At first glance, the Minnesota Vikings don’t appear to be a team in position to make any huge signings in free agency. Although, a few quick moves could carve out some more spending money under the $182.5 salary cap limit.
For example, extending Harrison Smith could save more up front when the salary cap is lower by backloading the deal for when the budget is projected to go back up. With that and possibly some other moves, GM Rick Spielman should be able to sign an impact free agent or two.
Here are five players the Vikings should target in free agency as they aim to get back to the playoffs in 2021.
Keelan Cole, wide receiver
For a few years now, the Vikings have struggled to identify a third wide receiver behind their top two stars. With Kyle Rudolph off the Viking ship, the need for another capable chain-mover has grown even greater.
Enter Keelan Cole. He is a good route-runner who can line up at all three receiver spots, giving the Vikings ultimate flexibility when it comes to moving around their weapons.
Cole has developed a bond with who the Vikings just hired to be their new WR coach, former Jags great Keenan McCardell. Just 27 years old, Cole entered the league in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, the same year McCardell started coaching wideouts in Jacksonville. As a rookie, Cole had arguably his greatest season, hauling in 42 receptions for 748 yards and three touchdowns.
More recently, in 2020 Cole handled some punt return duties, even bringing one 90 yards to the house against the Packers. The Vikings could use an influx of talent when it comes to wide receiver depth and when it comes to adding a capable punt returner, Cole could address both needs without breaking the bank.
If Cole doesn’t work out, the Vikings could always look into bringing back Cordarrelle Patterson to fill the return man role.
Or, to aim for the fences, look into signing Emmanuel Sanders. The former Bronco has experience in the Kubiak offense, having gained over 1,000 yards in both seasons from 2015-2016 when Gary Kubiak was head coach in Denver. Now, with Klint Kubiak the offensive coordinator in Minnesota, Sanders would almost be too qualified for the third receiver gig.
Kevin Zeitler, guard
Brandon Scherff was the ultimate goal, as having him protect Kirk Cousins once again as he did in Washington from 2015-2017 would have been too good to be true. And it was, as Washington placed the franchise tag on him. Now, they will look to extend Scherff, have him play under the tag, or work out a trade.
Paying him new market value, plus giving up assets in a trade is likely not something the front office wants to do.
Luckily enough, Kevin Zeitler was released by the Giants as they look to create more space for themselves. For the Vikings, this could be a big win. This talented guard played for the Bengals when Zimmer coordinated the defense from 2012-2013, so there should be some familiarity and mutual respect.
Zeitler was born and raised in Wisconsin, he may welcome the opportunity to play close to home once again, as he has in Cincinnati and Cleveland in the past. He also attended Wisconsin to play football, which he was able to parlay into being drafted 27th overall in 2012.
As PFF pointed out on Twitter, Zeitler would be the highest-rated guard the Vikings have had since 2017. Coming off a year where he finished with a career-low 65.9 grade, the Vikings would be buying low on a player who has shown the ability to play at a very high level. Signing Zeitler to a deal valued at $6-8 million annually would allow Spielman to still go chase more free agents.
Other talented veterans may be on the chopping block as well, such as Andrew Norwell. Otherwise, Nick Easton or Kyle Long may be bargain bin finds similar to Josh Kline in 2019. No matter what, the Vikings can not afford to enter the 2021 season without adding a starting guard or two to protect Kirk Cousins. Especially after letting Riley Reiff go.
Carlos Dunlap, defensive end
The Vikings made a minor move to back a familiar face in Stephen Weatherly. He’ll be a nice veteran rotational rusher, but it’s not enough to rejuvenate what was a terrible pass-rushing unit in 2020.
Carlos Dunlap, recently released by the Seahawks, is good at stopping the run and is also a great pass-rusher, with 87.5 career sacks. From 2010-2013, Dunlap was coached by Zimmer with the Bengals, averaging just over 6.5 sacks per year despite only starting 16 games. Since then, Dunlap has gone to the Pro Bowl twice and is set to hit the open market as a 32-year-old looking for a new team.
In 2020, Dunlap slipped a bit, according to PFF, grading at 60.3. To be fair, he switched teams for the first time in his 11-year NFL career and he did it mid-season. We’ll cut him some slack as he still registered six sacks. The year prior, he had an 89.7 grade and brought the QB down nine times.
Dunlap is the type of player who won’t be among the highest-paid at his position, but could still play at a high level. The Vikings, if there is mutual interest, should be able to find a deal that works for both sides should Dunlap want to reunite with Zimmer while trying to get back to the playoffs.
Other notable additions could include Everson Griffen or Carl Lawson, two more familiar faces to Viking defensive coaches without impacting the budget too much.
Kawann Short, defensive tackle
After playing in just five games in the past two seasons, Kawann Short’s stock is way down. It’s a shame too as he was coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2018. Short also has a campaign where he compiled 11 sacks in 2015. Generating that much pressure from the DT position is something Mike Zimmer has long sought out, bringing in players such as Sheldon Richardson in 2018.
As the Vikings are in desperate need of improving both at stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, adding Short would be a phenomenal duo when paired with the monstrous run-stuffing DT Michael Pierce, who did not play a snap in 2020. For most teams, especially the Vikings, signing Short sounds like a perfect match.
At 32 years old, Short is another player who could easily outplay his contract in 2021. Teams will not rush to throw top-dollar at him, due to his recent inability to stay on the field. For Spielman, this could be a great way to scoop up an impact player at a fraction of the typical cost.
Once again, Geno Atkins is probably the guy the Minnesota front office has their sights set on. But until the Bengals cut him loose, their hands are tied. It’s fairly obvious Atkins is on his way out, it seems they are just trying their best to entice a team to make an offer they can’t refuse before releasing him. It shouldn’t be long before Atkins is free to shop his services on the open market.
Atkins of course played for Mike Zimmer from 2010-2013 with the Bengals. In that time, he made the Pro Bowl twice and even had a 12.5 sack year. He is the exact mold the Vikings have in mind when they say they are searching for a great 3-technique, similar to Short. Atkins could be the best defensive tackle the Vikings have had since Kevin Williams was wreaking havoc in the trenches. If Atkins does become a free agent, expect the Vikings to pounce on the former Bengal in short order.
Lamarcus Joyner, safety
This one is tough. With Anthony Harris set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Vikings are in severe need of adding a starting safety this offseason. The primary backups at safety on the roster were both late-round rookies in 2020 who received little to no playing time at all.
Addressing the safety position is without a doubt one of the biggest areas of concern heading into 2021. Meanwhile, the Raiders released Lamarcus Joyner after being largely ineffective as a big-money free agent signing back in 2019. Joyner has two years of experience playing in Paul Guenther’s defense, who was recently hired to be a senior defensive assistant in Minnesota.
Joyner has spent a lot of time playing a few different roles within a defense, such as at the nickel, outside on receivers, and at free safety roaming the field. PFF tallied his career grades in those various positions and shared that when playing the FS role, Joyner has a grade of 90.1 in over 1,400 snaps. If he were to sign with the Vikings, they may employ him in that exact spot, playing next to Smith to form another talented safety duo.
While re-signing Harris is still their best route, if they were to miss out on signing Joyner, the other options don’t jump off the page as immediate fits. Searching for a trade may be more viable. The Vikings could also pivot to adding an experienced corner such as Richard Sherman or reuniting with Xavier Rhodes or Mackensie Alexander for another cost-saving method to improve their secondary.