Vikings free agency preview: Offense

Jeff Baca, a sixth-round draft choice last year, is an in-house candidate for the Vikings' open left-guard starting position.  

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Much of the steam was taken out of the Minnesota Vikings’ free agency hunt last week — at least offensively — when the team agreed to terms on a new two-year contract with quarterback Matt Cassel.

Quarterback, the most important position, was also one of the biggest questions facing Minnesota. When Cassel voided the second-year option, it left Christian Ponder as the only quarterback and the Vikings facing a draft with the No. 8 overall pick and some question whether there are immediate answers, or even franchise quarterbacks, in the draft.

Or there was the prospect of dipping into a free-agent market at quarterback that was less than exciting. Cassel, smartly, gambled on himself in free agency with a crop of available quarterbacks that included underwhelming options like Josh McCown, Michael Vick, Kellen Clemens, Shaun Hill, Matt Flynn, Chad Henne — who re-signed with Jacksonville — Tarvaris Jackson and even Minnesota’s Josh Freeman.

Perhaps sensing the emergency, the Vikings re-signed Cassel, an important first step in their free-agency shopping this season.

With Cassel back, Minnesota will likely focus on defense with much of its remaining free-agency spending. But there are a few potential roster fill-ins the Vikings could be looking for offensively:

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1. Left guard

The situation: Minnesota really only has one starting spot still open on offense. Cassel returns as the likely starter, and the Vikings return the starters from the end of last season at every other position but left guard. Minnesota could look to fill the spot internally, depending on their trust in Jeff Baca, who will be entering his second season after being a sixth-round draft choice last year. Baca is the only choice on the current roster with several other backup linemen reaching free agency. The Vikings did add Josh Samuda, an offensive lineman, to the roster as part of their futures contracts. Samuda played 16 games for Miami in 2012 in his only NFL experience. Baca played in four games last year.

The incumbent: Charlie Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, has started all but one game since signing with Minnesota as a free agent in 2011. He’s started 31 of the past 32 games at left guard the past two seasons following his move from left tackle. Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson believed Johnson was better suited for guard than tackle, where he played in 2011 as Minnesota’s starting left tackle. Johnson is steady if unspectacular. But he hasn’t graded out particularly well at guard the past two seasons, according to ProFootballFocus.com, which ranked Johnson 48th among NFL guards last season.

The outside help: The Vikings might look for an upgrade from Johnson, but there aren’t many choices among free-agent guards. Minnesota will probably take a long look at Baca, and may even re-sign Johnson depending on Davidson’s feelings, because there isn’t much starting talent available in free agency. Curiously, the top guard on the market is a former Vikings’ player. Geoff Schwartz ended up starting at the end of the season for the upstart Kansas City Chiefs last year in his one-year in Kansas City. Would Schwartz welcome a return to Minnesota, where he might have felt he didn’t get a fair shake? Schwartz has graded out well, but he often took a backseat to Brandon Fusco at right guard in his one season with the Vikings and never got the chance to supplant Johnson at left guard. Schwartz will have his suitors in free agency as one of the few quality options. The man Schwartz replaced as a starter last year with the Chiefs, Jon Asamoah, will also be coveted. Maybe the best option, and with the most starting experience is Carolina’s Travelle Wharton, who will be 33 years old when the season begins. Denver’s Zane Beadles, the New York Jets’ Willie Colon and Jacksonville’s Uche Nwaneri are other options. A dark horse could be Davin Joseph, released last week by Tampa Bay. Joseph was considered an up-and-comer a few years ago but really struggled the past two seasons with the Buccaneers. Another name to remember is Shawn Lauvao, who started at times in Cleveland under offensive coordinator Norv Turner last year.

2. Third-down running back

The situation: Adrian Peterson is back and will be healthy after another offseason surgery. Matt Asiata, who acquitted himself well in spot duty at the end of last season, also returns. But Minnesota has shied away from using Peterson in third-down passing situations the past several years, and it’s not likely Asiata’s strong suit either. Turner, now Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, said he’d like to get Peterson more involved in the passing game. However, whether that comes in early downs or finally getting Peterson, who struggles as a blocker, involved in third-down and passing situations is unknown.

The incumbent: After years of backing up Peterson, Toby Gerhart finally gets his chance to see what interest is out there from other NFL teams. Gerhart has fared well when given a chance behind Peterson and should have the chance to get a contract from another team that will at least make him a part of a timeshare at running back. Gerhart is a big, pounding type back, but he also filled the Vikings need as a pass-catcher and blocker in passing downs for Peterson over the past few years. Gerhart doesn’t have a lot of miles on his legs, so to speak, and at least should have interest from other teams in the ever pass-happy NFL.

The outside help: One name instantly jumped to the top of the pile last week. New Orleans released Darren Sproles in a salary cap maneuver. Spoles, 30, was with Turner for six seasons in San Diego and is the ideal pass-catching, third-down back. Sproles has had at least 45 catches each of the past five seasons. His final two years with the Chargers he had 45 and 59 catches, respectively, before breaking out with at least 71 each of the past three seasons with the Saints. He also has 38 touchdowns in his career and brings value with his experience as a kickoff and punt returner, though Minnesota has those spots currently filled. Sproles should generate interest around the league with his versatility and playmaking ability. Will the Vikings ante up to have one of the league’s better pass-catching backs? Other possibilities could include Oakland’s Rashad Jennings, Detroit’s Joique Bell and San Diego’s Ronnie Brown, or possibly a look to the draft.

3. Wide receiver

The situation: Minnesota should feel comfortable with its top three options at receiver heading into next season. Greg Jennings is a veteran who still makes plays and looked much better last year when Cassel was at quarterback. Cordarrelle Patterson is a rising star and as dangerous a big-play threat as there is in the league even entering only his second season. Jarius Wright is a steady No. 3 receiver who has shown flashes of big-play ability. The Vikings have potential in undrafted rookies Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith, and also signed Kamar Jorden to a futures contract. However, Minnesota might look to add depth at the position with a veteran receiver to take the burden off Patterson, Wright, Thielen and Smith.

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The incumbent: Jerome Simpson is an unrestricted free agent for the third straight offseason. The Vikings have come to his rescue the past two years and very well could again. Simpson has expressed interest in returning and coach Mike Zimmer didn’t rule out a return either, saying players have to want to be in Minnesota and be a part of the team. Simpson wants to be with the Vikings. Simpson has started several games, but was more of the No. 4 receiver at the end of last season for Minnesota. However, he still came up with several big catches and still showed he has some unique athleticism and speed, and the knack for coming up with clutch catches. He finished second on the team with 48 catches and 726 receiving yards.

The outside help: With the Vikings having their first three receivers seemingly set, they probably won’t get into any type of bidding war in free agency, which again makes a reunion with Simpson likely. There are a handful of players likely looking to cash in thanks to opportunity and the increasing salary cap as legitimate starting NFL receivers. James Jones, the former Green Bay receiver, might have been someone Minnesota would have been interested in before adding Jennings, Patterson and Wright. But the Vikings are in a different spot at receiver than they were in recent years. Now, looking for depth, Minnesota is probably looking at the third or fourth tier at receiver, which could include Carolina’s Brandon LaFell — maybe a second-tier option—Tampa Bay’s Tiquan Underwood, New Orleans’ Robert Meachem, Detroit’s Kevin Ogletree, Washington’s Josh Morgan or Denver’s Andre Caldwell. Two more interesting names to watch: Former Vikings Sidney Rice and Nate Burleson, both beset by injuries in recent years.

4. Backup offensive line

The situation: Minnesota doesn’t have much depth signed currently along the offensive line. The group includes Baca and Samuda, and tackles Kevin Murphy and Mike Remmers. Baca, who the team has also experimented with at center, could find himself starting. If the Vikings add another starting guard, maybe Baca fills the backup interior swing role between center and guard. If Baca starts, Minnesota will have to find another interior backup. Murphy, after a couple of years alternating between the practice squad and active roster, could maybe be ready to fill a backup role. Remmers was signed later in the season and is a big body who could maybe have the ability to swing between tackle and guard.

The incumbent: The depth and key backup spots are available because Joe Berger and J’Marcus Webb are both unrestricted free agents. Berger has been the main fill-in along the line in the past couple seasons, serving mainly as John Sullivan’s backup at center and he also has experience at guard. Berger is the type of solid, veteran backup that gives teams comfort. Berger’s unlikely to find a starting spot available in free agency, so maybe he returns again. Webb was picked up right before last season began after being released by Chicago. He served as the backup tackle to both Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but his opportunities were limited. Kalil and Loadholt have been among the most consistent starters in the league. Kalil hasn’t missed a game in his two seasons and Loadholt has missed two games — one last year when Webb started — in five NFL seasons. Webb might be able to find a home where he has a better chance to play, though he probably won’t be signed as a starter.

The outside help: For any backup situation, the names will be floating and players moving around quite a bit trying to find a home, any money they can get and the hope of filling a starting role. Aside from left guard, Minnesota isn’t going to promise any starting spots to any free agents. The Vikings could also add depth in the draft, and maybe will look to save money among its backup positions. There are possibly some players in free agency that will have to settle for backup roles, like Minnesota native Ryan Harris. Cleveland guard Oniel Cousins has experience with Turner. Denver’s Dan Koppen missed last season because of injury, but has experience at center and guard, as does Tennesee’s Chris Spencer.

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