up in a blink, and the top tackle help available during the draft consisted of a 25 year old rookie who got kicked out of multiple schools and a JUCO transfer who started one year in the FCS. That being said, it’s not like the Vikes had a first round pick anyways (all hail Sammy Biscuits). As a result of the market conditions most LT signings received salaries higher than anticipated. Evidenced by the Matt Kalil contract. The Vikings’ previous oft-injured LT stand-in received a 5-year $55.5M contract with $31M guaranteed from the Panthers. That’s a hell of a lot to pay a player who played a total of 121 snaps in 2016, and who was mostly disliked by an extremely loyal fan base.
With the Vikings missing out on the top O-Line talents of Ricky Wagner and Andrew Whitworth the Vikings were painted into a corner, stuck between a rock (TJ Clemmings) and a hard place (Matt Kalil) at left tackle. Slick Rick managed to escape this situation with a serviceable, although possibly overpaid, starting LT. The way I see it, the cap-hit for Reiff is severely too high for a LT talent who: 1) played RT last season, and 2) whose performance has been trending in the downward direction since 2014. That being said, it was a price that the Vikings had to pay. To be brutally honest, any player that was signed to play LT would be better than our 2016 at production at that position. This is a moderately-high risk, high reward signing for the Vikes. If Reiff re-captures his LT form of 2014 & 2015 the Vikings will being happy with overpaying for a starting caliber LT, however if Reiff repeats his 2016 performance the Vikings will have somehow transitioned from bad to worse at this position by replacing an inexpensive subar LT with an shiny, new, and expensive subpar LT.
3) The 2017 NFL Draft
The NFL Draft is where Slick Rick really takes over and showboats his GM arsenal, he loves to wheel and deal his trade picks all over the draft board to make sure that the Vikings end up with the players that they covet the most, at the right pick, for the right price.This year was no different from drafts of recent memory controlled by Spielman. The Vikings completed seven draft day trades, resulting in the following picks:
The obvious starting place when discussing the Vikings and the 2017 NFL Draft is one of the most polarizing players in the draft: Dalvin Cook. The Vikings went into the 2017 draft with a RB corps of Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon, and Bishop Sankey. That’s a serviceable RB stable but no more than just that, it lacks a big play threat that would take it from serviceable to even good. Latavius Murray is a versatile and reliable back, however he doesn’t have that big play splash ability. Rushing behind the Raiders front 5 (one of the best O-Lines in the NFL) Murray was only able to break off 5 rushes of 20+ yards last season with an average of 4.0 yards per attempt. That doesn’t really scream big play ability to me. After drafting Dalvin Cook, the Vikings now have that “lightning in a bottle back” back, a back that has the potential to take it to the house on any given play. RB wasn’t the number one need for the Vikings going into the draft, but it was definitely a need and that position is immediately upgraded by Cook’s presence.The value of that pick was also tremendous for the Vikings, Cook was projected as a first round pick, with some mocks placing him as a top-15 pick. For the Vikings to get him with the 41st pick is a significant value.
To those who are worried about his background, I recommend you do some reading into what exactly his “off the field issues” are (Robert Klemko of SI.com wrote a fantastic article on this topic). But to quickly try to summarize: he’s a player who comes from a rough background, but the off the field concerns have less to do with Cook’s personality and more to to do with his past connections. The other major concerns with Cook are his durability and his ball control. Cook has undergone three shoulder surgeries up to this point, so some question if his shoulder will hold up to the grind of the NFL season. Additionally, Cook had fumble issues last season racking up a total of 6 fumbles over a 13 games season. If Cook can stay healthy, clean up those fumbling issues, and avoid any off field concerns he could catapult into the starting role for the Vikings and could develop into one of the premier rushing talents in the NFL. He has that kind of pure talent. But, there’s a lot of ifs there. This is a unquestioned all-in kind of move. I like the move, with this pick the Vikings have hopefully secured their RB of the future, and starting from day 1 Cook’s presence will help the fill the rather large void left by Peterson’s departure.
The Viking’s next pick was a true need-fit selection: Pat Elflein, Center/Guard out of THE Ohio State University. The Vikings entered the draft with an O-Line of (from left to right): Riley Reiff, Alex Boone, Joe Berger, ?, Mike Remmers. That RG spot was a toughie for the Wonder Twins to plug(aka Zim Zam Flim Flam and Spielman). Well things fell into place quite nicely for the Vikes; enter Pat Elflein. Based on preliminary reports it seems as though Elflein will play Center and Berger will bounce out to RG, his original position. According to Mike Mayock, in Elflein the Vikings are getting: “One of the most technically advanced offensive lineman in this draft… He’s one of those guys that will play 10 years in the NFL.” The one knock against Elflein is his lack of athleticism and speed, however most scouts seem confident that he can overcome his athletic shortcomings through technique and build himself a successful NFL career. You hear that? That’s the sound of Vikings fans letting out a huge sigh of relief, now that we have a scout approved, reliable and young O-Lineman. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, but Elflein reminds me a bit of Matt Birk the Vikings’ beloved ex-Pro Bowl center. With the scars and sacks of 2016 in mind, the Vikings have to be excited to obtain Elflein: a potential stalwart on the O-Line for years to come.
The last pick that I want to discuss is Bucky Hodges. Going into the 2017 NCAA season Hodges was ranked by Mel Kiper as the 32nd overall prospect, and somehow the Vikings picked him up in the sixth round. That’s a pretty sharp fall from the beginning of the season to the end. Though that board changes drastically throughout the season, Hodges still has the traits and athleticism that had him ranked up at 32 to begin with. Hodges’ best trait is his athleticism, out of all TEs drafted in 2017 Hodges had the 5th fastest 40 time, the highest vertical leap, and to top it all off set a new record at the TE position for the broad jump. The biggest knocks on Hodges are his lack of experience at the TE position, and his fit on an offense. Hodges has only been playing TE for a total of 3 years, and even then Hodges played more of an H-Back/Receiver hybrid role for the Hokies. So molding Hodges into an NFL caliber TE is going to be a project, not a plug and play TE. He has a lot to learn as far as technique and blocking go, but given time, I believe that Hodges can turn into a real threat at the TE position. As Viking fans we all love an underdog story, and I’m rooting for Hodges to capitalize on his athleticism to turn into another weapon in the always expanding Viking offensive arsenal.
4) Declining Teddy Bridgewater’s Fifth-Year Rookie Option
This transaction is one of the toughest moves for Vikings fans to deal with. What’s more representative of being a Viking fan than to have a young, up and coming, face of the franchise quarterback destroy his knee in training camp, on a non-contact injury. Some people say there’s no such thing as luck, to them I say: Try being a Vikings fan. Now, putting the Vikings fans’ misfortune aside. There was a transaction that resulted from this. On May 3rd, the deadline for extending the 2014 first-round draft picks’ contract for a fifth year and Teddy Bridgewater remains un-extended.
Most would assume that this means Teddy is available for free agency following his fourth season with the Vikings, meaning at the end of 2017 Bridgewater would be an unrestricted free agent. However, due to a little known clause in the CBA, if a player is on the PUP after 6 games, that year does not “toll” and would be extended for another year. Here’s the exact excerpt from the CBA Article 20, Section 2:
“Any player placed on a Physically Unable to Perform list (“PUP”) will be paid his full Paragraph 5 Salary while on such list. His contract will not be tolled for the period he is on PUP, except in the last year of his contract, when the player’s contract will be tolled if he is still physically unable to perform his football services as of the sixth regular season game.”
There’s a lot of mixed information out there about the status of Teddy’s knee, with reports ranging from he has irreparable nerve damage, to he’s already dropping back and throwing. I have no insider information to point to, but everything that I’ve read and researched tell me that he’ll start the season on the PUP with a shot of coming back at some point this year. Unfortunately, this puts the Vikings and Teddy in a precarious situation with Drama Island, the likely destination for this dreamboat we call the Vikings. Meaning this: if Teddy’s camp feels that he can be healthy and off of the PUP before the end of week 6, they may push that agenda in order to allow Teddy to hit free agency earlier. Or, they may file a suit at season’s end claiming that Teddy was eligible to be removed before week six, therefore the contract should not toll. If I had to bet my life on it, I would hypothesize that the Vikings plan to keep Teddy on the PUP until after week 6 (if not for the whole season) to let him heal, and to see what Sam Bradford has to show them.
The only way to know what’s going to happen is to watch it unfold, but all cards on the table I’m rooting for this kid. There’s an energy that he brings to the team, and everyone in camp loves him. I’ve never gotten that from Viking quarterback before, and it’s been enjoyable for the time it’s lasted. I’m hoping he makes a full recovery and comes back strong, and like Zim said, remains a Vikings for the rest of his career. Fingers crossed, but this is the mad world of the NFL so we’ll have to just wait and see how this kerfuffle plays out.
During this offseason the Vikings also signed Latavius Murray to a three-year deal with an opt-out after each year, signed Mike Remmers to be our RT of the future, locked up fan-favorite Adam Thielen and processed a litany of other moves that can be found here. I haven’t touched on all of the Vikings moves during the 2017 offseason, however these are what I feel will be the most impact on the team this season and have the largest effect on shaping the team going forward.
So, what does this all mean? Here’s my two cents: I think that Spielman and the Vikings made a number of calculated and prudent moves, based on the current situation that they’re in, with two goals in mind. 1) Plug the current holes on the roster with either quality players or those who have the potential to become quality players & 2) Allow for flexibility in the future. The focus on the second goal is what I truly believes makes Spielman one of the more qualified GMs in the league. Every season he makes move to prepare for seasons 2, or even 3 years in the future.
As for the condition of our current roster: I believe that while improved, the O-Line will still continue to be an issue. I think we have a tumultuous and stormy course ahead when it comes to our QB situation, which most likely will not be resolved until 2018. I believe in Dalvin Cook, he strikes me as the player on our team with the most potential. I am thrilled to see what he can bring to the Vikes. Although mostly unchanged, our defense will be a top-10 squad again this year, bordering on elite. The X-Factor being our secondary. I’m excited about all of the pieces that Zimmer has to play with on our D-Line. We have a huge potential to really get after the QB with contributions from Hunter, Barr, Joseph, Robison, and from newcomers Johnson and Jones. I can’t wait to see how he deploys all of those weapons. There is, without a doubt, still work to do. This roster is far from perfect, but everything in the NFL is a work in progress. We have the tools, thanks to Slick Rick. Now let’s see how Zimmer uses them this season, and where our Viking longship takes us this year. Onward and upward, and as always Skol Vikings!