Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The ball is back in Antoine Winfield’s court now. The Vikings have made it clear to the veteran cornerback that they’d love to have him back for 2013, even after releasing him in the hour before free agency began last week.
But now Winfield has to decide whether that reunion is something he is truly up for and will be worth it with whatever the Vikings feel they can afford to lure him back.
On the one hand, you’d think the tough-minded cornerback might be magnetized back to the franchise where he has shown his talents since 2004. The prospect of starting over, in a new city with a new team within a new defense, has to be somewhat daunting for a guy in the stretch run of his career.
But on the flip side, interest from other teams has been brewing. And given Winfield’s incredible productivity last season, he’s probably worth more than the Vikings can afford to pay him next season.
Consider this a battle between familiarity and true value.
And in his most recent conversation with Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, Winfield expressed at least some appreciation that the door to Winter Park has not been slammed shut – even if the Vikings’ vision would be to use him exclusively as a nickel corner going forward.
“He made me believe that there was a possibility that things could be worked out here, that he would be back in Minnesota,” Frazier said on the final day of the NFL’s annual meetings Wednesday. “I do know there are other teams calling and seeing what his interest is in continuing to play. And he does want to continue to play. But he gave me the impression that he’d like to be able to be back here in Minnesota. Now it’s just a matter of can we work things out financially to his liking as well as our team’s liking.”
By all accounts, Winfield handled his surprise release last week with professionalism. Sure, Winfield was blindsided by the timing. And initially, he was stunned by how abrupt his nine seasons as a Vikings came to an end. But having been in the league since 1999, Winfield understood no player is ever safe from getting axed.
At times, roster reshuffling and contractual analysis turn an incredibly emotional sport into a cold business process. And with the Vikings needing extra piles of cash to push through the first week of free agency, Winfield’s $7.25 million salary was seen as a major obstacle to the organization, which later needed the salary cap space to deliver hefty contracts to receiver Greg Jennings, right tackle Phil Loadholt, quarterback Matt Cassel and fullback Jerome Felton.
But inevitably, there are also complications to that approach. Winfield, after all, is more than just a salary figure. He is a leader around whom the Vikings’ young secondary rallied last year. He set an example on how to prepare. He used 14 years of NFL experience to teach his younger teammates. He was consistently a blast of positive energy throughout a season in which the Vikings surged to 10 wins against all odds.
“He was the glue,” Frazier said. “The way that he was in our meeting rooms, at practice, his participation in the offseason program. He was one of those guys who had not been around a lot in the offseason. And he was at everything a year ago. So his influence, you can’t put a dollar figure on that. It made a big difference on our season and in the development of a lot of players as well.”
Yet now, the Vikings will have to put a dollar figure on all that if they’re to realize any hopes of keeping Winfield in Minnesota.
“That’s the business part of our business,” Frazier said. “He understands it. … Now it’s just a matter of can the numbers work?”
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
The question with Greg Jennings has never been about ability. Over seven NFL seasons, Jennings has caught 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 TDs. He’s a versatile weapon who is adept at both stretching the field from the outside or keeping defenses honest as a smooth-moving slot guy.
He is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the kind of proven and consistent playmaker that the Vikings’ receiving corps needs. Yet when free agency neared, the questions about Jennings circled.
At this point -- with Jerome Simpson and his 97 career catches as the top dog in the receiving unit – the Vikings are in no position to be picky. And that’s why, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that Jennings will visit Winter Park on Thursday, the Vikings would be wise not to let him leave without a purple jersey and a rubber-stamped contract.
This visit should be a business interview, a way of unifying a vision and hammering out the finer print of the contract details. The Vikings have had since late Friday night to communicate at length with Jennings’ agent, Eugene Parker. You can bet Parker has an asking price, one that’s moved over the past several days. And you can bet Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has a thought in mind for what he’d like to ultimately pay.
But as Spielman said Tuesday afternoon about the chaos and unpredictability of free agency, “This is a very fluid business.”
Indeed it is.
At this point, so many other free agent receivers are off the board. Mike Wallace is in Miami. Wes Welker has gone to Denver. Danny Amendola has landed in New England. Donnie Avery is a Chief. Brandon Gibson, reports say, has visits scheduled with the Jets, Dolphins and Titans.
The Vikings? They’ve always vowed to be patient in free agency, to make sure they find guys who fit their system, their character profile and their budget. But to this point, the Vikings have given out six contracts this week, all of them re-signings of players that were already on the roster.
The biggest move by far so far was Monday’s trade or Percy Harvin to Seattle, followed a day later by the surprise release of Antoine Winfield.
The Vikings have lost their top playmaker in the passing game and their linchpin leader on defense. In a pass-happy league, they’ve depleted their receiving corps and their secondary.
At some point, they need a splash to replenish the talent pool in a major way. And there’s no way they should allow themselves – nor had they ever planned to – to get to April’s draft with Simpson as their top receiver.
That’s why today’s reported visit with Jennings shouldn’t be a getting-to-know-you encounter. It should be a determined effort to provide third-year quarterback Christian Ponder a real weapon. Welker’s two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos was a huge power-shift move in the AFC, taking the league’s most prolific pass catcher over the past six years and moving him from one Super Bowl contender to another. But Welker’s contract may have also been a shifting of power in Jennings’ negotiating leverage. Sure, there have been the mammoth deals for receivers – six years, $67 million for Harvin; five years $65 million for Wallace; five years, $56 million for Dwayne Bowe.
But now, wouldn’t it make sense that Jennings’ price tag slides closer to that Welker ballpark. If so, the Vikings should be quietly celebrating. And they should be doing everything they can to make sure that Jennings is their guy.
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.
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