Sunday slant: A simple offseason plan

Matt Kalil (SC Playbook)

The Vikings seem far away from the playoffs in their roster-building phase, but they have quite an opportunity when looking at free agency and the draft. This is the year for new GM Rick Spielman to make his mark in acquiring players and turning the depth chart around.

Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman spent his days on the field of Ladd-Peebles stadium in Mobile, Ala., this week, keeping a watchful eye on more than 100 seniors who declared themselves eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft.

By night, Spielman was busy conducting and overseeing the interviews of every one of those players. Over a few-night period, the Vikings brought one player after another into a meeting room in the players' hotel with about 10 tables. At each table was a position coach and often a scout, as players were drilled about their upbringing, their friends, any known character issues and, finally, tested on their football knowledge. The reality is that maybe only a half-dozen of the players interviewed last week will end up in minicamps and training camp with the Vikings this year.

Despite the Vikings expecting to have 10 picks in April's draft, Spielman is also keeping in-depth records on the free-agent class and the help it can provide to the Vikings. When he stirs it all together, he hopes to have a tasty recipe for success this fall.

But where will the Vikings look for help at each of the positions and what are the factors that all figure into their roster-building in the coming months? First is the salary cap, where the Vikings are currently about $5 million under the project $120 million cap for 2012. That doesn't include up to $1.5 million in "cap credits" the Vikings could take – an allowance of $500,000 on three player contracts with five or more accrued seasons. It also doesn't take into account any potential restructuring of expensive contracts the Vikings currently have.

Candidate for restructuring include guard Steve Hutchinson, who has a $6.95 million base salary due in 2012, the final year of the contract he signed in 2006; cornerback Cedric Griffin, who is due $4.1 million in base salary and has a cap number of $4.65 million; or guard Anthony Herrera, who is scheduled to make $2.65 million in base salary and has a cap charge of more than $3.5 million.

Of course, the Vikings also have several key free agents of their own to be concerned with – tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, linebackers E.J. Henderson and Erin Henderson, and safety Husain Abdullah most prominent among them.

What it all means is that the team likely won't have a great deal of money to spend in free agency other than adding at positions where they lost, making the draft even more important.

Working at the Senior Bowl last week, head coach Leslie Frazier gave an indication on some of the key positions they were looking at among the rookie class.

"Corners, wide receivers. We're going to take a hard look at those positions. We really need to get some help in that area," he said, "but we're also going to take a look at the offensive line and there are some offensive linemen here we need to take a look at and maybe even the linebacker position as well.

"We've got a number of positions that we need to address. This is good for us, and the fact that we've got so many picks, I think that's an advantage as well. And then we're picking so high. So we've got a chance to take a really big step if we can hit on these (expected) 10 picks."

Among those 10 picks is the team's expectation that they will receive two additional picks as compensation for losing key 2011 free agents Sidney Rice and Ray Edwards. But when it comes to the Senior Bowl, about the most sure thing is that their first-round pick was not working among those players. In fact, there might have only been a couple of players in Mobile who will be drafted in the first half of the first round.

Take a global look at the talent available in free agency and the draft and it makes all the sense in the world for the Vikings to look at USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil with their third overall draft pick. First, there aren't many quality starting left tackles due up in free agency – the New York Giants' Kareem McKenzie might be the only surefire starter among them – and getting a high first-round pick under contract for five years would do a lot to help the Vikings' trample-down offensive line situation. Kalil could be plugged in at left tackle and Charlie Johnson could slide inside to guard if Herrera or Hutchinson aren't willing to restructure. That could help upgrade the offensive line at two positions and help the salary cap.

Sure, the Vikings have needs at other positions – wide receiver Justin Blackmon or cornerback Morris Claiborne would be tempting – but the free-agent market is stuffed with receivers and fairly healthy with cornerbacks as well. So is the draft.

Kalil could be the key. Fill in a couple other positions (among them receiver, linebacker, cornerback and safety) with free-agent starters, draft Kalil and then do a better job drafting in the middle rounds to help with a few other positions of need , depth and developmental starters for the future.

If the Vikings want to get out of their current funk, where they are strapped with aging, expensive veterans and a decline in talent, this is the year to do it. They have a high waiver-wire priority to start the season when other teams are cutting ties on the final roster cutdown, they have their high draft pick in April, and more than a full complement of draft picks high in each successive round.

"I really believe that you have to excel in those later rounds because that's really the bread and butter of your football team – that fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round pick – that's the majority of your team," Frazier said. "You should do pretty good on first-rounders – you'd like to think – especially where we're drafting at this year. The advantage that we have (coaching in the Senior Bow) when it comes to later rounds, to be where we are with these guys, we have to replenish our roster."

With Kalil at left tackle, Johnson inside, another starting receiver, linebacker, cornerback and safety, things wouldn't look so bad if the additional protection allows Ponder to take a healthy sophomore step forward. It would make all of Spielman's hyper-analysis all worth it if he can capitalize on the opportunity in front of him. Make no mistake, 2012 is big opportunity for Spielman and the Vikings. Making the right moves could put them back in contention quicker than most people believe is possible.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.


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