Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


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.


Odds and ends: Cole's opportunity, Williams' contract, Winfield's exit

Posted by: Updated: April 16, 2013 - 2:45 PM
Since the Vikings season ended with a playoff loss in Green Bay in January, linebacker Audie Cole has made sure to mix in some fun and leisure into his offseason activities.
Cole has spent time in Raleigh, N.C., working out at his alma mater, N.C. State. He has snuck away for the requisite winter ice fishing excursion in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. And yes, Cole even accompanied his college roommate down to Mexico on a dove hunting trip.
“It was unreal,” he said. “I think we wound up shooting 5,000 doves in 4.5 days between 10 guys. You never stopped shooting. Your shoulders hurt and you get to a point where you don’t even want to pull the trigger anymore.”
So what’s next for the second-year linebacker as he prepares to head back to the Twin Cities for the start of the Vikings’ offseason conditioning program next week? Well, if you haven’t noticed, the Vikings have an opening for a starting middle linebacker. And while common logic says the organization will use one of its two first-round picks in next week’s draft to find a playmaker who can start from Day One in the middle of the defense, Cole has his eyes on making a push for that position.
Sure, he was only a seventh-round pick in 2012. And maybe he won’t ever have the elite quickness and change of direction burst to become a force in the NFL. But where there’s an opening, there’s a possibility. And Cole is not taking that for granted as he attacks his offseason work.
“When I left in January, the coaches made it pretty clear there was no one who really owned that [middle linebacker] spot. And they told me I’d have to bring it during the offseason and into camp to earn it,” Cole said. “That’s what I’m now fighting to do. I understand our roster situation right now. And I’m also aware that nothing is going to be handed to me. … I feel like there’s an open playing field and it’s my chance to prove myself.”
Cole’s relationship with the Vikings coaching staff first grew when they worked together at the 2012 Senior Bowl. He said he has thoroughly enjoyed working with co-linebackers coaches Fred Pagac and Mike Singletary plus defensive coordinator Alan Williams. And while, yes, Singletary has a passion about him that can make him a meticulous micromanager when it comes to demanding perfection on every rep of certain practice drills, Cole said he has not only gotten used to that coaching style but has appreciated the motivation.
“Once you realize he’s only getting on you because he’s found a way to help, it’s all good,” Cole said. “He gets you going, gets you learning. He’ll be all over you. But you get used to it. He doesn’t like to let guys get away with a bad rep.
“I’ve learned a lot from Coach Singletary and Coach Pug.”
Cole began his college career at outside linebacker but then transitioned to the middle linebacker slot in his final season at N.C. State, anchoring the Wolfpack defense with his instincts and strength. He’s hoping his growth will continue and provide an opening for a launch up the depth chart this spring and summer. He realizes he’s not the fastest linebacker in the league. But head coach Leslie Frazier has also said Cole has deceptive speed with his long strides.
Cole also said that he may have arrived at rookie camp last season about 10 or 15 pounds too heavy and wasn’t moving the way he’d like. He’s since cut the weight, is down near 240 and feels more agile.
Cole said he won’t over-think or overcomplicate his push to win a starting spot.
“In the big picture, it’s simple,” he said. “You have to make tackles that are there to make, limit mistakes and be solid in coverage. When you describe it, it’s that easy. Obviously, it’ll be tougher come game time. But that’s all you’ve got to do. That’s the role. Find the ball. Make tackles. The game is that simple.”
Williams agrees to restructured deal
The Vikings have restructured the contract of 32-year-old defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a move first reported by 1500ESPN.com and confirmed by an NFL source. Williams had been due to make $7 million in base salary with a $500,000 bonus in each of the next two seasons. Under the new deal, he’ll receive a $4.9 million base salary plus a $100,000 workout bonus for this season only. The Vikings and Williams scratched 2014 out of the restructured contract, meaning the veteran defensive tackle will become an unrestricted free agent next March.
This will be Williams’ 11th season with the Vikings. And it could now be his last.
Where’s Winfield?
Former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, now a Seahawk, was supposed to hold a conference call with reporters Tuesday to address his departure from the Twin Cities and the decision that has him now headed for Seattle in a push to win a Super Bowl. That call never happened. And the public relations firm that was reportedly in charge of overseeing it (EAG Sports Management) has yet to deliver definitive word on whether Winfield will ever hold the call to field questions on all that’s unfolded for him in the past month.
Winfield signed with the Seahawks last Friday, ending a month-long exploration through free agency that also included a visit with the Redskins and repeated efforts by the Vikings to bring him back to Winter Park. Seattle delivered a one-year, $3 million deal. But if money were the biggest factor, Winfield likely would have stayed put with the Vikings, who offered a two-year contract worth $6 million – with $3 million guaranteed.
Still, in the end, it was clear Winfield was still stinging somewhat from the way things went down with the Vikings. He was informed of his release on March 12 in the hour before free agency opened, a surprise revelation that he never saw coming. The timing was most disappointing, as it followed a three-and-a-half day period in which the agents of unrestricted free agents were allowed to talk to other teams.
Winfield’s agent, Ashanti Webb, of course never had the opportunity to shop around for his client, who was still under contract with the Vikings. And the duo was left playing catch-up in the free agency game.
Webb said shortly after Winfield’s release that he was most mystified that the Vikings had not formally offered to restructure the contract that was set to pay Winfield $7.25 million in 2013. There’s no telling what would have unfolded had that discussion been had. But with the way things were handled, Webb and Winfield were not thrilled.
One conspiracy theory suggests the Vikings schemed to hide their intention of releasing Winfield until the last minute with the hope he would then hit the open market after other teams had already been too far along in their free agency planning to circle back and revise their plans with the standout cornerback in mind. Had that been the case, the Vikings might have had a better shot at re-signing Winfield.
And yet the other underappreciated angle in the Winfield saga is that the $7.25 million figure he was set to earn for 2013 was only made possible by an escalator clause in his contract that pushed his salary up that high based on him playing more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012. Had Winfield not reached that play-time mark, he would have been due to make only $3 million in 2013. Which, needless to say, the Vikings wouldn’t have balked at. And so, yes, the veteran DB felt like he had earned the bump in salary even if that number then became problematic for the Vikings’ accounting team.
In the end, the Vikings made a practical business decision to cut Winfield, removing emotion from the equation. But in disregarding human emotion in the situation, the organization may have also miscalculated the difficulty they would have in convincing Winfield to return for his 10th season here.
He will move on now. To Seattle.

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