A shopping spree for the Purple

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG and KEVIN SEIFERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2006 - 9:56 PM

Normally one of the league's more conservative bidders, the Vikings signed three of their top prospects on Day 1 of free agency.

Free agency finally began and teams moved furiously to address their most pressing needs. The Vikings, with a league-high $31 million war chest and a more aggressive spending directive from new owner Zygi Wilf, were uncharacteristically smack-dab in the middle of it on Day 1.

They immediately filled three holes, signing Chargers outside linebacker Ben Leber, Ravens running back Chester Taylor and decisively outbidding the Packers and Buccaneers for Green Bay kicker Ryan Longwell, a nine-year division nemesis who beat the Vikings with last-second field goals twice in 2004. And late Saturday night they were attempting to fill a fourth. Seattle Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson arrived in the Twin Cities for a visit, and negotiations could begin today on an offer sheet.

Longwell's five-year, $10 million deal reportedly was clinched when the Vikings sweetened their signing bonus from $2 million to $3 million, causing the Bucs to fold. It wouldn't be the last time the Vikings would flex their financial muscle on Saturday.

"We wanted to be proactive [Saturday]," said Fran Foley, Vikings vice president of player personnel. "We wanted to get ahead of some people on some folks before this free agency thing caught up with some people and they started discovering new monies."

Taylor signed a four-year, $14.1 million deal, $5.6 million of it guaranteed. Leber's deal was for five years and about $20 million, with a $4 million signing bonus.

While visiting with all three players Saturday, the Vikings also placed safety and guard high on their list of future visits. Buccaneers safety Dexter Jackson, a former Super Bowl MVP, will visit on Monday after spending today in Cincinnati. Ravens safety Will Demps also might visit the Vikings, possibly on Monday.

And the biggest splash to come could be at guard because it appears Seattle's transition tag on Hutchinson hasn't discouraged the Vikings. The Seahawks hold the right to match any offers.

Longwell is an 81.6 percent career field-goal kicker, including 74.1 percent (20 of 27) last year. He also holds several Packers team records, including career scoring (1,054) and field goals made (226).

"I don't expect to be welcomed back [when the Vikings visit Lambeau Field], but I'm very proud of what I accomplished in Green Bay," Longwell said. "I know this Vikings-Packers rivalry is about as heated as it gets. I'm happy to be wearing purple and be on this side of the battle for the next bunch of years."

Leber, a 6-3, 244-pound outside linebacker, was limited to nine games in 2005 because of a foot injury that required surgery three months ago.

"It's pretty much behind me," he said of the injury. "I'm not quite 100 percent, but definitely right up there."

When healthy, Leber is considered a good fit for the coverage and pass rushing skills required for the Vikings' Cover-2 defense.

"I had the opportunity to play in this style of defense for two years in San Diego," Leber said. "So I'm familiar with this scheme."

Taylor isn't an established feature back, but he's only 26 and has fresh legs, never having carried the ball more than 160 times in an NFL season. As Jamal Lewis' primary backup, Taylor never has rushed for more than 714 yards in a season, but he has a career average of 4.3 yards per carry.

"The last [free agent] to come out of Baltimore as a backup [running back] was Priest Holmes," Foley said. "I'm not saying he's Priest Holmes, but I'm sure he had some of [proving himself] in the back of his mind. That was a selling point for us."

The feeling was mutual, Taylor said.

"I played backup to Jamal Lewis for four years," he said. "Just standing on the sideline was killing me a little bit."

Saturday also was a day of departures for former Vikings. Strong safety Corey Chavous and cornerback Brian Williams, both former starters, signed with the Rams and Jaguars, respectively. Chavous signed a five-year deal with the St. Louis Rams that includes about $6 million in base salary and bonus for this season. Williams, with his transition tag rescinded, signed a six-year, $32 million deal that included a $10 million signing bonus.

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