EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — More than 600 players are going to hit the NFL free agent market in less a month. Add in April’s draft and Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has had a lot of work to do since being promoted to the position at the beginning of January.
Spielman and his staff are in the evaluation phase of the offseason, spending time looking at their own players, players from other teams and potential draft picks. Spielman said they have identified Minnesota’s biggest needs this season, which he added are “more than one.”
Now it’s up to Spielman to address the problems.
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“What we’re trying to do is, you take your team, you take what’s going to be available on the market and then you take what’s going to be available or what you think you’re going to be able to get in the draft and kind of tie those all together,” Spielman said. “So you know if you have needs to fill, where you’re going to be able fill those needs.”
Speaking with reporters last week, Spielman outlined how the Vikings have been through personnel meetings, unrestricted free agents meetings, and recently, draft meetings. Minnesota was aided by the fact it had the opportunity to coach in the Senior Bowl in January and the process continues this week in Indianapolis with the combine from Feb. 22-28.
Spielman and his staff are trying to resuscitate a team that went 3-13 last year, a second straight season of decline. With 17 of their own unrestricted free agents and possibly 10 draft picks to work with, the Vikings have the chance to overhaul an aging and underperforming roster, making the evaluation period so crucial.
“One thing that we really did differently this year was talking with the coaches and the philosophy on where does your blue-chip players have to be on offense, where do your blue-chip players have to be on defense,” Spielman said. “So where can you play with starters, where can you maybe get away with one or two backup-type talents, the players that are potentially, you know, have to start for you. And honing in on where financially we are going to put our money, where those blue-type players have to be on schemes that we run.
“We are very much more detailed in working with (head coach Leslie Frazier) on the specific skill-set that each player has to have at that position and honing on those maybe five critical factors. We are being a lot more detailed in sitting with Leslie than in the past and just making sure that everybody is on the same page on exactly what we want a football player to fit the schemes that we’re running.”
One aid in Spielman’s task is this year’s start of free agency.
In the past, free agency typically opened at midnight, Friday morning following the combine. This season, two full weeks pass between the combine and the start of free agency on March 13 at 3 p.m. locally. The extra time will give Spielman the chance to take in several college pro days personally in preparation for April’s draft.
“I know I’m going to be out on the road that whole first week in March, and usually I’m in here because of the UFA,” Spielman said. “So, we’ll be out on the road that first week, then come back on the weekend for the start of free agency. But you’ll get a pretty good indication of where you’re at with some of these guys, not only at the combine, but you’re going to get a jump start on some of these workouts before free agency starts.”
The Vikings were able to interview each of the players at the Senior Bowl and will conduct their allotted 60 15-minute interviews at the combine. Spielman said they haven’t taken any draft-eligible players off of the team’s draft board — hidden behind a giant white curtain at the team’s facilities at Winter Park — but will certainly start paring down the list after the combine. Spielman said the team is also setting up meetings at the combine with the agents for its own free agents.
Its experience at the Senior Bowl put Minnesota ahead in evaluating the draft.
“I had all the coaches write up their evaluations on what those kids were like in the meetings, how they practiced, how their demeanor was on the sideline during the game, can they make sideline adjustments,” Spielman said. “That game was a huge advantage for us moving forward.”
The consequences of last season’s lockout will still be felt this offseason. While teams like the Vikings will have more time for evaluation, there is a larger crop of players to comb through.
When the league went without a salary cap in 2010 and had a short window to sign free agents after the lockout lifted in 2011, it led to shorter contracts and thus more players than ever hitting free agency this season.
The salary cap for 2012 will also change minimally, leading some teams to have to make some tough cuts with players outperforming their salaries.
“There will be some good players there,” Spielman said. “We’re comparing them to guys on our roster. If there is a big splash, we may be able to do that, but we’re also going to see if we can fill that in the draft as well. We’ll explore all those options as we go forward.”