MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Vikings, like many other NFL teams over the last few days, have been busy working on contracts with their own free agents to keep from being outbid.
So what's left when the market actually opens Tuesday?
Maybe not much activity at all. Or perhaps they're not done with the big spending. That's the flexibility — and the mystery — that ample salary-cap space provides.
"Everybody sees that Maserati, and they want to go buy it, and you know you probably shouldn't. You should probably buy a Ford F-150, like I've got," new coach Mike Zimmer said last week. "Because if you get the F-150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it."
First with quarterback Matt Cassel, and then with defensive end Everson Griffen, the Vikings crossed two priorities off their offseason to-do list by agreeing to terms on new deals with each of them. They've also re-signed cornerback/punt returner Marcus Sherels and backup linebacker Larry Dean, a valuable special teams player, and agreed on a contract with middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who will return to the team to compete for the starting job after one year with Arizona.
Cassel's two-year deal for as much as $10 million will either make him a rich backup or an underpaid starter, depending on how the quarterback the Vikings draft this spring develops. But that took care of the team's biggest need on offense. After splurging on wide receiver Greg Jennings last year, the Vikings are on track to use more modest contracts for free agents and some of their draft picks to address the other positions of need on offense. Their biggest holes are still on defense, a group that allowed a league-most 30 points per game.
"We have to look at all the areas on defense because of the schematic change a little bit," general manager Rick Spielman said recently. He added: "I think we have a lot of good young pieces in areas, but we just got to add to what we have."
With Cassel and Griffen removed from the pool, excluding players they've released in recent weeks with time still remaining on their contracts, the Vikings have 13 unrestricted free agents left. Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams are the headliners, and Allen won't be back. Williams probably won't either.
Here are three players from that group who could receive consideration, though, for a team-friendly price if they don't find too-good-to-pass-up offers elsewhere: cornerback Chris Cook, running back Toby Gerhart and wide receiver Jerome Simpson.
— Cook has had off-the-field problems, myriad injuries and zero interceptions in his first four seasons, but he and Zimmer recently spoke about his future. Cook has the size and strength to be effective in Zimmer's defense, though a return would almost certainly be as a third or fourth cornerback and not a base-scheme starter.
"He's a guy that has some ability that I've had some luck in the past with," Zimmer said.
— Gerhart, like anyone, wants to be a featured runner and could have that opportunity with another team. But the big money simply isn't there anymore for running backs outside of the elite few, which of course includes Adrian Peterson. Peterson will turn 29 this month, though, and the Vikings need a dependable backup. If Gerhart prefers familiarity and a fresh body over maximizing his contract, he could be a consideration.
— Simpson has played through two one-year prove-it contracts, and after another off-the-field incident and only one touchdown catch in two seasons, he's not likely to warrant significant open-market offers. He's fond of Zimmer from their time together in Cincinnati, and he'd be an ideal fit to return as a No. 3 wide receiver.
After finishing 5-10-1 last year, the Vikings clearly need more than just their own players. Premier free agency options include -Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner and Cleveland safety T.J. Ward. They're all receiving heavy interest from around the league, however, and will warrant major commitments.
"If we go out and spend a whole bunch of money now, we'd be upset two years from now because some of them didn't work out," Zimmer said. "So we're going to be real diligent in how we approach this and making sure that not only is it best for next year, but best for the long run, too."
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