NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2020 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from Bill Barnwell. The new league year began March 18, which meant free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2020 NFL draft begins April 23.
Michael Pierce, DT
What it means: The Vikings have their replacement for Linval Joseph, who signed with the Chargers in free agency after being released to free up $10.55 million in cap space. Pierce has been a top-five run-stopping nose tackle for the past three seasons. That's good news for the Vikings, who ranked 20th against the run last season, the lowest mark during Mike Zimmer's tenure. The responsibilities placed on a nose tackle in Zimmer's defense require a specific fit, given most 4-3 fronts are typically one-gap schemes, with the exception of how the Vikings played Joseph over the past six years. Pierce has the strength required to play the position, and his pedigree against the run is likely why Minnesota saw it as an ideal fit. The Vikings also have Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts, who filled in at nose tackle at times last season and could opt to use both on a rotational basis on pass-rushing downs, similar to the approach they took with Joseph. Pierce is younger (27 years old) and hasn't had many injuries that have forced him to miss significant time. That's an important factor in judging his ceiling and how he'll fit in the Vikings' defense.
What's the risk: Pierce showed up to minicamp last June weighing 390 pounds and was sent off the practice field by Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He dropped 30 pounds by the start of training camp and played last season at 345 pounds. How he handles his conditioning and what he looks like when he shows up to workouts in Minnesota -- whenever those may take place -- is something to keep an eye on. How well-conditioned Pierce is will also determine how the Vikings are able to use him (which gaps he's responsible for and how many techniques he can play). Minnesota struggled to generate a consistent push on the interior of the defensive line last season. Zimmer said at the combine that teams can "manipulate" that pressure, like the Vikings did in their playoff win at New Orleans by moving defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on the inside on pass-rushing downs. We'll see if the Vikings shift to doing that consistently in 2020 or whether Pierce will be able to generate that pressure from his spot at nose tackle.
Dan Bailey, K
Kicker Dan Bailey agreed on Thursday to re-sign with the Vikings on a three-year contract, a source told ESPN's Courtney Cronin.
What it means: The Vikings had a shaky offseason that featured a long-snapping competition and a kicker/punter being signed and cut within a three-week period during training camp, costing them a fifth-round pick. But the Vikings' kicking battery had one of its best seasons in recent years. Minnesota had the fourth-best field-goal unit in 2019, with Bailey making 93.1% of his field-goal attempts and 90.1% of his extra points. Kicker has been a tough position for the Vikings in previous years, from Blair Walsh to Kai Forbath to Daniel Carlson. Bailey smoothed out the kinks from his first season in 2018 and won NFC special teams player of the week honors three times.
What's the risk: Not much. Re-signing Bailey (and punter Britton Colquitt earlier in the week) means the Vikings have stability with their kicking unit for the foreseeable future. Like Colquitt, the Vikings gave Bailey a three-year deal. Second-year long snapper Austin Cutting also has three years left on his rookie contract. That kind of stability benefits a unit that has had its ups and downs throughout Mike Zimmer's tenure. Bailey was reportedly considering a handful of other teams as a free agent, so for him to choose to come back to Minnesota speaks to his comfort with the Vikings' approach and what's to come in 2020.
Career highlights: From UDFA to starter, Harris climbed the ranks of the Vikings' defense over five seasons and became a pivotal part of the secondary. When Andrew Sendejo sustained an injury in 2018 six weeks into the season, Harris took over starting duties and never gave them back. A single-game career-high two interceptions in Chicago followed shortly thereafter before he led the league in interceptions with six last season.
Why he was tagged: The Vikings aren't a team that uses the franchise tag that often, with Harris, 28, being just the third player in franchise history to receive the designation. The Vikings made a late decision to tag Harris (for $11.441 million) after they were able to free up $10 million in cap space upon working out an extension with quarterback Kirk Cousins. Last month at the NFL combine, coach Mike Zimmer made it appear that safety wasn't one of the priority positions on defense, so either the flexibility to spend or Minnesota deciding to gain some leverage for down the road brought Harris back to the Vikings on a one-year deal. Tagging Harris buys the Vikings time to work out a long-term deal or a trade. Between Harris and Harrison Smith, the Vikings have one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Given depth concerns at cornerback, the safety group serves as a security blanket of sorts on the backend of the defense.
What he brings: Harris totaled six interceptions in 2019 and has continued to progress starting opposite Smith. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Harris had a 48% ball-hawk rate last season -- the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football -- which was the highest of any player with at least 20 targets as a nearest defender. Harris brings one of two things: stability for a defense undergoing major transition this offseason or draft capital for a Vikings team that has a number of areas to address in April. If he ends up being tagged and traded, the team that gets Harris receives an instant boost in its secondary.
C.J. Ham, FB
The Vikings and restricted free agent fullback C.J. Ham agreed to a three-year deal.
What it means: The Vikings' offense relied heavily on bigger personnel groupings (multiple backs, multiple tight ends) and had two running backs on the field for 339 snaps last season. Only the 49ers (364) had more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Ham's biggest role in this scheme is as a blocker, which helps players like Dalvin Cook work his magic out of the backfield, and earned the former undrafted free agent Pro Bowl honors for the first time last season. The Vikings are one of a few teams in the NFL where the fullback plays a regular role. Ham is a reliable short-yardage back who does the dirty work to open up holes and takes on a big role in pass protection. He's a critical part of the overall execution on offense and the Vikings love him. This was a no-brainer.
What's the risk: Not much. Ham, who was a restricted free agent, got a new three-year deal from the Vikings. He will make $12.25 million over the next four years, per a source, including a $4 million salary for 2020 on a deal that averages out to $3.3 million per year. That makes him the second-highest paid player at his position. Minnesota's ground game is the machine that makes this offense go. Locking up Ham through 2023 ensures the Vikings won't have much of a drop-off in the trenches. No matter who is rushing behind Ham, they'll have a solid blocker paving the way.
The Vikings agreed to terms with restricted free agent punter Britton Colquitt on a three-year, $9 million extension that includes $5 million in guarantees, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
What it means: After an at-times chaotic preseason, the Vikings finally found stability with their special teams battery in 2019. A good bit of that had to do with punter/holder Colquitt, who came to the Vikings after he was released by the Browns last September and immediately provided veteran leadership. Colquitt, 34, averaged 45.2 yards per punt last season while his role holding for Dan Bailey helped the kicker nail 93.1% of his field-goal attempts and 90.9% of his extra points. Colquitt and Bailey were priorities for Minnesota entering free agency. With Colquitt extended, the Vikings can turn their focus to hammering out a new deal for Bailey, which sources have said is being discussed.
What's the risk: The Vikings have prioritized re-signing several of their own free agents, which leaves them north of $7 million in cap space on Monday afternoon, according to a league source. Colquitt could end up being a long-term option for Minnesota, and the Vikings appear to be considering the same for Bailey. Bailey signed a $1 million deal last year and has likely earned a significant increase after being named the NFC’s special teams player of the week three times last season. But there are ways to work out a deal in which his cap hits are manageable. For the sake of the entire special teams unit, which more often received praise rather than ire from coach Mike Zimmer last season, locking up two key players will be critical to its success.
Eric Wilson, LB
The Vikings tendered a one-year contract for Wilson.
What it means: Wilson, a former UDFA, was given the second-round tender of $3.1 million for 2020, which means if another team gave Wilson an offer and the Vikings didn’t match it, Minnesota would get that team’s second round-pick in return. The linebacker has steadily risen up the depth chart since signing with the Vikings out of Cincinnati in 2017, making his way onto the roster as a special teamer and earning his keep as a valued part of the team’s linebacker depth. On six occasions in 2019, Wilson filled in as a starter for Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Ben Gedeon and recorded three sacks. He also accounted for Minnesota’s sole blocked kick on the punt return team in a win over Atlanta.
What's the risk: Tendering Wilson at the second-round level means he’s expected to do more with the Vikings for 2020. The team could have given the linebacker, who went undrafted, the original-round tender ($2.1 million) but opted to pay more for Wilson so he sticks in Minnesota. The Vikings have prioritized a handful of former undrafted players who were developed by this coaching staff and backed that on Monday by tendering both of their restricted free agents. For a defense in a state of flux headed into free agency, locking up Wilson for another year allows Minnesota to keep its core of linebackers together. The Vikings know that if needed, Wilson can step into a starter’s role and fill in admirably. Minnesota should feel comfortable with the depth it has at this position.
Sean Mannion, quarterback
The Vikings are bringing back backup quarterback Sean Mannion on a one-year deal.
What it means: To Mike Zimmer, the job of the backup quarterback isn’t just to be another coach for Kirk Cousins. "When we're looking for a backup quarterback, we want to be able to have somebody who, if he has to go in for three games, can win those three games," Zimmer said at the NFL combine. That's exactly what Case Keenum did for Minnesota in 2017. Cousins sees Mannion as another set of eyes and routinely praised his backup for the amount of work he put in each week as if preparing to start. The dynamic of the quarterback room is critical to the overall health of the offense. Cousins needs someone to push him in practice and the meeting room, which is a role Mannion takes pride in. He's the only other QB on the roster with NFL experience (Jake Browning was on the practice squad last year).
What's the risk: Not much. Mannion provides stability to the QB room. He only appeared in three games in 2019, so the sample size isn't great in determining whether he’d be able to take the reins of the offense if Cousins got hurt. Fortunately, Cousins' durability is among his best qualities. The only start he missed as a Viking was a Week 17 game against the Bears when Minnesota didn't play its starters. The only thing that might fall into the "risk" category is that the Vikings may be set at quarterback and not decide to draft one in April.
Tajae Sharpe, WR
The Vikings agreed to a one-year deal with the former Titans receiver.
What it means: Replacing Stefon Diggs will be challenging, but the Vikings have to start somewhere. At best, they bring in someone who will eventually become the No. 2 receiver opposite Adam Thielen. At worst, Sharpe adds depth to the Vikings’ receiving corps. Sharpe likely fits as an outside/possession receiver, though he did register 102 snaps in the slot last season. Given Diggs’ versatility to line up anywhere in a formation, bringing in a player who presents some of those same capabilities is important. The Vikings run a bulk of their offensive plays through two-receiver sets, so finding a solid No. 2 receiver is the priority. Minnesota also has five selections in the top 105 picks in April and should look to spend one of those early picks on a top-rated wideout. Yes, Diggs was drafted in the fifth-round five years ago and developed into a star, but the likelihood of that happening again and as quickly as the Vikings need isn’t something the team should leave to chance. Minnesota has important draft capital it should use on putting more weapons around Kirk Cousins. Sharpe, who notched 25 catches for 329 yards and four touchdowns in Tennessee’s run-heavy offense last season, may eventually emerge as that guy.
What's the risk: Very little. Sharpe is a veteran receiver on a one-year deal. The Vikings didn’t go all-out and sign the next-best free agent option (i.e. Robby Anderson or Emmanuel Sanders) after Diggs was traded, which was a smart decision given their current financial situation. Now, the likelihood of them drafting a receiver with one of their top picks in a loaded draft class increases even further. Once training camp starts, Sharpe and whomever else Minnesota brings in will get to compete for the No. 2 job. The battle for that second receiver spot will be one of the more intriguing positions to watch in August.
DeMarquis Gates, LB
The Vikings signed linebacker to a one-year deal.
What it means: Depth at linebacker. Gates gets another shot at the NFL one year after leading the AAF in tackles for eight weeks before the league went belly-up and is recently coming off a five-game stretch in the XFL where he notched 32 tackles (three for loss), three pass deflections, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble for the Houston Roughnecks. The 24-year-old is the sixth linebacker on the Vikings’ roster behind Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Eric Wilson, Ben Gedeon and Cameron Smith. Given the caliber of players ahead of him, Gates’ best shot at making the opening-day roster is with strong special teams play in training camp.
What's the risk: Literally nothing. According to a league source, Gates is signing a one-year, non-guaranteed contract worth $610,000. He’s a camp body at worst as the Vikings look to build out their 90-man roster. If he excels on special teams, the linebacker could have a shot at carving out a role for himself.
Rashod Hill, OT
The Vikings re-signed offensive tackle Hill.
What it means: The Hill signing is important for a number of reasons. For the last two seasons, the former undrafted free agent has been Minnesota's swing tackle and showed he has the capability to fill in for stretches as a starter at left and right tackle. As the Vikings work to fix their offensive line again in free agency, retaining a player with the familiarity of Minnesota's zone blocking scheme along with his strengths in pass protection is important. Hill didn't give up a sack and allowed one pressure in 150 snaps last season.
What's the risk: Depth at any position is critical, especially along the offensive line. Hill is a stable backup for the Vikings and an easily affordable option. Depending upon what happens with left tackle Riley Reiff, whose $13.2 million cap hit in 2020 creates speculation about a potential trade (say for Washington's Trent Williams), it's important the Vikings have contingency plans. It's hard to find a reserve tackle who is as good in the passing game as Hill.
Anthony Zettel, DE
The Vikings signed former 49ers defensive end Anthony Zettel.
What it means: The Vikings lost the heartbeat of their defense when Everson Griffen announced he was saying goodbye to Minnesota in free agency. They add Zettel to a mix of defensive ends that includes Ifeadi Odenigbo (who had seven sacks last season) and Eddie Yarbrough. Zettel, a five-year veteran, was with Cincinnati and San Francisco last season but only appeared in five games. His most consistent production came in 2016 when he started all 16 games for the Lions and had 6.5 sacks. The Vikings could turn to a rotation at defensive end to replace the production of Griffen, with players such as Zettel fighting to be a part of that mix. But it seems more likely that Minnesota will use an early selection in the draft to develop his replacement.
What's the risk: There is none with this move.
Brett Jones, C
The reserve center returns on a one-year deal.
What it means: The reserve center is back for his third season in Minnesota. Jones was traded to the Vikings in August 2018 after starting 13 of 16 games for the New York Giants the season before. While he was listed on the depth chart as the backup to Garrett Bradbury, Jones was often inactive on gamedays last season given the fact that left guard Pat Elflein, the Vikings starting center from 2017-18, was slated to move back to his original position if Bradbury sustained injury. Jones signed a veteran-minimum deal with the Vikings and checks off a need for the Vikings, who were able to re-sign an interior depth option at an affordable price.
What's the risk: Nothing.
Ameer Abdullah, RB
Abdullah returns to the Vikings on a one-year deal.
What it means: Abdullah emerged as the Vikings’ kickoff returner last year, averaging 25 yards on 13 returns. The Vikings used him sparingly in their backfield, mostly when injuries arose to Dalvin Cook's back-up Alexander Mattison, and he finished the season with 23 rushes for 115 yards and 15 receptions for 88 yards. Minnesota hasn’t needed to implement a change-of-pace back in the run game with the majority of the offense running through Cook, but it’s possible Abdullah could be that guy if called upon in certain situations this season.
What's the risk: Very little. The Vikings may want to draft another player to compete for kickoff and/or punt return duties in 2020, particularly the latter now that cornerback Mike Hughes is primed for a starter’s role on defense and likely won’t be used as much on special teams.
The Vikings re-signed Dozier to a one-year contract.
What it means: The Vikings shored up their depth on the offensive line in the second wave of free agency by re-signing Dozier, Brett Jones and Rashod Hill. Dozier's position flexibility benefited Minnesota in 2019 when he filled in at right guard (263 snaps), left guard (70) and center (31). He appeared in 16 games with a career-high four starts. He's proven to be a quality reserve lineman for the Vikings and could be in line to compete for a spot on the interior after Minnesota cut right guard Josh Kline at the beginning of free agency.
What's the risk: There's no risk in the Vikings solidifying their offensive line depth. Now they need to address what's going on with their starting five, specifically the way they're going to handle fixing the interior and if they plan to address left tackle given that Riley Reiff has a $13.2 million cap hit. They could address the position in the remainder of free agency or the draft.