The Vikings have been riding high since the beginning of free agency. They've addressed their needs at fullback, safety and wide receiver, watched the star quarterback of the division favorite retire and laughed as the two teams they finished ahead of last year got worse. Aside from the Favre retirement, however, they have had mixed results this week, signing running back/return specialist Maurice Hicks and scheduling multiple visits with defensive ends that never happened.
I'm with Pacifist Viking on this one--I don't understand this signing. It seems that Hicks is meant to replace Mewelde Moore, who signed with the Steelers, as the third down back and punt returner. The thing is, the Vikings don't really need the former, and Hicks has no experience with the latter. With Chester Taylor and the Purple Jesus, the Vikings don't really need to worry too much about finding a third down back, which is one of the main reasons that Moore is now wearing Black and Gold. With the talent ahead of him, Hicks should only be used if needed due to injuries, because he doesn't add anything in the passing game that Taylor or Peterson does, averaging less than a catch a game for 7.7 yards over his four years. If he is needed to step up due to injury, however, he should be fine, as he has a career rushing average of 4.2 yards per carry.
So as added depth at running back, Hicks is a fine signing. As a return specialist, however, he's surprisingly inexperienced at the position the Vikings need him most--punt returner. He's never returned a punt in the NFL. With the loss of Moore, only Bobby Wade and Charles Gordon (who, in 2006, returned 1 punt for 1 yard) have any experiencing returning punts on the Vikings' roster. As the starting slot receiver, Wade is too important to the offense to spend a lot of time returning punts, and there's obviously a reason why Gordon only got one chance. Which likely means that the Purple are going to try Hicks back there, something that isn't ideal. Returning punts is, in my opinion, harder than returning kickoffs, because the punt returner has to make their decision more quickly and has to do so while the coverage team converges on them. Kick returners usually have a little more time, and can catch the ball without worrying about getting drilled immediately or whether they need to call a fair catch. Any decision they make comes after the catch, which is why returning punts isn't necessarily something you want an inexperienced player doing.
The other reason the Hicks signing seems like a mistake is that the Purple already have a solid kick returner. Aundrae Allison averaged 28.7 yards on 20 returns last year, including a franchise record 104 yard return for a touchdown. That performance, however, wasn't enough to keep Allison as the return man all year, as Childress had Adrian Peterson returning kicks in Week 17. In contrast, Hicks returned 63 kicks for an average of 23.8 yards per return last year and has a career average of 22.9 yards per return. He has 185 career returns, but he's never returned a kick for touchdown and he's only returned 8 kicks for more than 40 yards, something Allison has already done three times. In fact, the Hicks signing seems like it was made to allow Childress to go with the "veteran" over the more talented and explosive second year player, a mistake the Purple can't afford with their offensive deficiencies.
The only one of their weaknesses that the Vikings have yet to address is defensive end. They've scheduled multiple visits with free agent pass rushers, but have yet to have any make it to Winter Park, watching Justin Smith, Antwan Odom and Javon Kearse sign with other teams. The thing is, I'm not sure that any of them were the answer. Smith was mediocre last year, only notching 2.5 sacks, has never been dominant (his career high is 8.5 sacks in his rookie year) and signed a huge contract with the 49ers, which the Vikings would have had to match if they'd signed him. Odom had a breakout year last year with 8 sacks, but had never had more than 2 in a season before that. And Kearse's injury history (he hasn't played in 16 games in a season since 2001) , which has been matched by a performance decline, should have told everyone that he was not the answer to the Purple's pass rush problems.
It's for those reasons that I don't think the Vikings need to be too worried about their inability to land a pass rusher in free agency. Nor do I think that they need to be as worried about their pass rush going into next year, because they have two young defensive ends in Brian Robison and Ray Edwards that have shown the ability to get to the quarterback. Robison was a rookie last year, and Edwards was only in his second year, and despite Robison hitting the proverbial rookie wall and Edwards "missing" the last four games of the year, Robison had 4.5 sacks and Edwards had 5, tying them for fourth and first overall. A full offseason of NFL training for Robison and a full season from Edwards should allow both of them to take another step toward becoming an elite pass rusher. And any improvement on the ends will likely lead to an improvement in the middle, as it will take opponents' focus away from the Williams.
The real problem lies with the Vikings' lack of depth behind Robison and Edwards. Darrion Scott is an unrestricted free agent, Keneci Udeze is likely out for the year because of leukemia and Erasmus James is coming off of another injury and has only played 8 games in the last two years. Jayme Mitchell and Otis Grigsby are still on the roster, and while Mitchell is good enough to be a part of the defensive end rotation (Grigsby is roster filler) neither is good enough to be a major part of the rotation.
What this means is that the Vikings have to find quality players to support Robison and Edwards, something that isn't readily available in the free agent market (the complete list is available here). So the Purple likely will look to the draft to provide their young defensive line with more depth. As I've said before, there are quite a few quality ends available, and, with the Berrian signing, the Vikings can focus on their pass rush in the draft, something I'll be doing next week, barring anything crazy happening.