NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The biggest needs are up front for the Minnesota Vikings, particularly along the defensive line with the team seeking pass-rushing help. The return of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce is critical, but the Vikings also need help on the interior at three-technique and with depth. While the multi-year defensive retooling continues this offseason with spots to fill throughout the secondary, Minnesota also has a handful of questions to sort out along the offensive line, particularly on the left side with a hole at guard and potentially at left tackle. Pass protection and pass-rushers are being sought after by the Vikings this free agency.
Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Vikings, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Patrick Peterson, CB
The longtime Cardinal cornerback Peterson has agreed to a one-year, $10 million contract with the Vikings, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What it means: Stability for a secondary that so desperately needs it. Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks of this era and just put together another 16-game season at age 30, the ninth time he's played every game in a season since being drafted in 2011. The presence of the former No. 5 overall pick should pay dividends for the young group of corners that will get the opportunity to learn under him. Minnesota lacked veteran leadership at cornerback last season in a trial-by-fire year for rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.
Even though Peterson is signing a one-year deal, the acquisition gives Minnesota stability now and in the future, particularly if they opt not to pick up Mike Hughes' fifth-year option, which feels like the inevitable move due to his injury history. Peterson has played everywhere throughout is career, but it's likely he'll occupy an outside corner spot opposite Dantzler while Gladney can continue to grow in his role from the slot.
What's clear from the Peterson signing is how much of a priority defense was for Minnesota in free agency. From landing one of the top available cornerbacks to defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, two players in ESPN's top 100 list of free agents, Minnesota very much prioritized coach Mike Zimmer's needs on defense. That should point to the opposite taking place in April's draft with the focus on finding multiple offensive linemen and a third wide receiver.
What's the risk: Peterson may have lost a step with age, but he was still one of the top cornerbacks available in free agency. He had his worst coverage grade since 2011 and a league-high 11 penalties last year, but maybe a change of scenery and scheme after 10 seasons in Arizona will benefit him. Either way, the Vikings will determine if age has caught up with him and whether he can bounce back from a season where he ranked 71st among all cornerbacks in passer rating allowed (100.8), according to Pro Football Focus.
Dalvin Tomlinson, DT
The Vikings agreed to a two-year deal with the 27-year-old former Giants defensive tackle.
What it means: By signing Tomlinson, the No. 55 free agent on ESPN’s top 100 list, the Vikings are bringing in an interior defender who excels as a run stopper, shoring up one of their biggest weaknesses up front. The Vikings ranked 27th against the run in 2020 when they were without nose tackle Michael Pierce and lost linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks to injury. Their struggles were evident when the Bears rushed for 199 yards in Week 15 and Alvin Kamara helped the Saints rack up 264 yards a week later. Adding Tomlinson addresses that weakness, but it also gives Minnesota an above average interior pass-rusher (28 pressures, 18 hurries, four sacks in 2020) who can play at nose tackle, where he lined up for the Giants most often last season, or at three-technique. A source indicated to ESPN that Tomlinson’s signing won’t affect the Vikings’ plans for Pierce, whose return to nose tackle is anticipated for 2021. This signing gives Minnesota the option to utilize both defensive tackles and if Tomlinson plays at three-technique, it upgrades the pass rush from the position.
What's the risk: The strength of the 2021 draft class is not the defensive tackle group, so it was the right move for Minnesota to address this need in free agency over counting on a rookie. Tomlinson, a former second-round pick, has four years of experience playing several spots on the defensive line, so the reward outweighs the risk given how many options the Vikings have to utilize him. It’s a two-year deal worth $22 million, according to a league source, with $20 million in total guarantees. That’s not breaking the bank but a considerable amount the Vikings are willing to shell out for one of their biggest needs in free agency.
Nick Vigil, LB
The Vikings agreed to a one-year deal with the former Chargers linebacker.
What it means: The Vikings aren’t able to afford to keep Eric Wilson with what they’re paying Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, even with the latter agreeing to a restructured deal to lower his cap number and make him a free agent next March. Signing Vigil, 27, gives the Vikings an affordable option to compete for the No. 3 linebacker job. Vigil played the first four seasons of his career in Cincinnati (2016-19) under former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who is now a senior defensive assistant for the Vikings. This signing has Guenther’s fingerprints all over it given the scheme he ran in Cincinnati was a version of Mike Zimmer’s defense. The Vikings get to bring in a linebacker who is already familiar with what he’ll be asked to do and can provide depth behind Kendricks and Barr.
What's the risk: Not much at all. Vigil is an above-average run defender whose tackling ability was at its peak in 2020 during his one season with the Chargers. It’s an inexpensive move ($1.75 million base salary with $1.35 million guaranteed for a deal worth up to $2.3 million) that helps the Vikings bolster their depth at a position that was decimated by injuries last year. Vigil will be in the mix with fourth-rounder Troy Dye, Ryan Connelly and Blake Lynch to provide depth and play a role in various defensive packages as well as on special teams.
Weatherly signed a one-year deal for $2.5 million with Minnesota.
What it means: He was drafted by the Vikings in 2016 and played four seasons in this 4-3 scheme and returns after spending 2020 with the Carolina Panthers. Weatherly brings starters’ experience with him after spending nine games at right defensive end in Carolina before undergoing season-ending surgery on his finger. He says it took him awhile to get in a groove in the Panthers’ 3-5-3 defense before his season was cut short due to a season-ending finger injury. He offered up some brutal honesty that he grew somewhat complacent after signing his first free-agent deal and vowed to not let that happen with this new opportunity. His hand is “good” now, so with the injury issue behind him Weatherly will enter the offseason vying to start opposite Hunter on the defensive line, but it’s possible he will best serve a role in the rotation on pass-rushing downs the way he did earlier in his career in Minnesota (six sacks, 17 QB hits, two forced fumbles in four years). At best, the Vikings didn’t have to spend much to find a highly motivated starting defensive end. At worst, Weatherly provides quality depth for a defensive line that needs it.
What's the risk: Nothing. These low-risk, inexpensive moves that have the potential for a significant reward are exactly what the Vikings should be doing to bolster depth on defense. Getting a player(s) who is familiar with this scheme and can fit into a role right away as a stop-gap starter or rotational pass-rusher is critical for a team that struggled to generate sacks last season. Weatherly knows what this pass rush looked like at its best (2017) and can provide veteran guidance for how the Vikings can get back closer to that level in 2021.
Rashod Hill, OL
Hill, 29, will stay with the Vikings on a one-year deal.
What it means: From practice squad pick up to valuable swing tackle, Hill has risen through the ranks and is back for his sixth season in Minnesota. Riley Reiff is gone, so the Vikings need to fill the void at left tackle, and this could be Hill’s chance to prove he’s more than a viable backup. If he were to win the left tackle job, that would allow Minnesota to keep Ezra Cleveland at right guard, Brian O’Neil at right tackle and let the Vikings focus on landing their next left guard via free agency (considering there’s a ton of them out there) or in the draft. Hill has position flexibility, having been a fill-in starter at right or left tackle 17 times since 2017. No matter how Minnesota wants to experiment with its offensive line personnel, Hill should be in the conversation to start somewhere. Since 2017, he has six sacks and 52 total pressures. Hill knows this offense and blocking scheme and is an important part for the Vikings in maintaining continuity on the offensive line.
What's the risk: Nothing. According to his agent, Brett Tessler, Hill signed another one-year deal with the Vikings (he’s done the same the last two seasons after he received a tender as a restricted free agent in 2019) that is fully guaranteed. It will still allow the Vikings financial flexibility to go after a pricier offensive line option in free agency. This is about the safest, no-brainer move the Vikings could make as they aim to upgrade the offensive line.
Chad Beebe, WR
The Vikings will bring back Beebe, 26, on a one-year deal.
What it means: Beebe has an Adam Thielen-like rags-to-riches story of someone who came to the Vikings on a college tryout and rose from practice squad guy to member of the receiver depth chart. He's had some big catches on third down over the last couple of seasons and gives Minnesota a different look from the slot. But the Vikings are far from set at the position. It seems every year that the Vikings try to find a No. 3 receiver but have failed to do so, from Laquon Treadwell to Kendall Wright to Jordan Taylor to Tajae Sharpe. There are a lot of names still remaining on the free agent market that Minnesota should go after and many of the UFAs remaining are within their price range (how about giving DeSean Jackson, Kenny Stills or Damiere Byrd a look?). Beebe is important for depth, but the Vikings still need a more regular contributor behind Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
What's the risk: There's no financial risk associated with this deal. The Vikings wanted Beebe back but weren't going to offer him the lowest tender of $2.133 million to retain his rights. Instead, he became a free agent and didn't stay on the open market long, coming back to Minnesota on a one-year, veteran minimum $920,000 with no split in the deal. It's an inexpensive move to keep around a receiver who gave the Vikings depth in 2020 by catching 20 passes for 201 yards in 14 games, including a pair of touchdowns. He also played his part on special teams, having returned nine punts last season. Beebe battled back from injuries that limited him to six games over the first two years of his career and has carved out a small, albeit important role in the offense.
Ameer Abdullah, RB
Abdullah remains with the Vikings on a one-year deal.
What it means: It appears the Vikings have their RB3 after Mike Boone signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Abdullah has been a part of this backfield for two and a half seasons behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison and provides Minnesota with the occasional run on third down. He also plays an important role on special teams (he had the third-highest snap count of any Viking last season) as a kickoff returner. Since 2018, Abdullah has totaled 156 yards and three receiving touchdowns on 24 receptions and rushed 31 times for 157 yards. He's also returned 38 kickoffs for 935 yards.
What's the risk: Nothing. Since he was claimed off waivers in November 2018 after he was released by the Detroit Lions, the Vikings have brought Abdullah back on one-year deals. It's obvious they like him and value what he provides the offense and special teams. It's a low-risk, inexpensive move.
The Vikings bring back Alexander, 27, on a one-year deal.
What it means: After one season in Cincinnati, Alexander is back where his career started when the Vikings drafted him in the second round in 2016. While he admittedly fought the transition from playing outside to in the slot, Alexander developed into one of the league’s better nickel corners during the 2018-19 seasons in Minnesota, much of which he attributes to his development under former teammate Terence Newman’s guidance. Once Alexander bought in to the role he was asked to play, he began to flourish and helped the Vikings solidify their pass defense. That’s what he’s back to do this time with a group of young, inexperienced cornerbacks. Having played in this scheme for four seasons, Alexander knows exactly what coach Mike Zimmer is looking for and the adjustments that will come after Minnesota’s pass defense allowed 258.8 yards per game last season. Alexander gives the Vikings flexibility in the secondary to potentially move Jeff Gladney, who played the nickel last season, outside and keep Mike Hughes as a depth option with his future up in the air.
What's the risk: Alexander signed a prove-it deal for one year worth the veteran minimum ($999,000), so it’s an inexpensive move that could yield a large benefit. He will provide the experience the cornerback group lacked a year ago with so many rookies forced to play big minutes.
Xavier Woods, CB
The Vikings signed Woods, 25, to a one-year deal.
What it means: After signing cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, the Vikings shored up their remaining biggest need in the secondary by addressing the safety position left vacant by Anthony Harris’ departure in free agency. Woods developed from sixth-round steal to starter for the Dallas Cowboys for the past three seasons. His play dropped off somewhat in 2020, which allowed the Vikings to afford him on a reduced one-year deal worth up to $2.25 million. He becomes the presumptive starter at free safety opposite Harrison Smith at a position that had next to no depth.
What's the risk: Woods was pricier than Alexander, but it’s still not a deal that breaks the bank for the Vikings if they opt to sign an offensive lineman. Woods has a high ceiling and is entering the prime years of his career, so the payoff for the Vikings could be big with him joining Mike Zimmer’s scheme. Woods is a versatile safety who can cover the slot and play multiple positions in the defensive backfield, which is a good fit for the Vikings. While they went all in on addressing the secondary over the last week, the Vikings still believe in their young corners like Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. These moves provide more competition and flexibility for a unit that lacked both in 2020.