Vikings want bargain shopping in free agency

With around $35 million in salary-cap space even after agreeing to new terms with quarterback Matt Cassel, the Vikings have the means to address their shortcomings, but they want to be smart with their money.

Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Cassel turned down all the pretty girls. The Minnesota Vikings are trying to resist the temptation of the Maserati.

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer offered a bit of color in describing the free-agency landscape, which officially kicked off with the three-day negotiation period opening on Saturday. NFL teams can talk to agents and express their interest and dollars in the hopes of signing contracts when the new league year begins on Tuesday, March 11 at 3 p.m. C.T.

The Vikings have holes to fill — a starting left guard and possibly at least four defensive starting spots — and will need to shop around. Zimmer, like general manager Rick Spielman, is all about the bargain and haggling down that sticker price.

"Everybody sees that Maserati and they want to go buy it, and you know you probably shouldn’t," Zimmer told reporters on Thursday. "You should probably buy a Ford F-150 like I got. Because if you get the F-150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it."

Spielman said before last month’s NFL Scouting Combine he hoped to avoid the opening (read: expensive) first wave of free agency and see if Minnesota can find some hidden gems later at lower costs.

The pitfalls that come in free agency are many and have often led to free-agency busts. The Vikings know first-hand the mistakes that can be made, such as the five-year, $25 million contract handed out to tight end John Carlson in 2012 in the opening days of free agency.

Carlson, who was signed off a missed season because of shoulder surgery, lasted just two seasons with Minnesota with 40 catches and one touchdown before being released last week.

Mistakes often come with the unknown of player, team and schemes. One way Zimmer can perhaps avoid running into the unknown is by reuniting with players he knows.

From the moment Zimmer was hired as coach, speculation has persisted about his interest in players from the Cincinnati Bengals, his former team, particularly in regard to defensive end Michael Johnson, one of the top free-agent ends available.

"It’s not necessary," Zimmer said of bringing in some former players. "When I went to Cincinnati I had no one. It’s not necessary. You know, it makes communication easier but it’s not the most important thing."

The Vikings have a connection with one of the top free-agent cornerbacks, another need spot, with Alterraun Verner. Verner was with Jerry Gray, Minnesota’s new defensive backs coach, the past three seasons with the Tennessee Titans.

Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Chris Cook and Charlie Johnson are some of the Vikings’ players set to become free agents. The openings on defense likely can’t be filled simply through the draft or promotions. With around $35 million in salary cap space even after agreeing to new terms with Cassel, the Vikings have the means to address the shortcomings, but want to be smart.

"We don’t want to go crazy in this thing," Zimmer said. "It’s important to me and Rick and the Wilfs also, that we build a really good foundation and continue to solidly build this thing until we’re a consistently good organization and team. I think if we go out and spend a whole bunch of money now, we’d be upset two years from now because some of them didn’t work out. So we’re going to be real diligent in how we approach this and making sure that not only is it best for next year, but best for the long run, too."

Cassel, the Vikings’ starting quarterback at the end of the season and one of the few decent options available, helped alleviate, some, the most pressing need on the offensive side. By returning to Minnesota, he bypassed his chance to see what the market will look like beginning today.

"I think everyone wants to explore," Zimmer said before Cassel decided to return. "He’s got a bunch of pretty girls looking at him right now. And he wants to explore and see what’s best for him. I don’t blame any of these guys. In free agency, I think that’s why they have the rules, is that they get a chance to go see what their market’s worth. Then, if they find a better situation than what they think is here, then I think that’s everywhere."

Just be careful of the pretty girl in the Maserati.

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