With the great Adrian Peterson gone, the Minnesota Vikings are searching for a new offensive identity. They declined to pay $18 million to Peterson, who was the face of the franchise since he was drafted in 2007.
The new identity began to take shape early in free agency when general manager Rick Spielman replaced the 32-year-old Peterson with the more versatile 27-year-old Latavius Murray, leading rusher for the Oakland Raiders last season.
Murray is another big back, but his strengths include catching the ball out of the backfield and pass protection and the Vikings see him as a valuable, three-down player as the team transitions to a West Coast style of attack and a ration of shotgun formations that weren’t suited for Peterson.
“We want our face of the franchise to be a Lombardi Trophy,” owner Mark Wilf said. “That’s what drives us. Obviously, we have a tremendous core of great young talent right down the line. We’re very pleased with our quarterback, Sam Bradford, and on the defensive side with so many great core players. We’re building a roster that has a lot of playmakers.”
Murray did undergo ankle surgery after signing with Minnesota, but the problem was known. He will likely miss all of OTAs, but is expected to be ready for training camp.
Besides Murray, the Vikings moved quickly in free agency to add two new starting tackles in Detroit’s Riley Reiff on the left and Carolina’s Mike Zemmers on the right. Spielman said they were two of only five tackles in free agency he would have considered signing. Zimmer said both are better run blockers, but “adequate pass protectors” who “play like veterans that make it difficult for pass rushers to get around” quickly.
Defensively, they turned to Green Bay to plug a potential hole at the three-technique tackle spot. They gave former Packers first-round pick Datone Jones a one-year, $3.75 million prove-it contract.
Eight unrestricted free agents departed, including left tackle Matt Kalil (Carolina), nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn (Carolina), punter Jeff Locke (Indianapolis) and Cordarrelle Patterson, who went to Oakland after leading the NFL in kick returns three times in four years while never truly developing as a receiver.
Here is a closer look at where the Vikings are, how they got here and a shot at what they should do with their first pick in the draft, No. 48 overall.
2016 finish: 3rd NFC North (8-8)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 315.1 (28th)
RUSHING: 75.3 (32nd)
PASSING: 239.8 (18th)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 314.9 (3rd)
RUSHING: 106.9 (20th)
PASSING: 207.9 (3rd)
–1. Right guard: Head coach Mike Zimmer said at the league meetings that he has four starters he’s comfortable with on the offensive line before adding, “We got to figure out the right guard position.” The Vikings released Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris, the starters at the position in recent years. Fusco, who rose from late-round pick to earn a lucrative long-term deal a couple years ago, became a major disappointment because of injuries and ineffective play.
–2. Running back: Even after signing Latavius Murray to help fill the hole left by Adrian Peterson’s departure, the Vikings are eager to tap into the deep pool of talented, versatile runners available in this year’s draft. The Vikings have only shifty, third-down back Jerick McKinnon as a reliable backup at this point. The other running backs on the roster are C.J. Ham, who didn’t play as a rookie free agent a year ago, and Bishop Sankey, a third-year pro who played in 29 games for the Titans from 2014-15, but didn’t play a game while with the Chiefs a year ago.
–3. Tight end: The Vikings made a strong push to sign Jared Cook, but weren’t able to land him. Presumably, they’re still on the lookout for help in that area since no other tight end was signed. They have three tight ends under contract, but have only one — Kyle Rudolph — who stands out. David Morgan, mainly a blocking tight end, was drafted in the sixth round a year ago mostly because the team figured it would lose Rhett Ellison in free agency this year, which it did. When he’s at full strength, Ellison is a much better, more versatile blocker than the developing Morgan. The other tight end on the roster is Kyle Carter, a practice squad player who went undrafted out of Penn State a year ago.
KEY PERSONNEL TRACKER (As of April 3)
–CB Terence Newman: UFA; $3.25M/1 yr, $500SB/$1.5M guaranteed.
–WR Adam Thielen (RFA tendered at $2.746M with second-round pick as compensation); $19.246M/4 yrs, $11M guaranteed.
–DE Datone Jones: UFA Packers; $8.85M/3 yrs, $3M SB/$4M guaranteed.
–QB Case Keenum: UFA Rams; terms unknown.
–RB Latavius Murray: UFA Raiders; $15M/3 yrs, $1.8M SB/$8.55M guaranteed, $5.15M injury only at time of signing.
–T Riley Reiff: UFA Lions; $58.75M/5 yrs, $11M SB/$26.3M guaranteed.
–T Mike Remmers: UFA Panthers; $30M/5 yrs, $3M SB/$10.5M guaranteed.
–P Ryan Quigley: FA; terms unknown.
–LB Audie Cole: UFA Jaguars; $2.6M/2 yrs, $100K guaranteed.
–DE Scott Crichton (released).
–TE Rhett Ellison: UFA Giants; $18M/4 yrs, $5M SB/$8M guaranteed.
–G Brandon Fusco (released).
–LB Chad Greenway (UFA/retired).
–G Mike Harris (released/non-football illness).
–WR Charles Johnson: Not tendered as RFA/Panthers; terms unknown.
–T Matt Kalil: UFA Panthers; $55.5M/5 yrs, $12M/SB$21M guaranteed; $7M injury only at time of signing.
–P Jeff Locke: UFA Colts; $3.45M/2 yrs, $1.25M guaranteed.
–CB Captain Munnerlyn: UFA Panthers; $17M/3 yrs, $6M SB/$8M guaranteed, $1.1M injury only at time of signing.
–T Andre Smith: UFA Bengals; $3.25M/1 yr, $1.55M SB.
–WR-KR Cordarrelle Patterson: UFA Raiders; $8.5M/2 yrs, $2.5M SB/$5M guaranteed.
*NFLDraftScout.com analysts suggest (No. 48 overall).
Rob Rang (Special pick for this reset):
–Dan Feeney, G, Indiana. A possible plug-and-play solution at right guard, Feeney possesses the quickness and balance critical for success in an offense looking to get the most out of free-agent addition Latavius Murray.
Dane Brugler (Special pick for this reset):
–Dan Feeney, G, Indiana. As the Vikings look to stabilize the right guard position, Feeney is a plug-and-play option who also offers the versatility to play other positions if needed.
Based on the team’s current status, those are our suggestions for that first pick. To double check or find another candidate see NFLDraftScout.com’s full mocks and ratings.
–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX team insiders contributed to this article.
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