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.
The Vikings have agreed to terms on a one-year contract with reserve linebacker Marvin Mitchell, opening the door for the 28-year-old linebacker to return to the team for a second season. Mitchell originally signed with the Vikings as a free agent last spring after spending the 2011 season with the Dolphins and 2007-10 in New Orleans.
In 2012, Mitchell was used primarily on special teams but was thrust into a starting role in Weeks 3 and 4 with Erin Henderson sidelined by a concussion. He will continue to provide the Vikings with quality depth at the position.
According to team statistics, Mitchell was credited with four tackles on defense last season and five tackles plus a forced fumble on special teams.
The Vikings now have six linebackers on their roster with Pro Bowler Chad Greenway and Henderson as returning starters. Behind them are Mitchell, Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie and Larry Dean.
The team still is searching for a starting middle linebacker after Jasper Brinkley landed in Arizona two weeks ago via free agency.
It seems likely that with three of the top 52 picks in next month’s draft, General Manager Rick Spielman will select a middle linebacker in the top two rounds. The team has also not closed the door on the possibility of Cole, a seventh-round pick last year, working his way into consideration for a starting spot.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is the seventh unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Vikings this month. The others were right tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton, linebacker Erin Henderson, receiver Jerome Simpson, safety Jamarca Sanford and offensive lineman Joe Berger.
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?”
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.
Phil Loadholt never wanted to be anywhere other than Minnesota. As a Viking. Sure it took the organization that drafted Loadholt in the second round in 2009 until the 11th hour Tuesday to prevent the mammoth right tackle from hitting free agency.
But in the end, Loadholt got everything he wanted. He got a lucrative deal – four years, $25 million.
He got the opportunity to stay put – anchoring the right side of an offensive line that will now return all five starters from a year ago.
He got his peace of mind back.
“I had let it be known publicly and privately that I wanted to be a Viking,” Loadholt said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m pretty sure that everybody knew that that was my priority coming into this situation. It took a little longer than I expected. But the business part of football is shaky. You never know what to expect. But ultimately everything ended up just right.”
No, technically Loadholt was never a free agent. The Vikings secured their new deal to re-sign him after 2 p.m. Tuesday, in the final hour before the NFL’s new league year began and free agency opened. But with the previous three-and-a-half days giving Loadholt’s agent an opportunity to measure other teams’ interest and determine a true market value, Loadholt held great leverage throughout a process that was still, in his words, stressful.
The Chicago Bears had expressed serious interest, aiming to overhaul an offensive line that has come unhinged over the past few years. And what their outside interest did was force the Vikings’ hand, causing them to reach deeper into the vault to get Loadholt the money he commanded.
He will be due to make $2.9 million in base salary in 2013 and could earn as much as $4.75 million.
Just as gratifying, Loadholt said, was the opportunity to remain a Viking, to continue plowing holes for league-MVP Adrian Peterson, to remain a part of a starting quintet up front that has seen its chemistry grow.
Loadholt said he never feared a possible departure. But he also never exhaled to feel like he would remain here for certain.
“Like I said, the business part of football is very shaky,” he said. “So it was definitely a tough time for myself and my family. You never know what can happen. So there was definitely times I was a little nervous.”
After signing Loadholt on Tuesday, General Manager Rick Spielman reiterated once again that the organization had accomplished one of the offseason’s top priorities. Spielman echoed head coach Leslie Frazier’s sentiments that Loadholt is still an ascending talent. Spielman lauded his physicality as a run blocker and his leadership skills and his continued growth under line coach Jeff Davidson.
In the end, Loadholt got what he wanted most: to stay put.
“I was thinking about coming in in ’09, being drafted here. Just the season we had last year. Adrian running for as many yards as he did last year, getting close to that (single-season) record. The continuity that I have with the guys here on the offensive line. I love playing for Coach Davidson, Coach Frazier. My family loves Minnesota. I could just keep going down the line. It was a great situation for me. I’m glad I’m back.”
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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