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?”
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8.
A somewhat controversial proposal became a new addition to the NFL rulebook on Wednesday, triggering much reaction and leaving Vikings coach Leslie Frazier feeling somewhat conflicted.
The new rule, one of six passed at the league’s annual meetings this week, now calls for a 15-yard penalty to be assessed on any runner or tackler who “initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet.”
The measure was proposed as a means of reducing head, neck and spine injuries. And that aim to improve safety wound up being the major factor in producing a 31-1 vote in favor of the rule.
Following three days of heated debate, the Cincinnati Bengals were the lone dissenters. Yet the Vikings’ final vote in favor of the proposal seemed in stark contrast with the views team representatives had expressed during the meetings.
Frazier was vocal with concerns about the way the new rule may be legislated, left as a judgment call by each respective officiating crew. He also feared the rule’s implementation could be detrimental to physical tailbacks such as Vikings star Adrian Peterson, potentially exposing him to greater risk and changing the way he plays.
“The little guys aren’t going to be tackling the Adrian Petersons of the world up high, I can promise you that,” Frazier said Wednesday morning before the final vote. “They’re going to always try to get leverage and get their pads lower than his pads. That’s what they’re taught. But now, from my vantage point, these running backs who have to get their pads down, if they’re not able to [lower their heads] and protect themselves, you may open yourself up to potential lower-body injuries.”
Still, despite those objections and the reported vocal skepticism shown Tuesday by owner Zygi Wilf, the Vikings wound up persuaded by the league’s intense push to enhance player safety, swayed by presentations on how the new rule should reduce concussions plus other neck injuries.
Under the NFL’s current climate, opposing measures to improve safety is a difficult decision.
Said Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee: “Where [in the past] we’ve really focused on the big hits, the open field hits and hits where a player truly can’t defend himself, I think in this step what we’re undertaking is trying to protect the players from themselves.”
It should be noted that the new rule will only be enforced outside the tackle box and more than 3 yards down field. And the competition committee is encouraging officials to only penalize the obvious foul.
Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, noted again Wednesday that in the study of 30 games from last season (every contest from Weeks 10 and 16), only 11 plays were found that would be penalties under the new rule.
Of those 11 instances, Blandino said, only about half were violations by running backs.
In theory, runners ducking into hits with the hairline or sides of their helmet will not be punished. But with the speed of the game and the judgment of each officiating crew differing from week to week, things could get dicey.
An hour before the Vikings cast their vote on the rule, Frazier remained adamantly opposed.
“You have to look at what this could potentially do to a running back and how he plays the game,” he said. “That’s a bigger issue. Is it going to make the game safer without altering what these guys do for a living with how they play and how they perform? … I just know being around great running backs, whether that be Walter [Payton] or Adrian, they are so instinctual with what they do. They’re not thinking a lot of times about when they’re going to use a stiff arm, how they’re going to use it. They’re not premeditating some of the moves they make.
“So to make them start thinking about should I lower my shoulder left or right or spin this way, I just don’t know. I just don’t know how this is going to affect this position.”
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has spent a big chunk of this offseason in Arizona, working out and training at Athletes Performance in Phoenix. This morning, Ponder swung through the Arizona Biltmore where the NFL is holding its annual meetings this week. And with the Vikings using last week to get Ponder a back-up quarterback and a new top receiver, the third-year quarterback stopped Monday to deliver a few thoughts on the recent acquisitions.
Here’s some of what Ponder had to say:
On his contact with Greg Jennings, the newest arrival to the Vikings’ receiving corps …
“I talked to him Thursday night before he signed. I talked to him after he signed. And I’m sure we’ll try to get together at some point before OTAs start. I’m offering him whatever he needs help with. He can come stay at the house or whatever. But we’re excited. I’m definitely excited to have him. … He’s a great route runner. And obviously that’s important. And he’s got some speed and an ability to make plays after the ball is in his hands. We saw that countless times playing against him, in the five games that I’ve seen him play against us. That’ll be good to have. But it’s also his leadership aspect, with the young guys that are in the room already, he’s going to bring a lot to this team and this offense.”
On Jennings’ comments Friday that he studied Ponder to “know what I was getting into” …
“It’s always a positive thing to see. He watched me on film and then he signed. So that’s definitely good. And that’s always important. I think that shows you how smart of a guy he is. He knew to look at what he’s coming into with the offense and with his quarterback. I think that shows his maturity and his intelligence and I’m glad he signed with us.”
On the arrival of Cassel and his thoughts on whether he could be pressured for the starting spot at quarterback despite the continued insistence of GM Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier that he is the undisputed starter …
“I think there’s always a competition. Whether it’s Matt or Joe [Webb] or McLeod [Bethel-Thompson], there’s always competition. And I think competitions is always a good thing. I think it’s always definitely a motivating factor. It helps us push each other. So I think it’s nothing but positive.”
On the group of pass catchers he know has with last week’s signing of Jennings, the re-signing of Jerome Simpson and the continued development of tight end Kyle Rudolph …
“Having a guy like Kyle, I think everybody knows our chemistry together and his ability as a player. Pro Bowl MVP. But with him and adding Greg, who’s obviously a great player as well. And Jerome, who I think will be so much better having this past year under his belt and being able to learn from that and continue to grow in this offense. And I’m sure we’ll draft a guy or two in the draft and guys who can step up and play early. And to have Adrian Peterson in the backfield as well, it helps. I think we’re really coming together as an offense.”
On the communication he had with Cassel last week ...
“We talked after he signed. He gave me a call. And then we’ve texted back and forth a little bit. And I had worked out with him last year for about a week. So we’ve had some conversations. He’s excited, all-aboard. And he’s said that whatever he can offer to help me, he will. I think it’ll be a good relationship.”
On what having a veteran back-up will mean …
“I think it helps. Obviously, he’ll probably know more than I do on certain things and has a different [vantage point] in watching film. I think that’s always good to learn, how guys watch film and what they can see and can pick up on. That’s always a good thing.”
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