Minnesota Vikings: Aaron Rodgers
Both wide receiver Greg Jennings and defensive end Everson Griffen made Barnwell's list, thanks to the five-year deals the Vikings gave both players in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Jennings' first season in Minnesota was tarnished by the Vikings' uncertainty at quarterback, and his numbers (68 catches, 804 yards and four touchdowns) were his worst in a season where he played more than eight games since his rookie year. Griffen got $20 million of a $42.5 million deal guaranteed this March, and he'll be a full-time starter for the first time this fall.
Here's what Barnwell said about both deals:
On Jennings: "Wanting a new no. 1 wideout for young quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings went shopping in free agency and came away with Jennings, who was once a star for the Packers. Despite the fact that he would be moving from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder, the Vikes authorized a five-year, $45 million deal for Jennings, who would turn 30 at the beginning of the 2013 season. He finished with a pedestrian 68 catches for 804 yards and four touchdowns in his first season away from Lambeau; the good news, perhaps, is that there’s no further guaranteed money in Jennings’s deal after 2014."
On Griffen: "A promising backup who has accrued 17.5 sacks across four seasons with Minnesota while playing behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison, Griffen was marked for the starting lineup after Allen’s contract expired this past offseason. The only problem? Griffen was also about to hit free agency. To avoid losing him, the Vikings gave the 26-year-old a stunning deal. Despite starting just one career pro game, Griffen was signed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract that guarantees him nearly $20 million. If Minnesota had that much faith in Griffen, why didn’t it extend him during his time as a backup, when he surely would have come cheaper? The best-case scenario is that Griffen delivers on his promise and lives up to the massive deal. The worst-case? Minnesota just gave a superstar’s deal to a player best used in small doses."
A couple points to add here: First, the Vikings talked with Griffen about a contract in general terms during the 2013 season, but didn't make serious progress toward a deal until the days and weeks before the start of free agency. And second, as Barnwell points out, the guaranteed money on both deals is such that even if the contracts turn out to be bad ones, the Vikings won't feel the sting for long. They will have paid Jennings all $18 million guaranteed after this season, and all of the guaranteed money in Griffen's deal comes within the first two seasons, as well. The pay-as-you-go approach means the Vikings won't have to worry about dead money later in the deals, and they've also got some leverage if they eventually need to think about restructuring one or both contracts.
It's certainly possible that Jennings will rebound this season, Griffen will turn into the player the Vikings paid him to be and both deals will work out fine, but it's not a stretch to say there's an onus on both players to prove they're worth the deals the Vikings gave them.
Count Vikings defensive end Brian Robison among those who believe that the Vikings needed to mix things up on defense.
Robison stopped short of saying the team's old Cover-2 scheme had become predictable, but pointed out how often the rest of the league -- especially the quarterbacks in the Vikings' division -- had seen the team in the same looks.
"There were some times we'd line up, and Aaron Rodgers is calling out our defense as we line up," Robison said. "I think the thing with Zimmer's defense is, he's going to definitely keep them off-balance. There are so many disguised looks and so many ways that we line up as a defense -- different fronts, I mean, it's just all over the board. It's a lot of stuff to learn in a short period of time, but if we can learn it and we can execute it, it's definitely going to keep offenses off-balance this season."
The Vikings certainly had problems with personnel and execution on defense last season, so it's probably overly simplistic to suggest they'll be able to solve all their problems simply by running a more unpredictable scheme this season. But consider this: Every time Rodgers has lined up against the Vikings' defense since he became the Packers' starting quarterback in 2008, he's seen the same general defensive concepts.
If nothing else, a move away from the Cover-2 base defense will give quarterbacks something else to think about this year. That'll be especially true early in the season, when Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Rodgers will have minimal tape of the Vikings' new defense under Zimmer. If the Vikings can master the wrinkles of a new scheme, it can't hurt them as they try to survive a slate of matchups with prolific QBs in the season's first month.
Jennings seemed intent on asserting his independence from the Green Bay Packers at this time last year, after he'd signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings and became the latest former Packer to jump across the border. The move gained additional attention from a spat between Jennings and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that seemed to fester throughout the spring and summer; Rodgers replied, "Who?" when first asked about Jennings' departure, Jennings called Rodgers "12" and "the guy they have now" in subsequent interviews, later saying Rodgers' status had made it difficult for him to be accountable to his teammates.
Things finally cooled down before the first Packers-Vikings meeting last October, when Jennings said he was sorry if he'd offended Rodgers and did most of the talking during a lengthy embrace following the Packers' 44-31 win Oct. 27.
Now that Jennings is a year removed from the situation -- replaced by Julius Peppers and Jared Allen as the subject of rival-hopping intrigue in the NFC North -- he seems more comfortable with his standing in both Minnesota and Green Bay. He praised Rodgers several times during our interview, thanking the Packers for developing him as a young receiver, while adding he loves his life in the Twin Cities and plans to stay in Minnesota after he's done playing.
He's also glad not to be in the middle of an NFC North soap opera.
"The questions got so redundant," Jennings said. "I know I can't get away from it. I was born into that. I was born into the Packers organization. I will always be indebted to those guys over there, personally and from a business standpoint. My path has gone somewhere else. I'm still grateful -- would never discount what they've done for me in my career, my family and just for me as a man, growing up in this league, because I learned a lot. I learned a lot from Coach [Mike] McCarthy, coming into the league as a rookie head coach [in 2006, the same year the Packers drafted Jennings], just learning from him and the guys. I'll cherish all those moments. Obviously, I won a Super Bowl with those guys. I'm etched on all the rings and ingrained in that area. No one can ever take that away from me; I don't care how anybody feels about it."
Now, in the former backup quarterback, Jennings has found an unlikely partner.
"When he first got here, he always took the approach as though he was the starter," Jennings said this week in a wide-ranging interview. "Matt Flynn was the same way (in Green Bay); Aaron was the same way. They prepared, they prepped, as though they were going to start, as though, 'Anything can happen; I'm ready.' And that was Matt (Cassel). Even the day of the game, he prepared as though he was going out and taking the first snap. In practice, we kind of saw things the same. Our communication was instant."
That connection seems even more unique in light of the fact both came to Minnesota planning on a different set of circumstances; Cassel had been told when he arrived that the starting job belonged to Christian Ponder, and Jennings signed his five-year, $45 million deal with the Vikings knowing that his time with the team would at least start with Ponder at quarterback.
Jennings spent much of his time before last season working with Ponder, but the two never found a rhythm on the field; the receiver caught just 24 of his 68 passes from Ponder, despite playing eight games that Ponder started, and only had 274 yards. "Both quarterbacks had different ways they saw the game, which is why you saw Matt and I have success," Jennings said. "Christian and I, not that we didn't have success, but his safety net was more of the checkdown. Matt, being in an offense where he's been able to move the ball and have success in New England and Kansas City, he understands that in order to win games, you've got to move the ball down the field."
It's possible Jennings will be working with Teddy Bridgewater instead of Cassel in the not-too-distant future; the receiver has spoken highly of Bridgewater's work so far, and Bridgewater will get a chance to win a competition for the starting job in training camp. But Cassel took many of the first-team snaps during the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, and once again, he and Jennings looked to be in sync.
"I told Matt today, 'Hey, look, (in) no-huddle, when in doubt, I got you,'" Jennings said. "He knew what he was thinking was very similar and in tune with what I was thinking."
In seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Jennings had one head coach and two franchise quarterbacks. He played one game with a quarterback not named Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, and that was in the 73rd game of Jennings' career. By his sixth game with the Minnesota Vikings -- an ugly 23-7 loss to the winless New York Giants on "Monday Night Football" -- Jennings had caught a pass from his third different quarterback.
Instead, Jennings decided he would do his best to bring the Vikings some of the consistency he craved. He bit his tongue in the Vikings' wide receiver meeting room about the changes at quarterback, trying to connect with whoever was starting that week and bring the same habits to the practice field regardless of the uncertainty. He stayed in the ear of rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, preaching to him about the importance of a steady work ethic. And Jennings clicked with Matt Cassel, whose preparation as a backup reminded Jennings of what he'd seen from Matt Flynn and a young Rodgers in Green Bay.
"I wanted consistency, but even when there wasn't consistency, I wanted to be consistent," Jennings said. "Whoever got the head nod, I was supporting them, as though they had been starting the week before, or whatever the case may have been."
Heading into Year 2 in Minnesota, it appears Jennings might have some of the stability he was missing last year. Cassel has a new two-year deal, after Jennings openly campaigned for the Vikings to re-sign the veteran, and rookie Teddy Bridgewater had an impressive spring in the Vikings' offseason workouts. The 30-year-old receiver has raved about the Vikings' new structure, with head coach Mike Zimmer and veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner effectively giving the team, as Jennings puts it, a head coach on each side of the ball. And he's a year removed from questions about his decision to switch sides in one of the game's most bitter rivalries, which has been running hot ever since Favre signed with the Vikings in 2009 and got a kick from last year's are-they-kidding-or-are-they-serious flap between Jennings and Rodgers.
Jennings and his wife are soon to be homeowners in the Twin Cities, where they can envision living with their four kids after the receiver's career is over. Consistency, at long last, appears to be within reach.
"Once you understand (Zimmer's) mindset behind why we do what we do, it's easy to buy in, man. It really is," Jennings said. "The practices, why he's laid them out the way he's laid them out, it just makes sense. I told my wife today, 'I have no complaints. I really love it. I love the layout, the format (of practices)' She's like, 'What? I don't think I've ever heard you say you love it.' ... As long as I do my job, I'm good."
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
PFF ranked the Minnesota Vikings' roster 29th in the league, largely because of how few elite players it sees in the current lineup. According to PFF's rankings, only Adrian Peterson merited a blue rating. But the site also pointed out something I think is worth examining a little more thoroughly here: How many good starters are on the Vikings' roster.
According to PFF's rankings, 53.6 percent of the Vikings' starters are either good, high quality or elite players. Only left guard Charlie Johnson is rated as below-average on offense, and receiver Jerome Simpson is the only other player rated as average. Things are spottier on defense, as should be expected, but even there, only middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, cornerback Josh Robinson and outside linebacker Chad Greenway are listed as worse than average.
The Vikings believe they can make a quick turnaround after a 5-1o-1 season, and I don't think it's farfetched for them to believe that, especially given how much better they could get through the development of a few players: Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes. All five players were first-round picks in the last two years, and all five have significant room to improve. PFF ranked the Green Bay Packers -- who have won the last three NFC North titles -- as having the eighth-best roster in the NFL, with three elite players (quarterback Aaron Rodgers, guard Josh Sitton and linebacker Clay Matthews) as elite, and two more (running back Eddie Lacy and wide receiver Jordy Nelson) as very good. It's not a stretch at all to think the Vikings could have Patterson, Smith, Rhodes and Kalil in one of the top two classes by the end of the year, to go with Peterson and three offensive linemen (center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt).
This year, as much as any in the Vikings' recent history, will hinge on player development, and that's without even discussing rookies like Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater yet (PFF lists Bridgewater as the starting quarterback, though I'd put Matt Cassel in the spot for now). It's probably wise to prepare for a long line of tepid preseason predictions for the Vikings -- there are simply too many questions to think otherwise -- but those don't have any bearing on how good the team can actually be. There are enough pieces on the roster to think the Vikings could be on solid footing in the near future. How quickly they get there will depend on whether their stockpile of recent first-round picks becomes a stable of high-end players.
Peterson ranked 13th in overall sales during the NFL Players Inc. 2013 fiscal year, which concluded on Feb. 28. Sales of the running back's licensed replica jersey, as well as T-shirts, photos, bobbleheads and other licensed merchandise, made Peterson the second-most popular player in the NFC North, behind Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who finished fifth. Seattle's Russell Wilson, who topped Denver's Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, once again came out on top, with Manning finishing second and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick placing third.
Peterson came in just ahead of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, and was the only Vikings player in the top 50.
The fiscal year started March 1, 2013, less than a month after Peterson won NFL MVP honors, which probably boosted his popularity on a national level. He had the top-selling jersey of any non-quarterback last spring, and still finished the year fourth among non-quarterbacks, trailing only Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman.
In many ways, the Vikings will have to fix two of their biggest problems from last season in the first month of the season if they're going to have any shot at relevance. They didn't win a road game last season (their victory in London was technically a "home" game), and they'll start the year against a St. Louis Rams team that went 5-3 at home last season before playing games at the Superdome and Lambeau Field in the next five weeks.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Zimmer's had some success slowing down the quarterbacks the Vikings will face -- particularly Rodgers. The Packers quarterback faced the Cincinnati Bengals twice while Zimmer was their defensive coordinator, and lost both games. Last year, he hit 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bengals, and was sacked four times. And while he threw for 311 yards against the Bengals in 2009, he was sacked six times and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 31-24 loss.
Brady also faced the Bengals twice in that time, with unimpressive results. He went 1-1 in a pair of games against Cincinnati, completing 43 of his 73 passes for 455 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. After picking them apart in a 2010 win, he had arguably his worst game of the season against them last year, completing just 18 of his 38 passes for 197 yards and an interception in a 13-6 loss.
Brees and Ryan both fared well in their lone efforts against Zimmer's defense, each beating a 4-12 Bengals team in 2010. They were two of just four quarterbacks to surpass 290 yards against Cincinnati that season, posting 313 and 299, respectively.
Zimmer's defense employs plenty of man coverage, mixed with some zone principles, and counts more heavily on cornerbacks winning one-on-one matchups than the Vikings' old scheme did. That seems like a good fit for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and Captain Munnerlyn should help the Vikings' defense, as well, but secondary depth is paramount to surviving matchups with teams that will put as many receivers on the field as the Vikings' early-season opponents will.
The other thing to watch is how effectively the Vikings can pressure the top quarterbacks they'll face, particularly with some of Zimmer's creative blitzes. The Bengals didn't bring extra pressure after Brady and Rodgers all that often last year -- on just 12 and 11 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but what's worth noting is just how much they rattled those two quarterbacks. Brady had just a 2.2 QBR against the Bengals' blitzes last year, and Rodgers' QBR was only 8.0, as he was forced into checkdowns and didn't complete a pass of longer than 8 yards against the blitz. Considering how lethal those two quarterbacks have been against the blitz in their careers -- to the point where many teams don't try to send extra pressure -- Zimmer's ability to throw them off is impressive. He did it well against Matthew Stafford last season, too, holding the Lions quarterback to just 33 yards and a 5.0 QBR on 13 blitzes.
The key variable to all this, of course, is talent, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings' personnel is as effective in Zimmer's scheme as what the Bengals had last season. But the additions of Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the development of Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the health of safety Harrison Smith should help. If Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can coax more out of players like defensive end Everson Griffen and figure out the Vikings' linebacker situation, they'll likely receive credit for it early, because the Vikings' progress will be graded against some of the toughest opponents they'll see all season.
(The keener observers among you will note that today is Thursday, not Wednesday. I'm not trying to deprive you of your progress toward the weekend; I just didn't get a chance to post this while we were wrapping up our ESPN NFL Nation summit in Bristol and traveling back to our respective locales. So call this a special Thursday edition of "What If" Wednesday.)
For today's edition, we've only got to go back to the spring of 2009, when the Vikings held the 22nd overall pick. They liked Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman, as general manager Rick Spielman confirmed when the Vikings signed Freeman to a one-year, $2 million deal last fall. They were in need of a quarterback, but so were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Freeman went there with the 17th overall pick, instead of lasting until the Vikings could have taken him.
Instead, the Vikings drafted Florida receiver Percy Harvin, coaxed Brett Favre out of a second retirement and embarked upon one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history.
Would all that have happened if the Vikings had drafted Freeman? It's hard to say, but tempting to think about. Favre seemed to have an itch to play for the Vikings and stick it to the Green Bay Packers ever since the team decided to trade him instead of giving him his old job back in the summer of 2008. As surreal as it would have been to see Favre giving another first-round pick a chance to develop behind him after he famously bristled at the idea of mentoring Aaron Rodgers, it might have been tough for the Vikings to draft Freeman and also bring in Favre. If Freeman had lasted until No. 22, it's possible the Vikings don't get Favre, and the wild ride of 2009 that went with him.
It's almost certain, however, they don't get Harvin under this scenario. Would Freeman have been able to develop without a dynamic young wideout? Would Sidney Rice have blossomed like he did in 2009 with Favre? If Freeman had eventually fizzled in Minnesota like he did in Tampa Bay, and the Vikings didn't have Harvin to juice their offense, their next few seasons might have looked very different, especially without the 2009 NFC title game run to prolong the tenures of coach Brad Childress and general manager (then VP of player personnel) Rick Spielman. It's possible Freeman would have put together some good years in Minnesota, especially with a team that had gone to the playoffs the year before with Tarvaris Jackson, but the experience of 2009 centered around one man, and it wouldn't have been nearly as rich without Favre.
We could follow this one down a number of different threads, and we won't venture too much further down the rabbit hole with it, but knowing what we know about Spielman's three-year plan for quarterback development, the Vikings likely wouldn't have drafted Christian Ponder in 2011 if they'd taken Freeman just two years earlier. When would they have come up in a search for another quarterback? Would Adrian Peterson have felt good enough about all of it to sign his seven-year, $100 million extension in 2011? Without the energy of Favre's run in 2009, the Vikings could have gone in any number of different directions.
As Freeman prepares to hit free agency after a disjointed 11-week stretch with the Vikings, we'll close with Spielman's logic about why it made sense for the Vikings to sign him at all last October: It gave them a chance to observe a quarterback they had liked in the 2009 draft, at little cost to them. While we can debate the soundness of that reasoning, it's no stretch at all to say that if Freeman was going to fizzle in Minnesota, it was certainly better to have that happen in 2013 than if it had precluded the Vikings for their unforgettable season with Favre.
Schefter reports the cap will likely increase from $132 million in 2014 to over $140 million in 2015. It will surpass $150 million in 2016, Schefter reports, as new TV money juices the league's revenue even more. Teams aren't required to spend to the cap, but they must spend an average of at least 89 percent of the cap in cash on a four-year basis from 2013-16, and again from 2017-20. In other words, the NFL's rising financial tide will lift all boats, in one form or another.
That brings us to the Vikings, and another aspect of their search for a franchise quarterback this spring. They've played with remarkably small expenses at the quarterback position for some time -- they've been in the league's bottom quarter of cap commitments at quarterback for six of the past nine seasons -- and thanks to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the Vikings are now in an era where they can get big-time production from a young quarterback before having to pay for it.
The financial reality means that if the Vikings can find the right quarterback in the draft this spring, they'll have every incentive to get him on the field quickly. It would certainly be a prudent move to sign the much-discussed veteran bridge this spring, whether that's by bringing back Matt Cassel or finding another quarterback on the open market, but if the Vikings get a franchise-caliber quarterback, the league's salary structure incentivizes them to play him quickly. If he can produce early, he'll also produce cheaply, and the Vikings could fill other holes under the league's rising cap ceiling, much like the 49ers and Seahawks have been able to do while going to Super Bowls with quarterbacks on their rookie deals.
None of this is to say the Vikings should rush a young quarterback into action; if he can't play, he can't play, and we've seen with Christian Ponder the organizational consequences of trusting a young quarterback who doesn't get the job done. But there's a major financial advantage waiting for teams who can get a young quarterback on the field quickly. It's why the days of Aaron Rodgers-like apprenticeships are essentially over, and why the Vikings can get ahead of the game, financially and competitively, if they make the right moves at quarterback in the draft.
Brady got six of the 10 votes in the Vikings' locker room, ahead of three for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and one for New York Giants QB Eli Manning (who's beaten Brady twice with clutch late-game throws in Super Bowls). Overall, Brady won the survey with 128 votes, ahead of Peyton Manning (86) and Rodgers (32).
As the Vikings continue to address their quarterback question going forward, they'll hope to find someone with the same cool under pressure that Brady has. They could've had Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday, in the 2012 draft. But the Vikings had drafted Christian Ponder the year before, and even though their coaching staff was impressed with Wilson the year before, they passed on Wilson (and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles) to take cornerback Josh Robinson in the third round of the draft. This season, Wilson led the NFL with five game-winning drives.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- They grew up 350 miles apart, sons of coaches in football-addled towns along I-90 in Illinois and Ohio. Both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman played quarterback for big high schools, then linebacker for small colleges in Illinois. They find themselves tripping over the same buzzwords, about tough, passionate football players, and when they sat down for Zimmer's first job interview last Wednesday in Cincinnati, something just clicked.
"I don't want to compare it, but it's like when I met my wife -- not that I had a lot of options," Spielman said. "But you just know."
Spielman stepped into his first coaching search as the Vikings' general manager, armed with as much data as he could find about what to do next. He'd analyzed 13 different backgrounds from which head coaches emerge, and realized none was any more successful than another. If he was going to get it right -- and be successful in what might be his only chance to pick a head coach for the Vikings -- Spielman was going to have to trust his gut.
So he kept going back to the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator he'd been hearing about for years, dating back to when Zimmer was working for the Dallas Cowboys and Spielman was in the Miami Dolphins' front office. He found what he believed was a kindred spirit, someone with whom he could partner, and Spielman told Vikings ownership this was who he wanted.
"As we were sitting there and got to know each other, (we) spent the majority of the time since he came up here, talking about our upbringing and our background and his dad being a coach, my dad being a coach," Spielman said. "A lot of the same philosophies and a lot of the same beliefs on how you develop a football team. That just really, really struck me."
If there was one thing that emerged from Leslie Frazier's final days as the Vikings' head coach, it was that he and Spielman didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye. Frazier hinted he didn't have the pieces to win at quarterback or full control over the decision about whom would play; Spielman intimated that Frazier needed to know he could make his quarterback decisions with the support of the front office, but he ultimately had to be responsible for the consequences. Spielman didn't decide to take the interim tag off Frazier's title after he replaced Brad Childress in 2010 -- ownership did -- and when the Vikings decided not to give Frazier a contract extension following a surprising 10-6 season in 2012, it always seemed possible that the team would be looking for a coach in a year, with Spielman running the process for the first time as a full-fledged GM.
Now Spielman and Zimmer are joined at the hip, and their futures might be, too. They need to solve a quarterback problem that's been festering for almost a decade (save for Brett Favre's 2009 season in Minnesota) and make the most of Adrian Peterson's final years in his prime. They have to solve a defense that gave up more points than any in the league last season, and spends six games each year facing Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers.
If they can't, the 57-year-old Zimmer will probably be out of chances to be a head coach, and Spielman could be right behind him.
"I can get mad at people. I'm sure he can get mad at people, but we understand that both of our butts are responsible for each other, so the first time we say, 'The heck with you,' and we go in the other room and we don't come back out, it's over," Zimmer said. "Collectively, it's going to get over because we are going to do whatever we need to get fixed. I think I'm a fairly smart guy and I know he is a smart guy, so I think we are going to try to be smarter than that."
Spielman will retain the final say on personnel decisions, Zimmer will make the call on coordinators and his coaching staff, but if the partnership is going to work, the two will have to work well together. The Vikings haven't had a true coach-GM partnership for years, thanks to an odd power structure that often created confusion about who was really in charge, and the stakes will be high for both Zimmer and Spielman to make this one work.
That's part of the reason why, once Spielman had finished his initial round of interviews with seven coordinators, the one he wanted to bring back to meet ownership was the one who made him feel the fit was right.
"I told a lot of these (teams I've interviewed with), 'I've had a good career. I'm happy with what I've done. I'm going to be selective in what I do. Just because someone offers me a job, I won't take it unless it's the right one,'" Zimmer said. "I really felt good about the situation here. I felt really good about the people. To me, I think people are important, whether it's the players or the management or the ownership. To me those things are extremely, extremely important. And that's one of the things Bill (Parcells) talked to me about. He's told me several times, `Don't go to that place or don't do this or that.' But he didn't say that here."
But the Vikings were hardly alone in that opinion. Of the 320 players ESPN surveyed, more than 220 provided the name of a quarterback when they were asked that question. Manning won the ballot, with 62 votes -- six more votes than Andrew Luck, his successor in Indianapolis. Brady finished third with 41 votes, Rodgers came in fourth with 40 and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson finished fifth with 37. Johnson finished higher than any non-quarterback, and then the results dropped all the way down to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who finished sixth with 20 votes.
It's impossible to know how every player answered the question, and Manning's age (37) might have led some players around the league to vote for Luck, who's the only quarterback in his 20s among the top four. But it's a hypothetical question, and if we're answering regardless of age, it's hard to come up with a name other than Manning, who just finished the most prolific season by a quarterback in NFL history.
Vikings players who voted for Manning certainly admired what he did this season, and given the team's current state at quarterback, the Vikings can't be blamed for wishing they had someone such as Manning, whose father finished his career playing in the Metrodome. As the Vikings prepare to possibly select their next quarterback in this spring's draft, Manning is still the gold standard of what they'd hope to find.
Manning got votes in the Vikings' locker room for both awards, but was named by more Vikings players in the most-respected category than he was in the franchise player category. He claimed four of the 10 votes, largely from players who cited his consistency over the course of a 16-year career. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the only other player to get more than one vote from the Vikings, with other players splitting among a handful of other choices.
The Broncos quarterback won in a runaway, claiming 86 votes around the league, but once again, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson fared well in the vote. He tied with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for second place, with 24 players naming Peterson the player they respect most. Players were not allowed to vote for their teammates, so all 24 of those votes came from outside the Vikings' locker room.