The Minnesota Vikings finished with the dullest record in the NFL, going 8-8, but they didn’t get there through normal circumstances.
The Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to early-season knee injuries, crippling their offense, but rode one of the league’s best defenses to a 5-0 start. Once teams realized that Minnesota couldn’t run the ball and Sam Bradford couldn’t stretch the field, things changed quickly. The Vikings lost eight of their next 10 games and had to beat Chicago on New Year’s Day to salvage a .500 season.
Most of the defense will be back, so general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer will have to build an offense that can keep pace. The problem is that Bridgewater’s knee injury could keep him out for another year and both Bradford and Peterson have $18 million cap hits if they stay in Minnesota.
That’s too much to pay for questionable performance, but letting both of them go means adding a quarterback and a running back while also finding three offensive-line starters. With no first-round draft pick, Spielman can’t afford to miss the shots he takes in free agency.
Here are five players that might grab his attention on the open market:
OT Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals
The Vikings don’t have a starting-quality tackle on the roster, and no matter who plays quarterback, they have to find a left tackle to protect him. Wentworth has been a consistent presence for the Bengals for the last 11 seasons, and is Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated free-agent tackle. The Vikings would have a lot of competition for his services, but with the money they could save by cutting Peterson and Bradford, they will be able to stay in the bidding.
Another tackle possibility would be a divisional rival, Detroit’s Riley Reiff. He’s played both the left and right sides for the Lions, and grabbing him would help Minnesota while hurting another NFC North contender.
RB DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers will be spending big money to keep Le’Veon Bell, which will leave Williams on the market. He’ll be 34 this season, and he’s coming off a banged-up year that saw him only play eight games, but he rushed for 11 touchdowns in 2015. He’s not a long-term solution, but he could come in for a year to pave the way for a rookie runner.
Other options include New England’s LeGarrette Blount or a pair of backs from Minnesota’s biggest rivals — Eddie Lacy and Christine Michael. The last possibility is bringing Peterson back at a greatly reduced price. He’s said he wants to stay in Minnesota, so there’s a chance.QB Kirk Cousins, Washington
As the only proven starter on the free-agent market, Cousins is going to be expensive, and he has flaws. He turned the ball over 21 times last season — 12 interceptions and nine fumbles — but the Vikings have big-play receivers and Cousins could take advantage of them in a way that Bridgewater and Bradford haven’t been able to do. He will probably end up making more than $21 million, but that’s not much more than Bradford’s $18 million.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, Minnesota Vikings
A big part of Minnesota’s defensive success came from the play of their top three cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Munnerlyn. Rhodes will be back as the No. 1 cover corner, but the other two are unrestricted free agents. They could go after someone like Brandon Carr of the Cowboys or Prince Amukamara of the Jaguars to start alongside Rhodes, but the easiest solution is to keep the same chemistry by bringing back Munnerlyn.
The ageless Newman is another candidate to return, but Leon Hall of the Giants would also get a long look.
OG T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers
Lang has been a staple for the Packers since being drafted out of Eastern Michigan in 2009, but it appears that Green Bay is ready to move on going into 2017. He won’t turn 30 until early in the regular season, and would solidify another spot in Minnesota’s offensive line. He’s also got a lot of experience playing against the defensive linemen in the NFC North.
Lang’s career took off after his freshman year in high school. He spent that season at Lakeland High School in suburban Detroit. It isn’t exactly a sports powerhouse — Lang’s the only Eagle who has ever played in the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB — but he transferred to one of the state’s best programs in Birmingham Brother Rice and turned into a Division I prospect.
(The above paragraph is probably more interesting to the writer, a Lakeland graduate, than most of the readers. We apologize for the minor digression.)
Kevin Zeitler of the Bengals is another top guard in free agency, but he might be too expensive for a team with as many needs as the Vikings.