Sunday, March 2, 2008

Vikings get Berrian (oh, and Tapeh)

The Vikings made another big free-agent splash this weekend, inking Bernard Berrian, probably the top wide-receiver available in free agency, to a six-year, $42 million dollar deal, with $16 million of it guaranteed. This is the deal so far in free agency and it will, for better or worse, make a major impact on the team for years to come.

As I mentioned in Friday's post, Berrian is the top wide receiver available despite not yet registering a 1,000-year season in his career. Also, at 27, he's a touch older than one would like and may not have the durability to finish out his contract in productive fashion. And he's only had three 100-yard games in his career yet will be paid like one of the top wide receivers in the league.

Now I'll find some good news. First of all, Berrian will be a major improvement over any of the wideouts the Vikings currently employ, though that's not too difficult. His 71 catches last year are 17 more than the top Viking receive (Bobby Wade) from 2007 and even his 51 grabs in 2006 would have nearly put him at #1 on the Vikings' 2006 squad (Travis Taylor, 57). And all this comes with a quarterback situation that, at the least, was as confused and disjointed as the Vikings' over the last two years.

And Berrian has speed. His career 14.6 yards per reception for his career shows that, and, even though he only managed 13.4 last year, that still would have ranked him #1 on the 2007 Vikings among players with at least 20 catches. I know what you're saying now: "Hey, wasn't Troy Williamson fast?" Yes he was, to the tune of a 13.5 yard-per-catch average, a full yard less than Berrian. And, while I can't comment on precisely how good Berrian's hands are, I don't recall seeing too many highlights (or lowlights) of him making crucial drops on easy passes. In his three years with the Vikings, Williamson made 79 catches, only 8 more than Berrian had in 2007 alone.

There's little question that Berrian is good; the debate centers around on whether he's that good. Is he worth $7 million/year? On the bright side, this is the NFL, so there's always wiggle room on that front. Only $16 million of the deal is guaranteed, so, if Berrian flops, the team won't be on the hook for too much money. Plus, the team had the cap room, so why not use it?

Finally, it could be argued that no team needed a big-time wide receiver than the Vikings. Berrian won't transform the team into the next coming of the Greatest Show on Turf but if teams have to respect his speed and deep-play threat, that should open up more holes for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor and teams won't be able to crowd the box to stuff either player. It's still questionable as to whether Tarvaris Jackson will be able to get the ball to Berrian with any consistency, but it sure beats throwing deep to Williamson and Robert Ferguson.

In the end, the Vikings probably did overpay for Berrian's services. Even if he plays out his entire contract, he's unlikely to put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers for much of that stretch. But by addressing the team's #1 off-season weakness while not significantly impacting the team's ability to pursue other free agents (and sign draft picks), Zygi Wilf and the rest of Vikings management has to be applauded for at least taking what appear to be the right steps.

* In less splashy news, the Vikings also signed former Golden Gopher fullback Thomas Tapeh, late of the Philadelphia Eagles, to a five-year, $6 million deal on Friday. Tapeh will probably take over lead-blocking chores from Tony Richardson, who is an unrestricted free agent. Tapeh, who used to open holes for Marion Barber in college and for Brian Westbrook in the pros, is also eight years younger than Richardson and, while not the same caliber of receiver, might actually be a better runner and blocker, at least at this stage of their respective careers.

I like this move. It giving the team a hometown talent (sort of -- Tapeh was born in Liberia) for the fans to cheer and pairs Adrian Peterson up with a man who can (hopefully) serve as his "bodyguard" for years to come, like Lorenzo Neal and LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers. While consistency on the offensive line is important, I think that the camaraderie of a fullback and tailback is often overlooked in the NFL. For the tailback, it helps to know what the man in front of you is capable of and how he'll block for you, and for the fullback, it helps to work with the same kind of back, day in and day out, so you'll know when he likes to cut it in, when he likes to bounce it outside, and so on. The Vikings needed to find a replacement for the aging Richardson and in doing so, found a very good blockade-runner for their most valuable player, at a reasonable price.

* And in case you missed it, Randy Moss is entertaining offers from anyone -- and wants to reunite with Daunte Culpepper. The Bears are minus their top two wide receivers (Berrian and Muhsin Muhammed) and don't have any long-term plans at quarterback. Do ya think? Nahhhh...

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