The NFL season has yet to come to a conclusion, but that hasn't stopped football's version of the Hot Stove from heating up with speculation about what teams might do and where free agents could be headed.
The process doesn't officially start until March 15, so much of the talk is focused on Senior Bowl practices and the prospects for the April 27-29 draft in Kansas City. Free agency scuttlebutt will take off later this month when the NFL Combine is held in Indianapolis.
That's where team executives and agents have been known to have conversations involving players who are still under contract. Some call that tampering, but we here at Vikings Wire refer to it as good old-fashioned fun.
We also figure why wait until the combine to begin speculating on whom the Vikings might target. The Vikings are expected to part ways with a few veterans to open cap space, so who might replace them?
Pro Football Focus and ESPN (subscription) both published their lists of the top 50 free agents. Some of these players could have the franchise tag put on them or return to their current team, but many will sign elsewhere.
Here's a look at whom the Vikings could target, focusing on the positions at which they could use help.
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The Vikings are projected by many to take a cornerback with the 23rd pick in the first round, but what if they attempt to solve their issues at this position by clearing enough space to make a free agent splash?
Especially if coach Kevin O'Connell wants to use a first-round selection to improve his offense.
Pro Football Focus has six cornerbacks among its top 50 free agents and ESPN has five. We're assuming Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah would target a corner under 30. That eliminates James Bradbury of the Eagles; Jonathan Jones of the Patriots; and Marcus Peters of Baltimore. Bradbury will turn 30 in August. The oldest of this free agent group is the Vikings' Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 in July and whose future remains uncertain.
That leaves Tampa Bay's Jamel Dean, 27 in October; Pittsburgh's Cam Sutton, who will turn 28 on Feb. 27; and Arizona's Byron Murphy Jr., who just turned 25.
Dean is ranked sixth on the PFF list and eighth on ESPN's, meaning he's likely going to be too expensive for the Vikings. Sutton, a third-round selection in 2017 from Tennessee, will be entering his seventh season and had three interceptions in 16 games last season. Dean had two picks in 15 games and has seven over 57 games in four seasons with the Buccaneers.
Murphy is an interesting possibility. He is not ranked by PFF but is 37th on the ESPN list. A second-round choice in 2019 out of Washington, Murphy played in only nine games this season before being placed on injured reserve in late December because of a back issue. He did not have an interception but did return a fumble for a touchdown to beat the Raiders in Week 2.
Murphy replaced Peterson as the Cardinals' top cornerback in 2021, and had four interceptions, a touchdown and 12 pass breakups in 16 games. If Murphy's back problems are a thing of the past he might be the exact type of player the Vikings try to sign.
Interior Defensive Line
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The Vikings' decision on whether to go outside to try to add help at defensive tackle will depend on whether they bring back Dalvin Tomlinson. The veteran will be 29 next season and just completed a two-year, $21 million contract.
Tomlinson can play either nose tackle or 3-technique and started alongside 2022 free-agent acquisition Harrison Phillips this season. Phillips was the nose tackle in the Vikings' 3-4 defense and the team could decide it wants to replace Tomlinson with someone who can put more pressure on the quarterback.
The top free-agent defensive tackle will be the Eagles' Javon Hargrave, who will be 30 next season. Hargrave is ranked third by ESPN and fourth by PFF in their top 50 lists and is followed by Washington's Daron Payne, who is fourth in the ESPN rankings and 11th in PFF's.
Hargrave had 11 sacks in 2022 and Payne had 11.5. Tomlinson is only four spots behind Payne in PFF's rankings but is 29th in ESPN's. Both of those players are likely to get massive deals from teams with loads of salary-cap room.
One interesting possibility for the Vikings could be Denver's Dre'Mont Jones, ranked 15th by ESPN and 20th by PFF. The 25-year-old had 6.5 sacks and 28 quarterback pressures and can play either inside or outside. He would be an ideal 3-4 defensive end and, if the Vikings end up hiring Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero for the same job, Jones could make a seamless transition.
Arizona's Zach Allen, 26 next season, is another versatile defensive lineman who can get to the quarterback and has 9.5 sacks in the past two seasons. ESPN and PFF have Allen 23rd on their free-agent lists.
The question is will the Vikings play a 3-4 or 4-3 next season and what will the new coordinator want from his inside players? Tomlinson is 6-3, 325 pounds, while Allen is 6-4, 281 pounds and Jones is 6-3, 281 pounds.
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Veterans Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks could be salary cap casualties as the Vikings look to get younger and faster at this position. Brian Asamoah, a 2022 third-round pick, figures to move into a starting role after seeing limited playing time as a rookie.
But it wouldn't be surprising if the Vikings looked to the free agent market as well. It's unlikely that Adofo-Mensah would make a significant investment in the position, but he showed a willingness to use free agency to fill this spot last year by signing Hicks to a two-year, $10 million deal that included an out-clause after one season.
ESPN has six linebackers listed in its free agent rankings, while PFF has seven. The highest-graded player in the PFF rankings is Tampa Bay inside linebacker Lavonte David, who just turned 33 and is unlikely to draw any interest from the Vikings. ESPN's highest-rated player is inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds of the Bills. He will turn 25 this offseason and figures to get a deal worth around $11 million annually.
The Vikings could look at some of the younger free agent linebackers available from teams that ran 3-4 defenses. Possibilities would include the Titans' David Long Jr. (26 next season) and the Chargers' Drue Tranquill (28). The former had two interceptions this season and the latter had five sacks.
Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers managed to keep both feet inbounds on this touchdown catch.
The Vikings have one of the best in the game in Justin Jefferson, but there are questions about whether an aging Adam Thielen will be retained and whether O'Connell sees K.J. Osborn as anything more than a No. 3 receiver. What the Vikings really need is a second receiver to take the top off the defense and pressure off of Jefferson.
That's easy to say, but finding that guy is another story. It becomes even more difficult because of the massive contracts so many receivers are now getting before they reach free agency.
The only two pending free agent receivers that made both the ESPN and PFF lists are New England's Jakobi Meyers (eighth by PFF, 20th by ESPN) and Kansas City's JuJu Smith-Schuster (26th by ESPN, 33rd by PFF). The ESPN rankings also had Odell Beckham, who missed the season recovering from a knee injury, at 25th and Detroit DJ Chark at 35th.
The 6-foot-4 Chark, who will turn 27 in September, would provide the Vikings with a vertical threat. He averaged 16.7 yards on 30 receptions with three touchdowns this season but figures to be pursued by multiple clubs.
Jalen Nailor, a 2022 sixth-round pick by the Vikings, showed potential in limited playing time as a rookie but it's uncertain how much O'Connell will be expecting from him.
The limited availability of wide receivers is why the Vikings might look to the draft for help at this position and decide to make a free-agent investment on defense.
Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire