On March 11th, the rush to sign free agents for the 2014 offseason will begin and once again, the Vikings aren’t expected to be at the top of the pack. Despite intentions to grab Mike Wallace in 2013 and high-profile moves to grab Brett Favre earlier, the Vikings aren’t known for the dogged pursuits of the top free agents in the market.
That’s fine—the top free agents in the market are rarely worth the price. Free agency is functionally an auction, and more often than not, the most sought-after player will go to the highest bidder. The issue with that is that it means they are not likely “market price,” so much as likely overpaid.
In that system, the value determined by 31 other teams in the league is probably closer to the “true value” of the player than how close a team far away from the average valuation determines it to be. As Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats points out, each team will have its biases and errors, so some teams will overvalue a player and some teams will undervalue him, but he will likely only sign with a team that overvalues him.
This is called the Winner’s Curse, and is fairly difficult to avoid in auction-style transactions. But instead of eschewing free agency all-together, it means that teams should be very specific about the qualities they look for in a free agent.
For the Vikings, who are not likely close to a playoff berth, the free agency search shouldn’t look for “securing the last piece” of a championship team, but putting together a roster with proven talent that can last in the long term. They should also find free agents that mean more to them than to other teams—that means finding a free agent who is actually worth more to the Vikings than other teams because of the chemistry or synergy they provide to the team.
Not only does searching out synergistic value reduce or eliminate the Winner’s Curse, but it also creates a team cohesive enough to start winning sooner rather than later without money getting tied up in the process.
With that in mind, the Vikings can find a way to address a need and secure an undervalued, relatively young player coming off an excellent season who has experience working with head coach Mike Zimmer: Oakland Raiders nose tackle Pat Sims.
The Vikings defense is one of the worst in the league, and their 2013 performance has few redeeming qualities. They ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, gave up the 30th-most first downs per opportunity, and were 31st in opponent-adjusted points allowed, per Pro-Football-Reference’s DSRS statistic.
Relatedly, Minnesota has had some of the worst nose tackle play in the NFL for the past three years, with Pro Football Focus ranking starting nose tackle Letroy Guion as the 60th-ranked or worse defensive tackle every year, including a moment where he ranked as the worst defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012.
While run defense continues to fade in importance in the NFL, the fact that a nose tackle can make first and second down difficult enough to force third-and-long makes it that much more compelling the Vikings find at least a short-term answer there.
The Vikings defense had more third-and-short situations than any team in the league (and the highest percentage of third downs that were less than three yards), and that’s because they couldn’t stop offenses from big gains on first and second down.
Part of this has to do with the poor linebacker play, but much of it has to do with the subpar defensive tackle play. Regardless, softness up the middle on first and second down meant the Vikings had the second-worst third-down defense in the league.