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.
Antoine Winfield's 15th NFL season won't come in Minnesota.
The Vikings have released the sure-tackling cornerback and locker room leader as the 3 p.m. opening bell for free agency closes in, an NFL source has confirmed.
Winfield, who turns 36 on June 24, was the 23rd overall pick of the Bills in 1999. He played five seasons in Buffalo before joining the Vikings in 2004. He went on to become arguably the best unrestricted free agent acquisition in teams history over the next nine seasons.
Winfield was due to make $7.25 million in the final year of his current contract. Although his age didn't mesh with the team's youth movement, Winfield was expected to finish out his contract, serving as both a veteran presence and one of the team's best defensive players.
Winfield was not willing to take a pay cut this season, which could have been a factor in today's decision.
What the Vikings do with the extra cap room -- they're roughly $20 million under the cap -- remains to be seen. They've re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson, but are still in the market for a No. 1 receiver. The Vikings aren't expected to chase after UFA receiver Mike Wallace, who is expected to get $11 million a year or more. Then again, the Vikings weren't expected to release Winfield. So hang on. This ride could get even wilder before it ends.
In what is a very busy and fluid week in the NFL business world, we’ll do our best to not only keep you up to speed with all the latest Vikings transactions but to provide a summary of what it all means. Be sure to check back with this post regularly for updates.
VIKINGS’ 2013 FREE AGENCY CHECKLIST
What has happened so far …
THE LATEST MOVE: (Friday night) The Vikings have signed receiver Greg Jennings, a 29-year-old veteran who had tormented them for the previous seven seasons with the Packers. Jennings was given a five-year deal, which reportedly could be worth up to $47.5 million with $18 million guaranteed. What it means: For starters, it means quarterback Christian Ponder gets a proven receiver to be his top target, a big move for the franchise after it traded away Percy Harvin on Monday. Jennings' versatility should be a plus. He can serve as a legitimate outside threat and is also potent out of the slot. On top of that, the Vikings are already raving about the positive energy and professionalism they expect him to lend to what figures to otherwise be a very, very young receiving unit. With Jennings signed as the top gun and a very deep pool of talent awaiting at receiver in this year's draft, the Vikings may no longer need to pull the trigger on a pass catcher in the first round -- even with picks Nos. 23 and 25. Logic says a standout talent should still be available in Round 2 and perhaps the Vikings use those two first-round picks to find help at middle linebacker and cornerback. Jennings' signing and the cash it took to complete means the team's significant offseason spending is done. Any free agent additions from here on out are likely to be minimal.
What’s left to do
Last year, around this time, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier kept hearing about Percy Harvin.
First, while coaching the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and later at the 2012 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Frazier was repeatedly approached by opposing coaches, who in casual conversation just kept mentioning how much of a headache it was to defend Harvin.
The energetic slot receiver was just so slippery, so dynamic, so explosive.
The more Frazier heard from peers and foes about the stress Harvin could cause an opposing defense, the more he realized Harvin had to become an even bigger cog in the Vikings’ attack. And so plans were tweaked, Harvin’s role was enhanced and for eight games in 2012, the explosive playmaker did a little bit of everything.
He took bubble screens and short quick-hit passes and turned them into big gains. He lined up in the backfield and displayed his demolition derby style as a running back. He lobbied for more action on special teams and continued to be one of the league’s most electrifying return men, evidenced best by his 105-yard score in Week 4 in Detroit.
At the season’s midpoint, Harvin was the Vikings star being propped up as a league MVP candidate, not Adrian Peterson. Harvin was the one who seemed more responsible for the team’s 5-3 start, amassing a league-best 60 catches and totaling 739 yards from scrimmage with five total touchdowns mixed in. (Peterson, for the record, had 914 yards from scrimmage and four TDs after eight games.)
But now? Well, now all that Percy Harvin feel-good has been snowed under by a blizzard of Percy Harvin confusion. Most significantly: the question on whether Harvin will remain a Viking in 2013 and beyond cannot be answered definitively, fueling a new wave of speculation that he may soon be traded.\
To be clear, this uncertainty and these rumors have existed for a while now, even if they are just now mushrooming and making bigger headlines nationally. But much of the outside conjecture is justified as the Vikings coaching staff and front office continues keep the details of Harvin’s saga very, very private.
Percy Harvin? On the trading block? Could it be?
Yes. Yes, it could be.
When the Vikings head back to the Combine next week, you can bet they’ll cast a few Harvin-baited hooks into the waters and see if there are any nibbles. And with the 24-year-old playmaker heading into the final year of his rookie deal, now may be a practical time to pull the trigger.
After all, keeping Harvin happy in Minnesota in 2013 would likely require a lucrative long-term contract extension. And with the durability and personality question marks that are in permanent ink in Harvin’s evaluation file, the Vikings have to measure the risk-reward of investing in Harvin long-term versus dealing him for a few choice draft picks.
Are Harvin’s game-changing skills so valuable that they mitigate the ever-present worry that his moodiness may one day grow too toxic for a team looking to fuel its rise with low-maintenance, drama-free players? That’s what the Vikings must decide. And that decision is only complicated by the market value Harvin now has at a position where salaries are quickly escalating.
Publicly, neither Frazier nor General Manager Rick Spielman would benefit from openly declaring Harvin up for auction. But you can bet the Vikings will be listening to interested suitors at the combine, perhaps ready to move away from the dangerous temper wick attached to Harvin’s toughness, speed and elusiveness.
The abrupt end to Harvin’s 2012 season still registers as strange. Yes, there was the severe left ankle sprain Harvin suffered in the second half of a Week 9 loss in Seattle. And that was followed by a four-and-a-half-week stretch in which, despite a calculated combination of rest and rehabilitation, Harvin’s ankle just never improved enough for him to get back on the field. So the Vikings insist the decision to end Harvin’s season with a move to Injured Reserve on the Wednesday of Week 14 was purely protective, a decision to keep the always aggressive receiver from pursuing a return to action in a way that could endanger his long-term health.
But along with that plausible explanation comes the inevitable follow-up questions, the ones the Vikings never really did answer head-on: If the injury was the only thing being evaluated, then was it really a practical move to end Harvin’s season on Dec. 5, in the middle of a playoff push, with four regular games left? It was, after all just an ankle sprain. And wasn’t it peculiar that Harvin’s injury never required surgery and that the Vikings’ played their playoff game at Lambeau Field 62 days after the receiver sprained that ankle?
Seems only fair to wonder if Harvin might have been able to play in that contest.
And so the mystery looms, heightened even further when you think back to the awkwardness Frazier displayed on the podium at Winter Park hours before the Harvin-to-I.R. move was rubber-stamped.
Asked directly if there were issues beyond the ankle injury that were contributing to Harvin’s absence, Frazier paused and squirmed for a moment.
“You know, it’s …” Frazier said. “I know that he wants to win like we do. And I’m sure he’s going to do everything he can to do what he has to do to help our football team.
“We’ll see where it goes.”
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
Meanwhile, if you want direct and honest answers from the Vikings head coach and GM on their Harvin feelings? Sorry. That’s not going to happen. But here is what we can tell you about what Frazier and Spielman have said about Harvin since the Vikings’ season ended with a playoff loss in Green Bay last month.
First, there was Frazier’s insistence that Harvin’s odd disappearance from the team in December was no big deal and a firm declaration that the mercurial receiver “will coexist peacefully” within the organization going forward.
“He exists peacefully now,” Frazier said.
Sometime last month, Harvin finally returned to Winter Park for a mandatory exit physical. And here is how Frazier summarized his most recent conversation with Harvin.
“I told him how much I love him and want him to be a part of our team,” Frazier told KFAN’s Dan Barreiro in a Feb. 3 interview. “And all those things that he hears in questions that are asked to me about his future in Minnesota, I mean I want him to play for our team. I don’t want him to play for anyone else. And I tried to put that to rest with him. So he’s clear on how I feel. And we have great respect for one another and hope that things will be great next season.”
As for Spielman? In his season-ending gathering with local reporters, he denied that the team had concerns about Harvin’s attitude, saying flat out: “We have no issues with Percy Harvin.”
Which, of course, is exactly what a GM would say if a) he really had no issues with Harvin; or b) if he was being careful to minimize and hide any such problems so as not to scare off potential trade partners or reduce Harvin’s trade value.
You can see why the opening for conspiracy theories and speculation continues to open wide. And so, if you choose, you can be the one that reads between the lines on everything Spielman says. Like when he told KFAN’s Paul Allen in a radio interview Friday that he would love a scenario in which the Vikings went into April’s draft armed with 10 or 11 picks.
Wait … But … The Vikings only have eight selections at present. So Spielman had to have up something big in mind with that insinuation, right?
And how about the sudden silliness that sprung up Sunday when the Vikings’ 2013 season ticket poster was noted for having five standouts featured: Peterson and Jared Allen and Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield and Christian Ponder.
No Harvin? That, the conspiracy theorists will argue, also has to mean something.
So yep, this is where a complicated situation can too often become overwhelmed with gossip and innuendo.
With well-rehearsed talking points, the Vikings continue to publicly discuss Harvin by expressing everything you already knew. That Harvin is a good football player. A blue-chip player in fact. And that he’s under contract for one more season. And then when paired with Peterson, he gives the Vikings two big-play threats that makes the Vikings offense very, very dangerous.
It’s also worth noting that commitment is a two-way street. So even if the Vikings were fully intent on finding a way to make things work with Harvin long-term, the receiver himself would have to reciprocate such interest.
And given that Harvin hasn’t done an interview in nearly three months, it’s hard to know what exactly he’s thinking about all this.
Instead, the soap opera continues, Harvin’s future as a Vikings as iffy as ever,
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the defensive backfield.
Get excited: In his rookie season, safety Harrison Smith proved to be a legitimate difference maker. He was not only able to deliver the big hits on a regular basis but also frequently contributed the big play. Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns – a 31-yarder against Arizona in Week 7 and a 56-yarder versus Chicago seven weeks later. Both of those pick-sixes came in 21-14 Vikings victories, in games in which Christian Ponder threw for fewer than 100 yards with the defense, consequentially, needing to deliver a game-changing play. Smith also had a hand in hand breaking up two passes that would have been Calvin Johnson touchdown catches in Week 4. The Vikings beat the Lions 20-13 in that game.
And just like that you can see how an upstart and hungry team saw its win total balloon to 10 in 2012. Quite simply, players like Smith delivered clutch contributions.
No, we’re not classifying Smith as the next Ronnie Lott or Troy Polamalu. He had tackling lapses at times and still has plenty of room to continue developing. But what the Vikings loved most about Smith heading into last spring’s draft – his knack for understanding the defense and routinely being in the right spot at the right time – showed up throughout the season.
For his size, Smith also moves with notable quickness and fluidity and he quickly earned the unabashed respect of the rest of the veterans on the defense.
Keep an eye on: When Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield are at full strength and on the field together, the Vikings’ secondary has an added edge. Even at 35, Winfield showed he can still be an impact corner, extraordinary in run support and capable of steadying the secondary overall. And Cook seems to have all the physical tools to be a valuable outside starter for years to come.
But then there’s this: over the past three seasons, Cook and Winfield have both started and finished only 22 regular season games together.
Cook has missed 26 games in his first three NFL seasons with a broken arm sidelining him for six contests this past season. As much potential as he has, staying available has been a major problem to this point and something the Vikings will need to keep tabs on as Cook enters the final year of his rookie deal.
As for Winfield? Head coach Leslie Frazier has made it very clear he’d love to have Winfield back in the mix in 2013, wanting to utilize his intelligence and leadership in a young secondary for as long as possible.
Winfield is one of the most adored and respected veterans in the locker room. As safety Mistral Raymond said at season’s end, “He’s probably one of the most talented guys I’ve ever been around. He’s smart. His heart is in it. Personally I hope he’ll be here next year. I’m hoping he’ll be here as long as he wants.”
Following the playoff loss in Green Bay earlier this month, Winfield vowed to return for a 15th NFL season. Still, even with that objective, you get the sense he hasn’t fully locked in his commitment to give things one last go-‘round.
“There are some things, of course, he wants to think about this offseason,” Frazier said. “But all indications are he wants to give it another try.”
Reason for worry: It sure seemed like the Vikings’ pass defense was worlds better in 2012 than it was in 2011. And statistically, they were improved across the board. But they were still a bottom-10 defense against the pass, allowing 244.2 yards per game, only 7 yards fewer than the 2011 defense surrendered. Quarterbacks also completed 63.9 percent of their passes against the Vikings this season, throwing 28 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
And even for the progress safeties Jamarca Sanford and Raymond made, the Vikings will need greater production from both players in 2013. Otherwise, Robert Blanton may quickly climb the depth chart.
Furthermore, given Winfield’s age plus Cook’s durability/availability issues, more will also be needed from cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson. Don’t be surprised if General Manager Rick Spielman eyes a few secondary upgrades in the draft and free agency.
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