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.
Eleven days after releasing guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, the Vikings have made a move to add depth back into their offensive line. This afternoon the team agreed to a deal with free agent lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Schwartz, originally drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by Carolina, spent his rookie season on the Panthers' practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster in 2009 and eventually wound up starting all 16 games for Carolina in 2010. But Schwartz spent all of last season on injured reserve after undergoing hip surgery.
He visited with the Vikings on Monday at Winter Park and this evening expressed his jubilation over his new deal on Twitter. Wrote Schwartz: "Excited to be a Minnesota #Viking!!!"
Terms of Schwartz's new deal are not yet known. He does have an ability to play both tackle and guard, versatility the Vikings will no doubt try to take advantage of.
Despite cutting ties with Hutchinson and Herrera, two proven and respected veterans, the Vikings believe they have pieces in place to pick up the slack up front. Charlie Johnson, who started last season at left tackle, is a candidate to move inside to guard, especially if the Vikings use the No. 3 pick in next month's draft on Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil.
General manager Rick Spielman is also encouraged by what he's seen from Joe Berger and Brandon Fusco, both of whom could compete for starting roles on next year's line. But the Vikings may give the 25-year-old Schwartz the inside track to start at guard. He'd also be valuable as a reserve swing lineman, able to play multiple positions if called upon to do so.
After a shaky 2011, the Vikings believe their offensive line play will take a step up this fall, especially if Kalil winds up wearing purple. Center John Sullivan is the best returning lineman in the mix and incumbent right tackle Phil Loadholt was a second-round draft pick three years ago.
It is worth noting that of the four outside free agents the Vikings have signed so far this month, two of them -- Schwartz and tight end John Carlson -- missed all of the 2011 season with injuries.
In what comes as no surprise, the Vikings didn't give tenders to restricted free agents Lorenzo Booker and linebacker Kenny Onatolu. They're free to sign with any team.
That doesn't mean the Vikings won't eventually end up re-signing one or both of them. It just means that the team doesn't feel it needs to pay the financial security of a tender to two players that probably aren't going to have too many teams nibbling on their fishing line when free agency starts at 3 p.m.
Booker has some value as a secondary kick returner and a change-of-pace running back. But a role player like that can't fumble the ball the way Booker did in 2011 and expect to hang around long.
Onatolu is strictly a special teams player. A good one, but not one that can't be replaced. When Onatolu has played linebacker during the preseason and in limited regular-season opportunities, he's simply made too many mistakes and has been caught out of position too often.
In other news as the world collectively breathes into a paper bag to avoid passing out from excitement just three hours from the start of free agency ...
Three days before the opening of free agency in the NFL, the Vikings have finalized three moves to begin their roster overhaul, releasing guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera and cornerback Cedric Griffin.
Since being elevated to general manager in January, Rick Spielman has made it very clear that the beginning stages of the team’s rebuilding project will involve a move to make the roster younger. Cutting ties with Hutchinson, who’s 34 years old, and Herrera (31) will accelerate that process. It will also free the Vikings from a pair of hefty contracts that may have become anchors as the team prepares to browse the free agent market early next week.
Hutchinson, who has played 11 NFL seasons including the past six with the Vikings, was scheduled to make close to $7 million next season in the final year of his contract. Herrera was due to make close to $2.7 million in the final year of his deal.
Instead, both guards have been thanked for their services to the Vikings – that’s 14 years between them – and will now move on.
Despite losing two tough and tenacious offensive linemen, the Vikings figure to have plenty of reinforcement at the guard position. Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier are both high on the abilities of Joe Berger and Brandon Fusco. Charlie Johnson, who played left tackle in 2011, will also likely move inside to guard if the team opts to draft Southern Cal’s Matt Kalil with the No. 3 pick in next month’s draft.
Chris DeGeare is another player who could bolster depth at the position.
Griffin's release was not surprising either. He struggled mightily in coverage in 2011 and his confidence seemed to dip substantially throughout the second half of the season, leading up to his outright benching in Week 14 in Detroit. By season’s end, it seemed clear that Griffin’s days in the Twin Cities were numbered, the veteran cornerback looking for a change of scenery and an escape from a situation that seemed to grow quite toxic through last year’s struggles.
Equally significant, the Vikings’ ability to free themselves from Hutchinson’s, Herrera’s and Griffin's salaries put the team in position to potentially make a big splash in free agency, where they expect to be somewhere in the ballpark of $23-24 million under the salary cap when the new league year begins Tuesday.
In a statement released by the Vikings, Frazier said: "It was a tough decision as we move forward and prepare for the upcoming season and the future of our organization. All three individuals have meant a great deal to the Vikings organization both on and off field over the years. We wish all of them the best and thank them for their service to the Minnesota Vikings."
Rick Spielman? As Michael Corleone? Take a look and we’ll explain.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman spoke with reporters for more than a half-hour this afternoon at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, first meeting with writers from the Twin Cities, then later taking the podium at Lucas Oil Stadium for a brief press conference. Among the more noteworthy things we learned …
1) The color of money for the Vikings as they head toward free agency is blue. And purple. And red.
If you’re into technical football speak, then you’ll want to listen closely in the coming weeks as Spielman uses a color-coded system to label Vikings players and those the team may court through free agency.
It goes like this:
The Vikings’ quest going forward is developing a plan that synchronizes the front office’s personnel strategy with the specific needs the coaching staff expresses to make the offensive and defensive systems work. Say, for example, the Vikings determine they ideally want to operate with four blue players, five reds and two purples on their defense, next come the valuable discussions to determine what positions the blue players are most needed and which positions can get by with purple starters hidden.
At that point, it’s up to Spielman to alter his free agency and draft wish lists in accordance with the coaches’ wishes.
The big questions are being asked.
Said Spielman: “Where do you want to allocate your money on the blue positions on offense and defense? … I sat down with all the coaches and with Leslie [Frazier] and said, ‘Tell me where you want our blue money to be.’”
2) The Vikings have yet to cross any players off their draft board due to character concerns.
Spielman said it’s too early for that, too much research left to be done on guys with “issues.” Plus there are still 63 days left before the first round of the draft.
So for now, the Vikings have identified guys whose character needs to be investigated further and, in Spielman’s words, “put them in a box.”
“We know where some of the skeletons lie in the closet,” Spielman said. “And we just have to dig into that closet to see if those bones are worth having on the roster or not.”
By the time the draft rolls around, Spielman is certain there will be at least a few players with first-round talent that get the dreaded red dot next to their name, players “we just want absolutely nothing to do with, I don’t care how talented they are.”
But making that determination too early isn’t wise.
Spielman rewinds to 2009 when there were character questions about Percy Harvin as the draft neared. Some critics expressed sincere concerns as to whether Harvin could keep his ego and temper in check. Even more troubling, Harvin failed a drug test at the ’09 combine. But in the end, the Vikings liked Harvin enough to pounce when he dropped down the draft board to No. 22.
“We felt comfortable with him after we did all the due diligence that he’s going to be a good player,” Spielman said. “We felt comfortable with his character.”
3) Spielman is hiding his cards well in regards to what his plans may be with the potential restructuring of several veterans’ contracts.
Guard Steve Hutchinson is the most likely candidate to have his contract restructured. Hutchinson, 34 years old and with 11 NFL seasons on his odometer, is due to make close to $7 million in 2012. Which, for a team that is in full-fledge rebuilding mode, is an exorbitant price tag that will weigh the Vikings down as they build for the future.
So now it’s up to Spielman to get up with Hutchinson and his agent to discuss the options. Bringing Hutchinson back at a deep discount may be possible. Then again, Spielman’s long-term vision may lead him to simply thank Hutchinson for his time and effort before a friendly pat on the back sends the veteran offensive lineman on his way.
Said Spielman: “[With some guys] we might not be interested in restructuring. We may just be ready to move on”
Spielman said he hopes to have concrete plans for every player on the Vikings’ roster by the end of next week. But formal moves will likely not be made until right before free agency opens on March 13.
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