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2013 NFC North Free Agency Preview: The Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have been transitioning into a draft and develop team as of late, but large needs at WR, LB, and OT – as well as needs in other areas of the team – may force the Vikings to dip into the free agent market.

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Last year expectations were low for the Vikings. This was a team starting a rebuilding process and looking to get younger at nearly every position on the roster. They were able to exceed these low expectations with a surprise start and hot finish to the season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2009. As a result, expectations are a bit higher for the Vikings in 2013. They have a young core of players that the organization and fans believe in, a new stadium on the horizon, and a revamped logo to go along with these developments. But despite all this promise, the Vikings are still a franchise at a crossroads, and have many tough questions to answer going into free agency.

Impending Free Agents:

FB Jerome Felton

WR Jerome Simpson

WR Devin Aromashodu

OT Phil Loadholt

OT Troy Kropog (RFA)

OT Geoff Schwartz

C Joe Berger

LB Jasper Brinkley

LB Erin Henderson

LB Marvin Mitchell

DB A.J. Jefferson

DB Jamarca Sanford

DB Andrew Sendejo (exclusive rights)

DB Marcus Sherels (exclusive rights)

Potential Free Agent Targets:

Greg Jennings

The Vikings probably had the worst group of wide receivers in the league last year. The situation could be become even worse should the team part ways with Percy Harvin. Early reports indicate that Harvin is expecting top dollar and will hold out until he gets it, but the Vikings have stated that they don’t want to trade him. So it's uncertain whether Harvin will be with the Vikings in 2013, but either way the Vikings need to add at least one WR that can make an impact quickly.

While the WR market is deep this year, Jennings is may be the best all round target out of all the receivers available. Wes Welker is older and more of a slot guy (which the Vikes have plenty of already). Mike Wallace is more of a classic "deep threat," and Ponder may be the worst deep ball passer in the league right now. Dwayne Bowe is reportedly in contract talks with the Chiefs already, and even if he does go up to Minnesota I just have the feeling that he would be the second coming of Bernard Berrian….a FA receiver that gets his money and then sits back happily sinking into obscurity.

Sadly, Jennings would be a great fit for the Vikings. He’s a great route runner. He‘s got sure hands. Best of all for the Vikings he’s great after the catch. All this means that he could run the short routes that Ponder loves to throw and then make something happen after the catch. If the team needed him to be a deeper threat down field to take advantage of what the running game can give, Jennings can do this effectively as well.

If the Vikings are truly out of the big name/ex-Packer free agent business then they may go after Brandon Gibson. Gibson is still young and has shown promise with the St. Louis Rams. He may not have the big play potential of Jennings or some of the other big name receivers available, but would be a solid option and upgrade from what the Vikings fielded in 2012.

Brad Jones

The Packers have some tough decisions at linebacker but that’s nothing compared to what the Vikings have to face. Two of their three starting linebackers appear destined for free agency (Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson) and there is not much talent behind them. Even if both stay put in Minnesota the team could sorely need an upgrade from at least one of them.

This is not a strong year for FA linebackers and so another former Packer may make the most sense for the Vikings….Brad Jones. Jones found a home at the ILB spot in the Packers 3-4 defense excelling at stopping the run and pass coverage. He could be an interesting option as a 4-3 OLB, probably on the strong side. If the Vikings make a move for Jones then they could spend a high round pick on a deep class of middle linebackers in the upcoming draft and then have an impressive LB unit in the fall.

The Vikings may not be interested in Jones considering his rather diverse past (a college DE, failed 3-4 OLB, and now 3-4 ILB) for their rather traditional Tampa 2 system. As a result another option may be Kaluka Maiava from Cleveland. The Browns are once again switching defensive styles going back to a 3-4 from a 4-3. Maiava received pretty high grades from PFF for the year and has experience in a 4-3 defense as an OLB on the strong side. Maiava can probably be acquired for a relatively low price and is young enough to further develop while still being a solid option either as a starter or rotational LB for the Vikings.

Andre Smith

If any of these needs will get our visiting Viking fans to disagree with me it’s probably going to be here, but there is a method to my madness. Right now Phil Loadholt is set to become a free agent. The Vikings may decide to franchise tag Loadholt, but then again they may not. If Loadholt does walk then the Vikings must make a big move in free agency to cover that loss. The right side of the Vikings’ line needs to be strong considering their reliance on the running attack of Adrian Peterson. The right side of the Vikings line is already going to be facing questions with the departure of Geoff Schwartz in free agency, leaving Brandon Fusco to man the right guard spot. This is the same Fusco that gave an Erik Walden-esque fail in the playoffs against the Packers, getting absolutely destroyed by B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. With the questionable nature of their RG situation, it may not be the right time to roll with a rookie or developing right tackle. The Vikings will need someone now.

Loadholt is one of the better run blockers in the league but can become a liability due to poor pass blocking and mental lapses causing penalties. If the Vikings wish to upgrade at this position they will need to find a comparable run blocker but also a RT that can pass block as well. The player who best fits this description would be Andre Smith. Smith may have bombed out as a LT prospect, but has become one of the better RT’s in the league. He could be an actual upgrade from Loadholt in the run blocking game and is more than capable in pass blocking. This is a move that would be expensive, but could be well worth it for the Vikings. It would allow the Vikings to continue running the football with the best of them, but also go a long way in Ponder’s development having a better pass blocking tackle on the right side.

The Vikings have tried to turn themselves into a draft and develop team as of late in an effort to get younger across the board, but with large needs at WR, LB, and offensive tackle – as well as pressing needs at defensive tackle and in the secondary – it’s reasonable to expect at least one big FA signing in 2013. This should help the Vikings continue any momentum gained in 2012 as well as take some pressure off the draft to supply everything needed for the coming year.