Rick Spielman Must Solidify His Plan as Free Agency Lurks

Last month’s featured article focused on Minnesota’s Three Purple Paths. Like the speaker from the Robert Frost poem, I believe that choosing the right path will make all the difference. Rick Spielman is primarily responsible for choosing the right path, and the first major test rests in free agency. Spielman cannot fix every roster problem in free agency, so he’ll need to resist the temptation. Instead, the Vikings ought to commit themselves to identifying one or two priority positions and doing their utmost to secure a select few impact players.

Rick Spielman, Free Agency, and Minnesota’s Roster Needs

The Vikings, as you may have heard, have more than one or two needs. The temptation, then, may be for Spielman to scoop up players for various positions. In the past, Spielman has patched holes on the roster by bringing in low-tier free agents, a strategy that helps preserve Minnesota’s ability to take the best player available in the draft.

With an abundance of money, this approach may work. Heck, with enough money, Spielman wouldn’t even need to bring in low-tier FAs. However, our Vikings do not have an abundance of money. Spielman recently acknowledged that the Covid Cap makes things tricky: “As we’ve always talked about, we’ve been planning out what the cap would be in 2020, but in 2021 and 2022 as we move forward. I don’t think anyone predicted the situation where we even thought about the cap going the opposite way.” Minnesota is currently around $5 million over the cap (the Saints are still $63 million over, which should make all of us happy).

The Kyle Rudolph cut certainly makes the finances a little easier to navigate, but there is still work to be done. Next week, expect to see the Vikings – like the rest of the NFL – make a lot of moves. Restructures, extensions, and cuts are all legitimate options for our Vikings.

The key really rests in how creative Spielman can get with the cap. It makes very little sense to cut someone if the end result is a hole on the roster with no obvious solution. Cutting Rudolph made sense because there are cheap replacements already on the team. The same cannot be said for other positions.

Spielman also realizes that other teams will be forced to cut quality players who can contribute in Minnesota: “The other thing I’ll mention quickly is that as we’re watching this UFA process, it’s going to be an interesting dynamic with players getting cut as well.” As teams cut quality players (side note: the Raiders cut Gabe Jackson, at one time a top-tier guard in the NFL), teams like Minnesota will be given the chance to sign impact players for modest deals.

The Strengths of Free Agency

Spielman knows what Minnesota needs to do to improve. He also knows where the strengths in free agency are. In an ideal world, he’d successfully marry team needs with available free agents: “We’ve still got a lot of work to do and we’re still in the process,” Spielman recently explained, “but I think I have a pretty good sense right now — before free agency kicks off in a couple weeks — where the strengths of the draft are, where the strengths are in free agency … and how we’re going to roadmap and fill as many needs as we possibly can.”

Spielman knows that there “will be some different and unique challenges this year” but he also feels confident in his staff’s ability to navigate the uncertainty: “I know our creativity, and Rob Brzezinski is one of the best in the business.” If I – like Princess Leia – was sending a hologram message in a humble droid from a galaxy far, far away, I’d send it to Rob Brze explaining that he is our only hope.

Minnesota will need to demonstrate a willingness to continue pursuing improvement, doing so by being creative with the cap. One question the Vikings should be asking themselves is who they’re most confident in moving forward. Eric Kendricks can be extended, a move that would save $5.8 million on the cap, per Over the Cap. A Danielle Hunter extension could save more than $9 million. More than $7 million could be freed up by a Harrison Smith extension. Minnesota keeps an elite player in each part of the defense while freeing up money in the immediate. I’d be thrilled.

Free Agency and The Prove-It Deal

We’ve spilled some digital ink covering this year’s intriguing free agents. In my mind, Shelby Harris remains the perfect fit for the Vikings, but it’s tough to know how much he will demand. David Andrews also presents Minnesota with an interesting option, especially given Zimmer’s proclivity for shuffling his o-linemen like a blackjack dealer who shuffles really well (gave up on finding a good simile somewhere in that sentence).

The majority of the league is dealing with reduced money, and the end result is going to be less money for the players. It’s the unfortunate reality; guys who deserve more and would receive more in a normal year simply won’t be able to get the same amount. As a result, the prove-it deal may be a common part of this year’s free agency.

Indeed, the prove-it deal essentially functions as a short-term commitment for a player, one where he can show the league that he really is worth a sizable contract. I’d expect a lot of players to pursue this route. Why sign a long extension and lock in less money if the league is looking at a huge increase in budget in the not-too-distant future? The Vikings need to take advantage of this reality.

A couple years ago, Minnesota got solid production from Sheldon Richardson at 3T with a prove-it deal. He went on to sign a big contract with the Browns. Rick Spielman should be holding up this example to everyone he talks to in free agency. Come to Minnesota, be (relatively speaking) modestly compensated for a season, and go make your money in the future (either with us or elsewhere).

Indeed, the Vikings will need to be both aggressive and smart in free agency, so Rick Spielman will need to be sharp.