In 2009 the Vikings had one of the best overall defenses in the NFL, thanks to a fearsome pass rush, sure-tackling linebackers and a secondary that minimized damage in the passing game while providing solid run support. In 2010, however, the defense took a big step back. The pass rush was not so fearsome, the linebackers didn’t tackle as well as before and the secondary began getting exposed in major ways.
The secondary was by far the most disappointing element of that diminished defense. By season’s end, fans were fed up with watching Frank Walker, Madieu Williams, Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen get torched play-after-play. Though no one in the organization is saying it, overhauling the over-matched secondary must be a top off-season priority for the new Leslie Frazier regime.
Of course, remaking an entire secondary is more easily said than done. Once you identify which positions need the most attention, you then have to find new guys to replace the ones you want to get rid of. It helps to have young talent, as the Vikings do in 2010 draft pick Chris Cook, who showed flashes of potential this year in between injuries and the occasional terrible play. But for the quickest fix, you need to dip into the free agent market or make a trade.
The free agent cornerback class this year has some intriguing options, including Champ Bailey, Brent Grimes, Carlos Rogers and Ronde Barber. Any of those players would represent a marked upgrade over what the Vikings were marching out there for much of the 2010 season.
On the safety side the pickings are thinner. Quintin Mikell is the #1 guy but the Eagles are expected to resign him. After that the names get unspectacular fast: Roman Harper, Eric Weddle, Dawan Landry or the troubled Tanard Jackson might slightly improve the Vikings’ safety situation, but none are worth investing a large amount of money in.
In the end, the best safety option for the Vikings might be a man who is already on their roster. I’m referring to cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose big-hitting style would seem to make him an ideal candidate for a shift to safety. With Winfield converting, the Vikings would then need to find at least one veteran cornerback to line up across from either Chris Cook or Cedric Griffin if the latter is able to return from his second ACL tear in less than a year.
I already mentioned the biggest cornerback names set to potentially hit the free agent market. Among them, Champ Bailey has the most impressive track record, while Grimes, being only 27, arguably has the most upside. Ronde Barber played well this year but is at the tail end of his career, and Carlos Rogers is perceived as a guy with great skills but bad hands.
Actually, there’s one name I left out of that roll-call, and it’s the most intriguing name of all. It only emerged today that this player would even be available. I’m talking about Nnamdi Asomugha, who has reportedly had his contract with the Raiders voided after his failure to reach certain incentives. What makes Asomugha even more attractive is that, according to a stipulation in his contract, the Raiders are not allowed to place the franchise tag on him. This means Asomugha could be signed without a team having to give up draft picks in return.
The news of Asomugha’s availability immediately caught the attention of Viking fans who believe the team must sign an impact free agent somewhere on the defense, preferably the secondary, in order to get back to the elite level they attained during their run to the NFC Championship game two years ago. Asomugha would certainly qualify as an impact player. Though some might argue that he’s dropped off the last couple of years, he is still often rated as one of the few true shutdown corners in the league.
The idea of signing a player of Asomugha’s stature is certainly exciting, however, there is one huge factor that could stand in the way of making this happen, namely a lack of money. The Vikings have a lot of their own free agents to think about, including Chad Greenway and Sidney Rice, plus they will have to shell out huge bucks to Adrian Peterson to lock him up long-term.
Not having to pay Brett Favre $20 million will certainly free up some cash, but a lot of that will be used to keep our own stars in the fold; and don’t forget that the Vikings have plenty of other holes to fill, including gaping ones on the offensive line and the quarterback position itself. The Vikings, knowing how many positions need upgrades, may not be willing to shell out huge money to one guy.
Given the number of teams who would love to add a corner of Asomugha’s stature, the bidding for him will likely get crazy quickly, driving his price up to astronomical levels. The Vikings have certainly been willing to spend big in the past, but given the uncertainty surrounding the franchise, including the stadium situation, it’s valid to wonder if Zygi Wilf will be quite as quick to open his wallet as he has been in recent years.
It’s possible, on the other hand, that Wilf could view the signing of a big-time free agent like Asomugha as the perfect thing to excite the fanbase after a lackluster season and help the push for a new stadium. If Wilf, Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier think the Vikings have enough talent already on-board to make a quick turnaround in their fortunes feasible, they might jump on a guy like Asomugha.
I personally would balk at the idea of paying huge money for any corner, including Asomugha. With Fred Pagac sure to be hired as full-time defensive coordinator, the Vikings will almost certainly continue using the Cover-2 scheme installed by Leslie Frazier. The question for me is, do you even need a shutdown corner in the Cover-2, or can you make do with lesser guys as long as they tackle well and don’t get torched too badly?
Though I agree that the Vikings need to make major personnel changes in the secondary, I don’t agree that they necessarily need to throw money at the biggest available names. I would rather see them go after a pair of solid corners, to bolster not just the starting secondary but the nickel unit which was brutal in 2010, and shift Winfield to safety. This whole equation is of course complicated by the uncertainty over Cedric Griffin who for all we know will never be able to return to the form he showed in 2009, when he became one of the better corners in the league.
The whole debate over Asomugha points up just how difficult the key decisions of this off-season will be for Frazier, Spielman and company. The Vikings do need to make changes, that’s undeniable. The questions now become, how many changes need to be made, and how much money do you really want to commit to making these changes happen?