For the Minnesota Vikings and 31 other teams, NFL free agency begins on March 17th. In five weeks, dozens of relatively familiar names will find new destinations at revised price points. An abrupt domino fell on Friday when the Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt amicably agreed to a divorce from a 10-season marriage. Watt will play for a non-Texans team for the first time in his career this September. With the jolt of a tweet, Watt suddenly belonged to 31 other franchises, at least theoretically. The Watt news is surprising because of the early-calendar impression on the news cycle. He is a herculean name, a sentimental favorite of most, and his release tantalizes excitement. Watt has missed 40% of all football games during the last five seasons, but when he is upright and healthy, the 31-year-old remains a force. Watt probably doesn’t have any business signing with the Vikings because of Minnesota’s financial restrictions. Minnesota will have a razor-thin sum of cash to spend on fresh players, and Watt is not in that ballpark for contractual dealings. But the Vikings roster is not set – by any means. Nearly every spot on the depth chart will necessitate some type of glance during free agency or the draft. Too, defensive end is one of those positions, but Watt likely commands – even to this day — a price tag north of $10 million. As of now, that is too rich for purple blood. Globally, though, the Vikings needs are distinctive. are detailed in ascending order below. Free Safety Anthony Harris was not welcomed back in 2020 with a contract extension. Instead, he was franchise-tagged, solidifying a commitment to the team for just one more season. His performance during the pandemic season was ho-hum. If 2020 is indicative of future output, Minnesota will let some other ballclub pay the man. After Harris’ imminent departure, the Vikings have no clear-cut replacement. Whoever ultimately embraces the free safety role will play opposite Harrison Smith – which helps immensely. The Vikings can scrape the bargain bin during free agency for a player like Malik Hooker, Keanu Neal, or Karl Joseph [for example]. This approach is sensible. The other avenue is the draft, and Minnesota might spend a 3rd or 4th-Rounder on this dilemma. Players like Caden Sterns of Texas or Joshuah Bledsoe of Missouri come to mind. Yet, free agency makes the most sense here because the secondary – with corners like Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler – is still quite young. Adding another pup to the mix is a gamble. Last season’s secondary was a casino load of gambles, and a 29th-best defense leaguewide was the result. Head coach Mike Zimmer could also explore converting a player like Harrison Hand from cornerback to safety in a pinch. Defensive Lineman The importance of getting personnel choices right on this one is humongous. Minnesota’s chief malady on the defensive side of the ball in 2020 was a lack of pass rush. It was abysmal. Fans got excited when the team registered a single Pressure – let alone a sack. The returns of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce at EDGE and nose tackle will be transcendent when compared to last year. Butthe team can stand to add a little beef to the other defensive end spot at the 3-technique position. The Vikings notoriously employ players of a mediocre ilk at the non-NT defensive tackle spot. It is time to finally acquire somebody that creates some mayhem – like Sheldon Richardson in 2018. That could be someone like Shelby Harris or Sheldon Rankins. For Hunter’s other EDGE bookend, the team can stick with an Ifeadi Odengibo-D.J. Wonnum cocktail or look elsewhere. Longtime Viking, Everson Griffen, wants to come back home. That may be worth some thought. A Derek Wolfe or Bruce Irvin-type may also do the trick. Both men are free agents. A Guard, Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt Free safety, defensive end, and defensive tackle are irrefutably vital, but the Vikings thirst for competent guards is paramount. Until rookie Ezra Cleveland hopped into the guard spot in 2020, the Vikings guard play was as bad as it gets. Dakota Dozier, Pat Elflein, and Dru Samia were not the saviors. They were the polar opposite, in fact. General Manager Rick Spielman must find at least one guard who is not a career-long backup. Because this guard stuff is so bad – and so entrenched in the Vikings follies – spending big money on men like Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney is not silly. Otherwise, affordable guards like Kelechi Osemele, Mike Iupati, and Brian Winters are available, too. Make no mistake. Guard is the top free-agent need. Drafting late-round prospects and slipping them into “project” designation is not a sane plan anymore. The team tried it, it failed, and square one is here.
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