MANKATO – As Phil Loadholt trudged off the field Tuesday, a 2 ½-hour practice in the books, he stopped to take photos with fans, knelt to sign footballs for small children and was quick to express his gratitude about getting to wear a Vikings uniform for at least four more years.
Many of Loadholt’s teammates echoed their satisfaction about the 6-8 right tackle’s contract extension, but perhaps none louder than star running back Adrian Peterson.
Loadholt spent four seasons as a starter after the Vikings picked him in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, but as his rookie deal was set to expire and free agency loomed last March, the Vikings had a decision to make.
Peterson — who rushed for 2,097 yards and earned NFL MVP honors last season with the help of Loadholt’s run-blocking prowess — wasn’t shy about offering his two cents about “Big Phil’s” value to the team.
“[Because of] his body of work, no one really had to lobby for him. I had my input, and what I thought about bringing him back,” Peterson said. “And at the end of the day, things worked out.”
On March 12, less than an hour before he officially would become a free agent, Loadholt signed a four-year, $25 million extension. The deal was a relief, Loadholt said, but before the calm came a period of uncertainty.
Loadholt had found a home in Minnesota, a place where the 27-year-old’s wife and two young sons enjoyed living. He made it clear he wanted to stay with the organization that drafted him.
“At that time I felt like I had done everything I could do, and the film would speak for itself,” Loadholt said. “In the NFL that’s part of it, sometimes you have to move a little bit. So I was prepared for anything.”
From the beginning, the Vikings put their right tackle to work. He has started all 63 games in which he has played, and for the past three seasons, the offensive line has helped the Vikings rank in the top 10 in the NFL in regular-season rushing yards.
Loadholt is penalty prone, and he has led the Vikings in penalties in three of his four seasons in Minnesota. Last season, he had a team-leading 11, three of which were false starts that came in the same game against division rival Chicago.
Despite Loadholt’s signs of inconsistency, there were rumblings that the Bears had interest in him. To keep him — and leave the 2012 starting offensive line intact — the Vikings shelled out a lot of money. And they did it on the same day they released veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was due $7.25 million in 2013. Loadholt’s deal makes him one of the highest-paid right tackles in the NFL.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is confident, though, that the Vikings are getting a lot of bang for their buck. Musgrave was quick to point out Loadholt’s toughness and dependability, qualities that Musgrave said serve him well against the talented pass rushers in the NFC North.
“He finishes to the whistle,” Musgrave said. “He’s usually there cleaning off the pile, keeping additional hitters off the ball carrier.”
It’s that protective instinct from all his blockers that Peterson appreciates. With all five starters from last year’s unit returning, Peterson said he’s excited about “keeping the ball rolling” up front.
And now that he knows he’s here to stay, Loadholt says he can focus on what he’s paid to do — clear holes, and help his team win. After all, Peterson had his back. Now, he’s looking forward to returning the favor again.
“Whatever he wants to set his mind on,” Loadholt said, “we’re going to do whatever we can to help him.”