Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
It’s no secret that the Vikings need help in their linebacking corps. Yes, the team brought Erin Henderson back Tuesday, signing him to a two-year deal. But there’s still a void up the middle of the defense. And last year’s starter, Jasper Brinkley, spent Wednesday in New York with the Giants and was then off to visit with Arizona, according to USA Today’s Mike Garafolo.
So where might the Vikings be turning next to solidify the middle of their defense? A report this evening from Mike Mulligan in the Chicago Tribune says the Vikings could be at least window shopping as Urlacher looks to find a team with which to play his 14th season.
Urlacher is looking for a deal in the range of the $5.5 million Ray Lewis earned in his last season with the Ravens, a source said. It's unlikely the Bears would pay that type of money and not responding to the offer may be a less-than-subtle way of avoiding an embarrassing negotiation.
Urlacher can't be thrilled but Emery does not believe Urlacher feels slighted by "the process," something the GM vowed to avoid when he last talked about the subject last month.
Is Urlacher interested in wearing purple or is he just trying to create a market?
Urlacher has been a fixture in Chicago since the Bears drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 2000. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowler and a future Hall of Famer. But he’s also about to turn 35, in the twilight of his career, missed four games last season with a hamstring injury and doesn’t exactly seem to fit the vision Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has for building his roster.
Spielman continues to talk about building through the draft while making a few practical, good-fit investments in free agency. Urlacher would seem like an odd piece to the puzzle under that plan, a mere quick fix for a team that would likely prefer to find a longer-term solution. Sure, he might have some game left and would need little time to get up to speed with the Vikings’ defensive system.
But a day after letting 35-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield go as a means of saving $7.25 million, it would seem odd to turn around and deliver a major contract to Urlacher.
Perhaps the Vikings are keeping themselves in the talks for Urlacher as a means of stretching Chicago GM Phil Emery’s financial plans a little thinner. Emery and the Bears, after all, showed significant interest in right tackle Phil Loadholt as free agency neared. And in a determined effort to keep Loadholt, the Vikings needed to deliver a four-year $25 million deal.
That's a small part of the game during free agency -- looking for ways to get better while also scheming for ways to put stress on division rivals.
It’s a cold-hearted business sometimes, this NFL.
And if we all didn’t have a true understanding of that concept already, Tuesday provided another eye-opening example.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield had gone to the Vikings’ facility, per his usual routine, to work out. He had no way of knowing that would be his last trip into the building. About an hour before free agency opened, as the Vikings sorted through some complex financial discussions, Winfield became just a number.
Two numbers really.
In decisive form, General Manager Rick Spielman made a business move, void of emotion. He summoned Winfield upstairs and told him he was cut. The awkwardness of that move and the confusion it created for one of the most beloved players in franchise history is detailed in our story from last night. We suggest you give that a read and soak it in.
But to understand the maneuver from a business standpoint, it must be noted that Spielman and the front office were active Tuesday in re-signing several of their own players. A half-dozen of them in all. Most notably: right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton. Loadholt reportedly inked a deal worth $25 million over four years. Felton was given a $7.5 million contract over three years.
The Vikings also rewarded linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Jamarca Sanford, receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive lineman Joe Berger by keeping them around.
Spielman’s vision for the future forces him to make such tough decisions. As this week goes on, and really as the Vikings’ plow ahead from now through the end of the draft in April, they will do so with a plan. And then a Plan B. And Plans C, D, E and F.
“This is a very fluid business,” Spielman noted Tuesday.
And so even the GM acknowledged the conflicting emotions of such a busy day.
“When you have to make tough business decisions, it makes it extremely hard. One minute you’re elated because you got Phil Loadholt done and the next minute you don’t feel as good because you had to do something with Winfield, which makes this job extremely, extremely difficult.”
What made Winfield’s release all the more confusing for the cornerback and his agent is the lack of discussions that preceded it. At no point, during the league’s 87-hour negotiating window from Saturday through Tuesday where teams and agents could be in contact, was there any hint that Winfield could soon be on the street. No one from the Vikings front office even proposed a pay cut or contract restructuring.
Winfield and his agent knew, in this league, that’s always a possibility. But they didn’t expect, after nine seasons of service, that in the snap of two fingers, a loyal locker room leader would have a trap door opened beneath him.
Sure, the Vikings had talked with Winfield’s agent, Ashanti Webb, at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis three weeks earlier. And yes, in passing, the Vikings had mentioned just generally that Winfield’s $7.25 million salary could catch their eye as free agency nears. But, according to Webb, the conversations in Indy were casual, informal. No specific proposals were drawn up. And none were offered Tuesday when Winfield was released.
Spielman was asked if he had offered Winfield a chance to stick around at a lower cost.
“I don’t want to get into the details of it,” he said. “It was just a very, extremely hard decision to make but hopefully we’ll be able to keep the door open for him.”
Four days before free agency began, I had approached an NFL source to ask whether the Vikings had been in contact about a contract restructuring. They hadn’t, the source told me. And even if they did, it wasn’t something Winfield was going to consider.
Said the source: “The way he played last year? Please. You need to look at the game film and not the birth certificate. The only way Antoine is taking a pay cut next season is if the NFL decides to suddenly up its AARP taxes.”
So who knows what would have happened had restructuring discussions come up between Spielman and Webb? The fact is, for three weeks leading up to free agency, that possibility was never brought up. It led to a very unceremonious end of a terrific Vikings career.
By late Tuesday afternoon, as you might imagine, calls inquiring about Winfield’s availability were pouring in. The message was made clear. Even if Winfield’s days as a Vikings were over, his career is not. He fully intends to play next season. And, if 2012 is any indication, he can still play at a high level.
Spielman repeatedly noted Tuesday that he would leave the door open for a possible reunion with Winfield in the weeks or months ahead. What would that take?
“We’ll just have to see,” Spielman said.
He shall see just how much other teams value Winfield’s service. He shall see if the manner in which Tuesday’s transaction went down will leave Winfield itching for a new home. By all accounts, amid the awkwardness and confusion, Winfield handled Tuesday’s business with his characteristic professionalism and positive energy. On the way out the door, the Vikings encouraged Winfield to keep in contact and to report back to them with any numbers that might be out there for him in free agency.
It now becomes one of the more interesting subplots around the NFL.
Antoine Winfield's 15th NFL season won't come in Minnesota.
The Vikings have released the sure-tackling cornerback and locker room leader as the 3 p.m. opening bell for free agency closes in, an NFL source has confirmed.
Winfield, who turns 36 on June 24, was the 23rd overall pick of the Bills in 1999. He played five seasons in Buffalo before joining the Vikings in 2004. He went on to become arguably the best unrestricted free agent acquisition in teams history over the next nine seasons.
Winfield was due to make $7.25 million in the final year of his current contract. Although his age didn't mesh with the team's youth movement, Winfield was expected to finish out his contract, serving as both a veteran presence and one of the team's best defensive players.
Winfield was not willing to take a pay cut this season, which could have been a factor in today's decision.
What the Vikings do with the extra cap room -- they're roughly $20 million under the cap -- remains to be seen. They've re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson, but are still in the market for a No. 1 receiver. The Vikings aren't expected to chase after UFA receiver Mike Wallace, who is expected to get $11 million a year or more. Then again, the Vikings weren't expected to release Winfield. So hang on. This ride could get even wilder before it ends.
In what is a very busy and fluid week in the NFL business world, we’ll do our best to not only keep you up to speed with all the latest Vikings transactions but to provide a summary of what it all means. Be sure to check back with this post regularly for updates.
VIKINGS’ 2013 FREE AGENCY CHECKLIST
What has happened so far …
THE LATEST MOVE: (Friday night) The Vikings have signed receiver Greg Jennings, a 29-year-old veteran who had tormented them for the previous seven seasons with the Packers. Jennings was given a five-year deal, which reportedly could be worth up to $47.5 million with $18 million guaranteed. What it means: For starters, it means quarterback Christian Ponder gets a proven receiver to be his top target, a big move for the franchise after it traded away Percy Harvin on Monday. Jennings' versatility should be a plus. He can serve as a legitimate outside threat and is also potent out of the slot. On top of that, the Vikings are already raving about the positive energy and professionalism they expect him to lend to what figures to otherwise be a very, very young receiving unit. With Jennings signed as the top gun and a very deep pool of talent awaiting at receiver in this year's draft, the Vikings may no longer need to pull the trigger on a pass catcher in the first round -- even with picks Nos. 23 and 25. Logic says a standout talent should still be available in Round 2 and perhaps the Vikings use those two first-round picks to find help at middle linebacker and cornerback. Jennings' signing and the cash it took to complete means the team's significant offseason spending is done. Any free agent additions from here on out are likely to be minimal.
What’s left to do
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