EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings’ defense, which is usually the case, is set. On offense and special teams, it’s a different story.
When linebacker Anthony Barr re-signed last week after initially agreeing to join the New York Jets, it meant that 10 of Minnesota’s 11 starters will return on defense. The Vikings lost starting defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency to Cleveland, but he will be replaced by Shamar Stephen, who returns after playing for Minnesota from 2014-17, including starting in 2016.
On offense, though, the Vikings still have concerns on the line, where there are no guards on the roster who have been regular starters. They also need to solidify the backup quarterback behind Kirk Cousins and could look to sign a backup running back.
On special teams, kicker Dan Bailey and punt returner Marcus Sherels are both free agents.
Against this backdrop, the Vikings, coming off a disappointing 8-7-1 season, have little to work with under the salary cap. They have about $6 million left after signings of Barr and Stephen and will need about $3 million of that to sign their draft picks.
The offensive line is the top priority entering the second phase of free agency. The Vikings have given an offer to re-sign Nick Easton, their starting left guard in 2017 who missed all of last season with a neck injury.
A source said Saturday, March 16, that Easton, who made $2.914 million last season, has narrowed his choices to three teams, Minnesota, New Orleans and one that was not named, and hopes to decide by Monday. Easton also plays center, and it was reported Saturday that the Saints’ starting center, three-time Pro Bowl selection Max Unger, is retiring. Easton visited New Orleans on Thursday.
“We’re going to make sure we’re prudent with our decisions,’’ general manager Rick Spielman said when asked Thursday about the offensive line. “I have a pretty good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of what in free agency, and I have a pretty good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of what’s in the draft.’’
The Vikings last week released Mike Remmers, their starting right guard in 2018, when he wouldn’t restructure his contract. Tom Compton, last season’s starting left guard, is a free agent.
Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported last December that the Vikings might move Riley Reiff to guard from left tackle and move Brian O’Neill from right to left tackle. That could take care of one starting guard spot.
After Cousins, the only quarterback on the roster is Kyle Sloter, who is entering his third year and never has taken a regular-season snap. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has indicted a desire to have a veteran backup. Re-signing Trevor Siemian, a former starter in Denver who made $1.9 million last season, would seem to be an option.
At running back, the Vikings lost Latavius Murray, the backup to Dalvin Cook. Murray went to New Orleans in free agency. And Ameer Abdullah, the primary kickoff returner after signing last November, is a free agent.
The Vikings could let Mike Boone and Roc Thomas battle to be the backup. Or they could bring in another running back in free agency or the draft.
On special teams, Bailey is a free agent after joining the team last season after two games. Bailey made just four of nine field-goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards, and it’s apparent he hasn’t been in free agency Minnesota’s top priority at kicker after making $1.98 million last season. The Vikings inquired about Jets Pro Bowl selection Jason Myers but couldn’t afford him, and he signed a four-year deal, $15.45 million deal with Seattle.
At punt returner, the Vikings want to bring back Sherels, who also serves as a reserve cornerback. Sherels took a pay cut from $2 million in 2017 to $1.4 million in 2018 and likely doesn’t want to take another.
To illustrate the Vikings’ cap woes, if they re-signed Easton, Siemian, Bailey and Sherels for the same amounts they made last season, that would roughly take up all their existing cap room. And they still would need money to sign their draft picks.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen between now and the draft,’’ Spielman said when asked about Minnesota’s cap situation. “There’s a lot of things after the draft that can happen. You’re always adding. You never know opportunities that come your way on potential trades or whatever. So we’ll just see how everything evolves.’’
There seemingly aren’t a lot of options available for the Vikings to clear cap room before the April 27-29 draft, when they will have eight picks, including the No. 18 selection in the first round. There have been reports they could trade cornerback Trae Waynes, who will make $9.069 million in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract.
Other than with Waynes, there doesn’t seem to be a realistic way to clear significant cap room with one move. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has a $7.625 million cap number in the final year of his contract, but his agent, Brian Murphy, has told NFL Media that the Vikings “are not in negotiations” for Rudolph “to take a pay reduction.’’
At least the Vikings remain in good shape on defense. They have finished in top four in total defense for three straight seasons, including a No. 1 ranking in 2017.