They say the NFL has no offseason anymore. Between the free agency period and draft hype that follows directly after the Super Bowl they may be right. Which is why general managers and coaches alike are constantly scouring the free agent bin and preparing themselves to pounce on any given positional group if and when an injury takes place at any point before or during the season.
Of course, each team’s salary cap status has a huge effect on what caliber players are realistically in play and how aggressive they can be.
The Vikings, for example, remained tight to the cap during a “mini rebuild” offseason that saw the loss of five defensive starters, along with a handful of key depth contributors as well. Rick Spielman and his staff have done an efficient enough job in their overhaul project, giving the team just enough salary cap space to make a minor splash or two if they see fit.
Here are the top remaining free agents available and the chances they have to somehow, someway, end up in Vikings purple over the upcoming months.
Larry Warford, Offensive Guard, New Orleans Saints (29 Years Old)
Warford’s release from the Saints was surprising in large part because of just how dominant he has been, voted to his third Pro Bowl in as many years in 2019. The other major factor to this equation to remember is the fact the Saints have pushed their chips “all in” with anything less than a Super Bowl considered a bust in what will likely be Drew Brees’ final season. So cutting such a foundational piece to protecting Brees came as a big shock.
When the Saints turned right around and used their first pick to replace Warford in Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, the blueprint became clear. A move strictly based off the Saints cap space or lack thereof, this front office was forced to make a cut they clearly didn’t want to but had to; a necessary evil you see a lot on rosters built around with an aging franchise quarterback on the cusp of a Super Bowl run. In the Saints’ case, Brees is commanding $50 million over his final two years.
VIKINGS INTEREST: C
Had the Vikings seen Warford hit the open market before the draft you’d be hearing a different tune being sung. However, the sudden move to release Warford just days after the draft was by far the biggest shocker to ripple through the NFL, and not many saw it coming until the Saints used their first pick on Ruiz.
The Vikings already had a plan in place to rebuild their offensive line through the draft, and with little spending money available Warford remains an unlikely option given the contract he should demand. Despite the talent and immediate upgrade he would bring to the Vikings interior unit they’ve been desperately trying to rebuild for nearly a decade, Spielman has already addressed Warford’s position in the draft at a far cheaper cost, adding Ezra Cleveland, who may be able to play guard himself or kick Riley Reiff inside.
Logan Ryan, Cornerback, Tennessee Titans (29 Years Old)
The two-time Super Bowl champion Ryan is one of the bigger shockers on the list as he should have been signed by now, given his combination of big game experience, age and production.
Ryan posted a very solid four interceptions last season. However, it was his pass deflections and sacks that really caught my eye. It’s not every day you watch a starting cover cornerback reach the quarterback on blitzes as often as Ryan did with 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits. Meanwhile, he posted over double the amount of pass breakups from just a season prior, going from eight to 18, proving again just how much of a threat he has become at every level of the defense.
VIKINGS INTEREST: B-
The Vikings will undoubtedly be in “groom mode” after swapping out five secondary veterans for rookies that included big-name prospects like Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand, just to name a few.
However, if multiple youngsters can’t find their grasp to Zimmer’s liking, then Ryan could be on speed dial. An even worse case scenario would be losing a clear cut starter that is being depended on to be a leader in the secondary for any reason, such as Mike Hughes or Holton Hill. Losing a player of that magnitude would surely press the front office to sign Ryan to a one-year deal, even if it means cap stress once again for Spielman and company.
It’s important to remember the level of aggressiveness the front office takes will be highly dependent on what Kirk Cousins and the offense have been able to do and just how many wins the team is piling up at that time.
With rumors of the Vikings potentially trading for Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Desmond King, it’s hard not to assume the Vikings wouldn’t be interested in a talent such as Ryan if the price is right.
Everson Griffen, Defensive End, Minnesota Vikings (32 Years Old)
When it comes to pure 4-3 base defensive ends you’ll be hard pressed to find a more consistent player over the last eight seasons, beginning when Griffen finally earned his stripes as a starter opposite of Brian Robison in 2014.
Since then Griffen has been a true professional on and off the field, dedicating his life to his craft shown by the steady and constant statistical improvement in his game with each passing year.
Credit to coaches Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson who have helped Griffen make that final leap from great to Pro Bowl after refining his technique and adding more pass rushing tools to use in rotation next to his spin move, which is still one of the deadliest in the game.
Despite being drafted in 2010, Griffen was used as a rotational pass rusher only for his first four years, and was even moved around from end to linebacker and special teams ace as a gunner. This means even at the age of 32, Griffen should still have a few great years left after starting just 88 of the 147 games he’s played in.
Make no mistake, after another rock solid statistical showing in 2019 (eight sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hits), whichever team picks up Griffen will be adding far more than just an aging rotational edge rusher like some may assume. Griffen should and will be signed to be a starter somewhere given his three-down ability versus the run and pass.
VIKINGS INTEREST: A-
The giant elephant in the room is wearing No. 97 and has been loud and clear just how happy and grateful he was to play as long as he did for the Vikings. In fact, he was so clear, he may have subtly left the door open for a return when the time is right.
Like many aging veterans in a similar boat, the last thing Griffen wants to do is pack up his wife, kids and entire livelihood to make a couple extra bucks on his next and likely final contract.
While it’s true Griffen could hold out and eventually piggyback on Jadeveon Clowney’s contract in free agency, it’s my gut that says he would rather stay in Minnesota to finish off his long tenured and star studded career in Minnesota where he started. Even if that means taking less money.
“How much less?” is what his agent and Rob Brzezinski have been trying to negotiate since he bid his farewell and final goodbye on Instagram just three months ago. It’s no secret Griffen could cash in close to a ballpark of $10 million per year from a team like the Dolphins or Bengals right now if he wanted to. So why hasn’t he?
As mentioned above, Spielman and his team could manage to wiggle enough cash free to meet Griffen and his agent somewhere in the middle of his original asking price around $5-6 million per year. To compensate, the Vikings could then give Griffen a hefty signing bonus check (a common move in NFL front offices) to prorate over the length of the deal, which would allow him to come close to his set target by the time it’s all said and done.
When Griffen missed most of the 2018 season with mental health concerns, the Vikings brass — from coaches to players to ownership — stuck right by his side. Once he finally returned to the field he did his best to express just how much that meant to him. Griffen now has a rare opportunity to return the favor and say “thank you” in his own way. Turning down less money to stay with the same team and staff that helped him achieve success and showed the support they did would be an awfully loud and meaningful thank you.
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, Griffen still has his starting spot waiting for him if he chooses to return. Ifeadi Odenigbo is poised to slide into his spot should he not return after registering seven sacks of his own in 2019. However, coaches Zimmer and Patterson rely on a heavy rotation of defensive line combinations in their defensive scheme and would welcome Griffen back with open arms, if nothing else for the leadership and veteran presence he would bring to a roster that has seen a dramatic youth movement and needs a vocal presence they can look up to and learn from.
Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks (27 Years Old)
Clowney still hasn’t been able to live up to the hype of his No. 1 overall draft tag back in 2014, in part due to injuries and a plethora of inconsistencies around him from players to coaches to different schemes that asked him to line up in a variety of ways — such as a stand up linebacker one year to a defensive end with his hand in the dirt the next.
Clowney’s lack of consistency may have stunted his growth and development, but the fact remains he’s still only 27 years young and when used properly has one of the best toolboxes in the league at a premium position.
VIKINGS INTEREST: C-
While no one is questioning the talent still dripping from Clowney’s biceps, when it comes strictly to the Vikings it’s painfully obvious given their cap scenario that if they were to splurge for a free agent defensive end then Everson Griffen would be the clear target of the two.
Griffen’s price tag will not only be more affordable but also brings other qualities and traits to the table Clowney doesn’t, such as Griffen’s built in chemistry and camaraderie with his peers and teammates. Plus, the advantage of having experience in Zimmer’s schematic system for six full seasons makes him the obvious preference, especially when accounting for the shortened offseason programs and workouts Clowney would have to overcome.