Courtney Cronin, ESPN Staff Writer 42d

Minnesota Vikings free-agency overview: Pass-rushers, O-line help needed

The Minnesota Vikings enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 7-9 season in 2020 and have 11 unrestricted free agents.

Coach Mike Zimmer said one of his priorities this offseason is to get more pass-rushers after the Vikings notched a franchise-low 23 sacks last season. Minnesota's defense will continue its process of retooling with a heavy focus on the defensive line and secondary, but the offensive line could be their jumping off point in free agency.

Here's what to expect from the Vikings when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Kirk Cousins, Jake Browning, Nate Stanley

UFA: Sean Mannion

Game plan: Though the idea of trading Cousins has come up this offseason, the chances of him being under center for the Vikings in 2021 are strong. Minnesota gave him a two-year, $66 million extension last offseason to bring down his cap charge. Another extension would help free up financial resources but also keeps Cousins in the fold beyond 2022, which might not be the direction the Vikings can afford to go. Fortunately for the Vikings, Cousins is one of the most durable quarterbacks in the NFL and doesn't need a high-priced vet as his backup. That likely keeps Mannion in place on another one-year deal. In any event, the Vikings need to start thinking about life after Cousins and finding a quarterback in the draft.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, C.J. Ham

UFA: Ameer Abdullah

Game plan: Coming off an MVP-level season, Cook remains the focal point of the Vikings' offense. Mattison is a key component for the run game and keeps Cook fresh, but Minnesota could look to add a change-of-pace back later in free agency if it does not tender restricted free agent Mike Boone or re-sign pending free agent Abdullah.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Bisi Johnson, K.J. Osborn, Dan Chisena

UFA: None

Game plan: Stop me if you've heard this before: The Vikings need to find a No. 3 wide receiver this offseason. Chad Beebe, a restricted free agent who should be back, is a solid role player but Minnesota needs more behind Thielen and Jefferson. Johnson, Osborn and Chisena have found a home on special teams but haven't been able to carve out roles in the passing game. Expect the Vikings to look to the free-agent bargain bin to find another receiver.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon, Hale Hentges

UFA: None

Game plan: Rudolph, 31, expressed displeasure with his role in the Vikings' offense last season and doesn't seem open to the idea of a restructure with three years remaining on his contract. Releasing Rudolph now yields $5.1 million in cap savings but could be $8 million if designated a post-June 1 cut. Given the production the Vikings got from Smith and Conklin at the end of last season in Rudolph's absence, moving on could be the easiest way to free up cap space.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Riley Reiff, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, Brian O'Neill, Dru Samia, Oli Udoh, Zack Bailey, Kyle Hinton

UFA: Rashod Hill, Dakota Dozier, Brett Jones

Game plan: How active the Vikings can be in free agency starts with a decision on the offensive line. Reiff, 32, has a $5 million roster bonus coming due on March 19. If the Vikings don't want to keep their left tackle in the fold due to the $11.75 million they could save by releasing him, they could re-sign Hill as a potential stop gap and draft an offensive lineman in the first round. If the Vikings move on from Reiff, they could put Cleveland at left tackle and draft his replacement at right guard. Nonetheless, Minnesota needs to upgrade its interior pass protection, particularly at left guard with the opening created by Dozier hitting free agency.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Danielle Hunter, Jalyn Holmes, D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes, Jordan Brailford, Shamar Stephen, Michael Pierce, James Lynch, Armon Watts

UFA: Jaleel Johnson

Game plan: The Vikings expect a full recovery from Hunter in 2021 after he missed last season with a neck injury, but shoring up the other edge rusher spot is critical. There are a lot of free-agent options available if Minnesota can free up the financial resources to go after the likes of Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, Carl Lawson, etc. The Vikings also need help on the interior. Pierce is expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season, which would solve the nose tackle spot, leaving three-technique as an area of focus. Stephen could save $3.75 million against the cap if released.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Troy Dye, Cam Smith, Ryan Connelly, Blake Lynch

UFA: Eric Wilson, Todd Davis, Hardy Nickerson

Game plan: The Vikings can't afford to pay three linebackers top dollar, so it's expected Wilson walks and earns his payday elsewhere. Barr has the third-highest cap hit on the team ($15.5 million) coming off a season cut short due to a torn pectoral muscle. Barr could provide Minnesota with trade leverage should the Vikings want to dump his contract if he won't agree to a restructured deal.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Cordrea Tankersley, Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand, Tae Hayes

UFA: None

Game plan: The draft features a deep class of cornerbacks that the Vikings could look to on Day 2 and 3 to replenish depth. With other pressing needs on the defensive side, cornerback is probably lower on the priority list in free agency.

SAFETY

Under contract: Harrison Smith, Myles Dorn, Josh Metellus, Luther Kirk

UFA: Anthony Harris, George Iloka

Game plan: Unless Harris wants to take a steep pay cut from the $11.4 million he made in 2020 on the franchise tag, it's likely the 29-year-old safety will go elsewhere in free agency. This position is one Minnesota needs to address more aggressively in the offseason given the role safeties play on the back end of this defense.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: Dan Bailey, Britton Colquitt, Andrew DePaola

UFA: None

Game plan: Unless the Vikings release Bailey before March 19 when $1.8 of his $2.7 million 2021 base salary becomes guaranteed, they will have a kicking competition in training camp after signing Greg Joseph last month. Colquitt's $2.45 million base salary also becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year, so if the Vikings wanted to go a different direction with their punter, they need to act soon.

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