Jennings wanted a fresh start

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2013 - 11:27 PM

The signing of the wide receiver capped a huge week for the team.

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Greg Jennings breaks away for a 24-yard touchdown reception during the first half of game against the Vikings. Jennings signed with Minnesota on Friday.

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By the time Greg Jennings left his home in Michigan on Thursday, destined for a career-changing job interview in the Twin Cities, he knew exactly what he was seeking.

Jennings wanted a fresh start.

He has no problems admitting that, even after the seven productive seasons he enjoyed in Green Bay, putting himself on the map as a premier NFL receiver.

But Jennings also wanted to know a marriage with the Vikings would feel right.

He wanted to get a sense for whether his talents could be utilized properly. He wanted to believe that he could develop rapport with quarterback Christian Ponder.

As much as anything, Jennings wanted to feel wanted.

So when he arrived in town Thursday?

“I got that feeling early,” he said. “And I got that feeling quite often.”

How could Jennings not feel wanted by a Vikings organization that had started the week by express-mailing Percy Harvin to Seattle in the week’s biggest trade?

How could he not feel loved by a team that had the 31st-ranked passing attack in 2012 and set out this offseason to fix that?

It was no major surprise, then, that a truly chaotic week ended Friday night at Winter Park with Jennings feeling surprisingly comfortable in the team colors he had recently told Packers teammate James Jones he never could envision himself wearing.

Yet there he was — big smile, reliable hands, positive energy and all.

Jennings was now a Viking.

“Hey,” he said. “Minnesota stepped up to the plate.”

Just here to help

Jennings had so many reasons for his grin. There was, of course, the five-year contract, reportedly worth as much as $47.5 million.

But there were 508 additional reasons for excitement — as in the 508 yards NFL MVP Adrian Peterson gashed Green Bay for in three games last season.

Jennings not only took note of that production, he was constantly aware of how defenses attacked the Vikings, frequently loading eight and nine defenders into the box and leaving ample opportunity for receivers to take advantage over the top.

Peterson’s presence certainly didn’t hurt the Vikings during a 24-hour hard sell to Jennings that both sides wanted to end the same way.

“Standing on the other sideline, you’re in awe of what this guy can do,” Jennings said. “And everyone knows he’s going to get the ball. So just to be able to take some of that pressure off him and off of this offense, I hope to be able to do that.”

Jennings’ signing certainly took significant pressure off Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who had a master plan for this offseason all along, even if impatient fans couldn’t understand or tolerate his methodical approach during a hyperactive week in which so many other teams struck it big early in free agency.

The Vikings needed so much help at receiver. Everyone knew it. And yet Mike Wallace quickly signed in Miami. Wes Welker went to Denver. Danny Amendola became a Patriot, Donnie Avery a Chief and Brandon Gibson a Dolphin.

Through 72 hours of free agency, the Vikings’ only receiving move was the re-signing of Jerome Simpson.

One out, one in

Spielman never had planned to rush into things. He had reached out to Jennings’ agent during a new NFL contact period last weekend, asking to be kept in the loop on the receiver’s plans.

The Vikings’ push intensified after the Harvin trade. So by the time Spielman finally reeled Jennings in for a late-week visit — dinner at Manny’s on Thursday, a long day of discussions Friday — the GM knew he could ill afford to let Jennings flounder out of the boat.

Still, there was another factor to measure.

“We can want a player here,” Spielman said. “But we want to make sure the player wants to be here as well.”

Whether that was meant as a veiled jab at Harvin and his unfortunate departure is unknown. But Spielman and Frazier have spent the past 14 months unifying a vision to build around a certain brand of player.

Yes, Harvin’s passion and toughness were universally admired. But his occasional volcanic eruptions of immaturity — too many to count over four seasons — led to a severely fractured relationship that convinced the star receiver and the franchise that ultimately they’d be better off apart.

Even with Spielman’s public declarations that he had “no intent to trade Percy Harvin,” speculation percolated for weeks. Those searching for signs Harvin’s time as a Viking had ended found clues in the promotional poster the Vikings put out recently for season tickets.

The ad featured five of the team’s biggest standouts. But no Harvin. That had to be a tell, right?

Yet even presence on that poster wasn’t a guarantee of job security. Cornerback Antoine Winfield, a 14-year veteran who had infused his toughness, savvy and charisma into the franchise for nine seasons, got the nod for the season-ticket campaign then received an unceremonious dismissal from Spielman in the final hour before free agency began last week.

With the money Spielman needed for his 2013 roster-building plan, Winfield’s $7.25 million salary felt like too much to invest in a 35-year-old cornerback who seemed bound for a reduced role.

But even if there was business savvy behind the move, by Tuesday night the Vikings had overshadowed the re- signing of six in-house free agents with moves to get rid of their best receiver and the defense’s emotional leader.

The Harvin trade sent league MVP Adrian Peterson to Twitter noting, “I feel like I just got kicked in the stomach. Several times!!!”

Defensive end Brian Robison was vacationing in Cancun when he learned of Winfield’s release, again reminded of the transaction tornado that blasts through the league every March.

“Life in the NFL, man, it’s a scary, scary deal,” Robison said. “Even on vacation, I’m wanting to sit back and have fun. But you start seeing guys getting traded and released and you have that fear that you’re going to be the next guy. That stress can be enormous if you think about it too long.”

Big picture

Still, a view of the big picture is required.

The Harvin trade landed the Vikings first- and seventh-round picks for April’s draft plus a third-rounder next year.

Spielman insists he couldn’t pass up that package, a haul that will allow the Vikings to draft players at Nos. 23 and 25 next month.

A year ago, Spielman maneuvered his way into a pair of first-round picks and wound up snaring difference-making starters on both offense (left tackle Matt Kalil) and defense (safety Harrison Smith).

So you can imagine the eagerness to score another exacta payday on April 25.

New players will arrive. Old teammates may disappear.

Anything’s possible.

Like a longtime Packers standout again migrating west to become a Viking.

To feel fully comfortable with that move, Jennings made sure to review film. He threw the Vikings’ tape on, he said, not so much to analyze intricacies in coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense but rather to zero in exclusively on Ponder.

“I had to see what I was getting myself into,” Jennings admitted.

He had, after all, spent his first seven seasons catching passes from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.

In Ponder, Jennings said, he saw an athletic young quarterback with great potential — if only he had more help.

In the Vikings, Jennings sees a team on the rise.

“You want to go to a team that’s still a contender, that has an opportunity to win but the window isn’t closing. The window is opening up. And I saw that with this ballclub last year. They kind of snuck up on everybody.”

Dan Wiederer • 612-673-7900

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