Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Leading up to free agency in mid-March, we will examine a multitude of angles pertaining to the Minnesota Vikings’ free agency approach.
It might seem early, but let’s start the slow burn of the Vikings’ offseason now. After all, the legal tampering period starts six weeks from Monday.
Here at Zone Coverage, we’ll attempt to identify team needs, look at the available talent and gauge whether free agency is a viable path to address those needs or whether waiting for the draft is more appropriate.
We’ll ease into it with a fairly low-priority area: Backup quarterback.
Level of need on a scale of 1 to 10: 4.5
The Vikings went into last season with former Broncos starter Trevor Siemian backing up Kirk Cousins, while Kyle Sloter was the rostered third quarterback for a second straight year, though was never active on game day.
Siemian, however, is a free agent, while Sloter has one more year under contract before hitting restricted free agency.
The durability of Kirk Cousins was as advertised with the quarterback playing 100 percent of snaps and relegating Siemian to a baseball-cap-wearer on the sideline for the entirety of the season. The preseason glimpses of Siemian were underwhelming, though. After a nice two-touchdown debut, Siemian failed to throw a touchdown while taking four sacks in the next three preseason games. His completion percentage over the four weeks ended at 56.5 percent, and his yards per attempt sat at 5.8 despite getting the boost of a 78-yard screen-pass touchdown to Roc Thomas.
Sloter, meanwhile, delivered a dynamite preseason for the second straight year (after playing with Denver the previous preseason). Through eight preseason appearances — albeit against lesser competition — Sloter is 72 of 99 (73 percent) with seven touchdowns, no interceptions and 7.9 YPA. What he lacks in traditional polish in the pocket, he makes up for in his ability to make plays off schedule, like this dart to Chad Beebe on a clutch fourth down.
While not necessarily a standout practice quarterback — a setting that doesn’t necessarily encourage improvisation — Sloter’s in-game work is compelling enough that he may merit a shot at a step up in class to compete against second-teamers more frequently.
That being said, the Vikings usually take four quarterbacks into training camp and three into the regular season, so Sloter won’t be without competition. Let’s look at some eligible free agents.
THE OLDER GUYS
The Vikings may opt for an experienced veteran to contrast the rawness of Sloter. Here are some non-Shaun Hill options.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: The 36-year-old gun-slinging Harvard grad offers a high-risk, high-reward alternative as a veteran backup. Tossed 17 TDs and 12 INTs for the Buccaneers last season.
Josh McCown: Will be 40 entering next season and may opt to retire. If not, he’s two years removed from an 18-TD, 9-INT season with the Jets. Declined in limited 2018 action.
Mark Sanchez: Struggled greatly in his lone 2018 start, but at age 32, isn’t as close to falling off a cliff physically as the two listed above.
Tyrod Taylor: Probably would be too pricey and not thrilled about accepting a backup role one year after beginning the season as a starter in Cleveland.
There are numerous options on the market who are familiar with the organization, but there aren’t any reunions that seem realistic.
Teddy Bridgewater: Probably won’t be coming back to Minnesota when there are many more situations where he could viably compete for a starting job.
Matt Cassel: He continues to find jobs and get into games, but this is probably a retread the Vikings won’t consider.
Taylor Heinicke: Earned the QB2 job in Carolina this past season but doesn’t offer a significant upgrade in experience to Sloter.
Joe Webb: Nope, even though it would be fun to reminisce about his Tuesday night victory in Philadelphia from 2010.
The Vikings saw something in fledgling 29-year-old Case Keenum, who eventually sparked the team’s 2017 playoff run. Siemian was a similar acquisition. Finding 20-somethings with gas left in the tank could be a new organizational approach.
Sean Mannion: He’s 26 years old with one career start but has spent time with Sean McVay in the innovative Rams system.
Nate Sudfeld (RFA): Before moving to Philadelphia, spent 2016 and part of 2017 with Kirk Cousins in Washington. Has learned underneath Carson Wentz, Nick Foles and Eagles coach Doug Pederson.
Tom Savage: Went 2-7 in nine starts with the Texans, but hey, Case Keenum struggled there, too.
Ultimately, a reunion with Siemian could be in the cards. He is young, experienced and probably inexpensive, has a good rapport with Cousins and is getting married in June to his fiancee, who is a native Minnesotan.
The Vikings will have to ask themselves if they are willing to sign a backup to a prohibitive contract that makes it tough to elevate Sloter if he outperforms his competitor.
Of course, the draft is always an option, but the Vikings haven’t selected a quarterback since Bridgewater in 2014 and seem to prefer developing raw, undrafted talent at the position (i.e., Sloter, Heinicke). The 2020 draft may be a more feasible target for a quarterback if the Vikings intend on setting up a succession plan for the end of Cousins’ contract.
Minnesota’s approach in free agency will reveal a lot about their confidence level in Sloter. If the Vikings trust him behind Cousins, they could save several million dollars of cap space by withholding the standard $3-4 million they’d usually give to a veteran backup with experience.