One of my biggest gripes with the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota has been the lack of aggressiveness in free agency. While Rick Spielman and Zimmer have done a great job building the roster in most regards, the players who were given long-term deals in free agency rarely develop chemistry with the rest of the team.
During Zimmer’s seven seasons as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, very few free agents have stuck. Why? Because Zimmer loves his defense and tends to keep the offense on a budget. That’s why key offensive skill positions have been filled by second-tier players like an aging Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace or Latavius Murray and weren’t in Minnesota for long. It may be why they missed out on Trent Williams last offseason.
The other primary reason is Zimmer’s loyalty to guys who keep their heads down and work; he doesn’t want players who are bigger than the team. While that’s commendable, Minnesota needs star power, and sometimes — scratch that — most of the time, star players come with that attitude Zimmer or Spielman usually avoid.
But they have landed some impact free agents over the years: Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman, Riley Reiff and, to some extent, Kirk Cousins. Three of those guys are no longer on the team, but Reiff was arguably the best offensive lineman on the Vikings last season, and Cousins remains the starting quarterback.
Michael Pierce is expected to be an impact player, but he opted out of this season due to COVID-19.
Despite the mixed results they’ve had in free agency, the Vikings have to be aggressive this offseason because they could not consistently protect Cousins all year. The offensive line oscillated between acceptable and putrid every week because there was no depth, and they lack an elite player to anchor the line. Reiff had a career year, but it wasn’t enough for a line that has been built mostly through the draft.
It’s the result of a front office that has not committed to bolstering the line until recently. The Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns used free agency to build their O-lines. Why not the Vikings?
Settling for mediocre free agents not only risks another losing season but also slows the development of players already on the roster. Sure, supporting players are needed, but signing one to be a starter only to have them fall short of expectations only uses up cap space and results in the player leaving as soon as they can.
It’s the same every year. The offensive line isn’t good enough to maximize Cousins, and there is never enough depth when injuries inevitably occur. Therefore, there should be two points of emphasis for the offseason.
The Vikings need to invest in plug and play offensive linemen. They have a second chance to get Trent Williams, who was named First-Team All-Pro with the San Francisco 49ers last year. They could also go after Brandon Scherff, Taylor Moton or Joe Thuney.
They should also focus on building reliable depth on the defense. D.J. Wonnum, Eric Wilson, Hercules Mata’afa and Harrison Hand all established a role on defense. However, injuries to key defensive players this year were still too overwhelming for them to overcome alone. To remedy this, the Vikings should try to sign a pass rusher to pair with Danielle Hunter and a safety to replace Anthony Harris this offseason.
Sure, Yannick Ngakoue was traded to pair with Hunter and it didn’t pan out, but the team moved on when they saw what the season was going to look like and his inability to consistently get pressure, recouping what they could for him.
The Vikings should consider safety Justin Simmons, defensive end Shaquil Barrett, safety Marcus Maye, safety John Johnson III, defensive end Carl Lawson or defensive end Jadeveon Clowney this offseason.
For any of these signings to happen, the Vikings would have to be aggressive and make space — they are currently about $13 million over the estimated cap. And they should. It’s about time they invest in players that can truly push this team to the next level.