Vikings

Did the Vikings Ultimately Come Out Ahead In Free Agency?

Photo Credit: Mike De Sisti via USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings may have had the most active and impactful free agency session in the NFL, even though they didn’t sign as many new players as the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, or Washington Commanders. According to OverTheCap, the Vikings brought in 11 new free agents with a yearly contract value of $67.7 million per year, the fifth-highest of any team in the league.

At the same time, the Vikings led the league in “lost” free agency value, with former players earning a total of $102.6 million per year in free agency with new teams. That means in total roster turnover, Minnesota ranks first in the total value of player contracts that have changed from one year to the next. The $170.2 million in average annual salary that the Vikings added or acquired easily clears the second-place Carolina Panthers ($156.7 million) and third-place Texans ($155.1 million).

They rank third in the number of players who have changed teams, tied with the Panthers. Only the Texans and Commanders exceed them in total free-agency change.

With that in mind, how did they perform when engaging in such a serious turnover of the roster?

Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter were the two most notable losses in free agency. However, losing edge rusher Marcus Davenport means that both intended starters at the edge position have departed. On top of that, the departures of starters K.J. Osborn and Jordan Hicks, and notable rotational player D.J. Wonnum, have meant that there’s been a significant movement among players that have played a big role for the Vikings.

While the net effect of Minnesota’s free-agency period has been a loss of veteran players, there has seemingly been an increase in the number of incoming players who are expected to make an impact. As a rough measure of this, one can count up the number of contracts that average over $5 million a year; the Vikings had six new players come in while only four left.

To review Minnesota’s approach to free agency, we can examine groupings of signings to see where they may have succeeded or failed.

Kirk Cousins ($45M per year) to Sam Darnold ($10M per year): B+

The Vikings did not exchange Kirk Cousins and Sam Darnold in a truly meaningful way – if they had, this would have been a significant downgrade and a huge mistake. Instead, the Vikings made a conscious decision to move forward at the position with a bridge quarterback and a draft pick.

The number attached to Cousins’ contract is eye-popping, but as a percentage of the cap when signed, it is not extraordinary. The cap-adjusted number is only slightly larger than his previous contracts with the Vikings. That happens to come in an environment where quarterbacks are consuming even more of the cap than they were just seven years ago.

Had the Vikings signed Cousins to the same value and guarantee structure, it wouldn’t have been a bad move. But moving on was a slightly better move. Darnold makes sense as a bridge quarterback. His limited production over the last two years suggests he’s a far better player than he was with the New York Jets.

But there’s still more uncertainty about his level of play than there is for players like Jacoby Brissett, who signed with the New England Patriots for one year on a cheaper deal. Tyrod Taylor signed with Darnold’s former team for $6 million a year. These are marginally better moves than the Darnold signing, which is why this set of transactions doesn’t get full marks. But this was largely a very good pair of moves for the team – making way for their quarterback of the future in the NFL draft.

Danielle Hunter ($24.5M), Marcus Davenport ($10.5M), D.J. Wonnum ($6.25M) to Jonathan Greenard ($19M), Andrew Van Ginkel ($10M): B

The Vikings lost three edge rushers in free agency and added two, which might immediately seem like a problem. They don’t have that many picks in the draft expected to produce an instant impact player and they have a deficit at the position.

But given that Davenport didn’t play all that much last year, it isn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement. The Vikings may be adding snaps at the position, even with fewer players. It is difficult to fully determine the impact that Greenard will have on Minnesota — a question that was central to this piece over at Wide Left — but he’s ultimately a good player.

His availability is a concern, but he and Van Ginkel should be able to produce more pressures together than Wonnum and Hunter could, despite the higher price tag they carry. This is perhaps a total upgrade with the benefit of increased cap room, but the uncertainty that Greenard represents and the lack of an elite option prevent this from getting an A.

Jordan Hicks ($4M) to Blake Cashman ($7.5M): C

Both Jordan Hicks and Blake Cashman are coming off of unusually good years given the context of their careers, but Cashman is 27 years old while Hicks is 31. The likelihood that Hicks would play better than Cashman will in 2024 is pretty small. Therefore, the Vikings upgraded at the position, even if it may be asking quite a bit of Cashman to repeat his excellent 2023 season.

However, other linebackers, like Jordyn Brooks (26 years old) and Jerome Baker (27), were available for similar dollars in their contract while having a much stronger history of production in similar roles. It’s reasonable that the Vikings wouldn’t sign a more talented player like Frankie Luvu because he specializes in specific skill sets that overlap with Ivan Pace’s, but there were some missteps here where the Vikings could have made a wiser decision.

The linebacker position is not that important relative to other positions on the defense and this kind of signing won’t set them back, but it would have been nice to see a better or cheaper play here.

K.J. Osborn ($4M) to Trent Sherfield ($1.8M): C-

Like the Darnold and Cousins transactions, these aren’t really one-for-one swaps, but they qualify as the primary receiver movements in both directions. In reality, the Vikings are likely going to rely on a combination of Sherfield, Brandon Powell, and Jalen Nailor to find space for a third receiver, perhaps alongside a 2024 draft selection.

It’s unlikely that any of those players will be as effective or efficient as Osborn would be for the Vikings offense in 2024. Despite his disappointing 2023 season, Osborn was a great asset and a quality third receiver during his time in Minnesota.

Powell, who was surprisingly effective in 2023, is unlikely to fill that role, and we haven’t seen much from Nailor. The Vikings likely lost some depth here, and it will be difficult to make up for it, even if Osborn was a bit out of their price range.

Alexander Mattison (No Contract) to Aaron Jones ($7M): B+

The Vikings got great value when they signed Aaron Jones to a $7 million contract, but injury concerns for the running back make him a bit of a bigger risk than a draft investment or some of the other running backs on the market.

Nevertheless, it was a better signing than many teams made at the position when accounting for value and offers a clear upgrade over Alexander Mattison, who couldn’t put together a starting-quality season for the team. Jones will be expected to split carries with Ty Chandler, who has looked good in bursts but hasn’t demonstrated the ability to be a consistent weapon.

Shaquill Griffin ($6M): B-

There’s no exchange of cornerbacks in this transaction. Instead, the Vikings added a player who has bounced around several teams for reasons that are difficult to discern. But Griffin has enormous upside as a Pro Bowl-quality corner who has put in at least two seasons of high-level play.

Whether or not the Vikings can extract that quality of play remains to be seen, but at $6 million, the Vikings have either added reasonable depth to back up Akayleb Evans on the outside and compete with Andrew Booth Jr. or have added a very good starter opposite Byron Murphy Jr.

It would have been nice to have been in on Chidobe Awuzie or Adoree’ Jackson, but the cornerback market in free agency was pretty tight after Jaylon Johnson and L’Jarius Sneed signed their franchise tags. Griffin wasn’t a wow signing, but he certainly wasn’t a bad one.

Khyiris Tonga ($1.75M) to Jerry Tillery ($3.75M), Jonah Williams ($1.5M): C-

These defensive linemen aren’t one-to-one replacements for each other as Khyiris Tonga is a nose tackle while both Jerry Tillery and Jonah Williams are 3-4 defensive ends – essentially interior linemen lined up between the edge rusher and the nose.

Tillery is meant to be more of a pass rusher and represents more promise as a first-round pick than as an NFL player, where his career has been remarkably underwhelming. The defensive line group in free agency was rich with talent, but the Vikings didn’t have the extra cap space to go after the multiple linemen who signed $20 million-plus contracts.

The former Los Angeles Charger is coming off of his best season ever, which is still fairly mediocre. There’s a good chance Tillery will be cut in camp. So, too, with Williams, who is a more consistent player but offers a skill set that isn’t incredibly valuable. The two of them together probably add up to more than what Tonga brings, but it would have been nice to be a little more active in the defensive line market.

As it stands, there are still free-agent defensive linemen better than these two who are worth pursuing, but even ignoring those players, one can see signings like Maurice Hurst and DaQuan Jones — re-signed by their teams during the “tampering” period — and wonder if the Vikings could have done better at a position of significant need.

 Overall Grade: B-

The Vikings had a few more transactions fall below their standard. However, they handled the most important ones, like quarterback and edge rusher, quite well. The Vikings have set themselves up for an impactful draft, even if it looks like they mostly tread water on defense in free agency.

Should they get the quarterback they want in late April, they’ll have had a successful off-season. But it doesn’t look like they’ll hit the ground running.

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Photo Credit: Mike De Sisti via USA TODAY Sports

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