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.
Linebacker Ben Leber serves as an assistant player representative for the Vikings and has proven time and again to be a stand up guy when it comes to speaking to the media.
But this evening, via text message, Leber declined to comment after the NFL Players Association decided not to vote on the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement that the NFL owners had just approved. Leber's decision to remain silent actually spoke volumes about how he likely felt about a proposal that apparently had some elements that caught the NFLPA off guard.
"Kind of what I'm hearing is [the owners] tried to slide in a good one on us," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. "It's a good thing we read over things before we sign them. ... I think obviously [the issues have] to be pretty serious for them basically to kind of shut the whole thing down and say not to vote on it. If it was something minor you'd pick up the phone and say, 'Can we change this quick?'"
Nothing during this lockout has been easy, so it should come as no surprise that things did not go as smoothly as planned or hoped. Unless there is significant progress Friday, it appears there is little chance that players will be able to report to Winter Park on Saturday. That had been the plan in what the owners announced.
Here's how the rest of July would have looked and still could (I would guess) if something gets done Friday:
Saturday: Teams and players may begin to renegotiate contracts. Teams may begin to sign drafted rookies and their own unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, exclusive rights players and franchise players.
Saturday: Starting at 1 p.m., clubs may negotiate with, but not sign, undrafted rookie free agents, free agents and other teams' unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and franchise players.
Sunday: Starting at 1 p.m., teams may begin to sign undrafted rookie free agents.
Wednesday: 2011 league year commences at 1 p.m., provided NFLPA has ratified CBA. Free agency signing period begins. Clubs may sign free agents and other clubs' unrestricted free agents. Clubs may sign offer sheets. Trading period begins. All clubs must be under the salary cap. ... Expand rosters to 90-man limit.
Wednesday: Training camps open for all clubs, provided NFLPA has ratified CBA. Day one activities limited to physicals, meetings and conditioning. No pads permitted on day two or day three.
The Vikings were not planning to report to training camp until July 31. That date could end up changing if the players remain unhappy with what they are seeing from owners.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier voiced a desire at the NFL owners meetings in March to get linebacker Jasper Brinkley more involved on defense. Brinkley, entering his third season, also would like to be able to play a bigger role and this offseason he took what could be an important step in trying to make that happen.
Brinkley spent three weeks at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla., -- yes, that's the same place quarterback Christian Ponder trained -- working alongside Giants cornerback Michael Coe and focusing on doing drills designed for defensive backs in an effort to improve his footwork.
"Being at middle linebacker [in the Tampa-2 defense] you’ve got to be able to run down the middle of the field and be that third safety," said Brinkley, who started four games as a rookie at middle linebacker after E.J. Henderson was injured. Brinkley did not start a game in 2010 as Henderson returned to the starting role.
Brinkley said a main area of focus was his backpedal. “I feel very comfortable," against the pass, he said. "Two years ago I had never played a Tampa-2 middle linebacker, but now I think I’m ready for the challenge.”
The question now becomes at which position will Brinkley get this opportunity? Henderson is signed through the coming season and will return in the middle. Many consider Brinkley (6-1, 252 pounds) to be best suited to playing that spot.
The only opening might be at weak-side linebacker, if Ben Leber leaves in the upcoming (eventually) free agency period that will precede training camp. But that would be a lot to ask of Brinkley.
“Whatever the coaches think is best for me I will do," said Brinkley, who has spent recent days training with other NFL and college players at the Larry Fitzgerald-led workouts on the University of Minnesota campus. "Whether they tell me to play outside linebacker, d-line, it doesn’t matter. I think I can do it. Whatever the team needs I think I can do.”
Right guard Anthony Herrera said he is about 90 percent healed after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last November against the Green Bay Packers.
Herrera talked about his recovery Sunday with the News-Press at the youth football camp he hosted in Naples, Fla. "I've just been hanging out with the family and trying to get back in shape," Herrera said. "When [the season] comes, I want to hit the ground rolling."
In addition to the season-ending surgery on his knee, Herrera also had surgery to repair a triceps muscle this offseason.
Ben Leber has been a starting linebacker for the Vikings for the past five seasons, but the nine-year veteran admits he isn't sure if he will return to the team when the NFL lockout ends.
"The reality is if they were really, really wanting me back then maybe something would have been said before the lockout," said Leber, who will be an unrestricted free agent. "I had a good meeting with Coach [Leslie] Frazier and [vice president of player personnel Rick] Spielman at the end of the year. Each side expressed how much I’d like to be here and finish my career here. I am hopeful and hope that I can come back and be a Viking again. But I’m also a realist and I’ve been through this process before. It’s not always up to you and you have to be willing to move on.”
Leber signed with the Vikings as a free agent in 2006 after spending his first four seasons in San Diego. However, in that case, he was able to shop his services and sign in March. The lockout has meant that free agency has yet to start and when it does it's going to be a short and very busy period.
“I get a little anxiety about it," said Leber, who held his annual football camp at St. Thomas University last week. "I do wonder how it’s all going to play out, and I’m a little worried about how crazy it’s going to be. Thinking about it from a family perspective. Having a newborn at home [a 3-month old son] and how is that going to play out? Am I going to be gone traveling maybe team-to-team looking for a potential place to play?
"Is it going to be one of those things where you sign on the dotted line and you go to training camp the next day and be gone for another month? All those things my wife and I have talked about and at the end of the conversation we’re just like, ‘Well, we don’t know. We can’t sit here and waste time speculating.’ So I guess whatever happens, happens and we’ll roll with it when we get there.”
Leber is from Vermillion, S.D., and has made it clear that he and his wife, Abby, enjoy living in the Twin Cities with their two children.
The Vikings will have to consider how much money they want to put toward the linebacker position. Chad Greenway likely will be an unrestricted free agent under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Vikings already placed the franchise tag on Greenway, meaning he will stand to make about $10 million if that tag is still available under the new CBA. No matter what happens, the Vikings certainly will look to get Greenway signed long term.
However, there could be an argument made that the lockout increases Leber's chance of staying in Minnesota. One reason is because retaining Leber would mean keeping a valuable veteran who knows the team's defensive system and is considered a leader. That could be key given the lockout has wiped out offseason work and each organization is going to want to create as much stability as possible.
“I’d like to think that philosophy does play out and that would be great for me and hopefully great for the Vikings," he said. "I don’t know what they’re thinking. Maybe that works in some situations and maybe not mine. I think there’s got to be a benefit [from the] fact I do know the system, I know basically the whole staff even though we brought in some new guys. So I’d like to think there’s a lot of positives there.”
Ben Leber was back on the football field Thursday but he wasn't the one wearing pads.
Instead, the linebacker was providing instruction as his four-day camp got underway at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Leber also spent some of his time Thursday on the conference call that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith held in order to brief players on where things stand in the ongoing lockout.
There has been hope of late that the lockout could come to an end in July and that the NFL's regular-season will be able to start on time.
Asked about the briefing, Leber said: “The only thing I’ll say about the call was it was nothing enlightening. It was pretty vague and rightfully so. We’ve had some issues I think with guys not being totally confidential after those phone calls so it was pretty vague. [Smith] did sound a little bit more optimistic than he has in the past, but very cautiously optimistic. I think that things are moving in the right direction. It sounds like there are a lot of things that have been talked about, nothing totally agreed upon, but I think they are making progress.”
Leber, who has spent the past five seasons with the Vikings but will be an unrestricted free agent when the lockout does end, served as an assistant player representative for Minnesota and thus has a very good working knowledge of the situation. He also has a prediction about how this might unfold.
“My gut tells me, and this is my own opinion, that it will be an abbreviated training camp," he said. "We might get in three preseason games. I’m going to guess we’ll get in two preseason games. Get our normal couple of days off before the season starts and I think the season begins the way it should be [on Sept. 8] and is normal.”
Leber also said that although he might not return to the Vikings, he is doing his best to keep potentially former teammates in the loop whenever they have questions.
“I still try to maintain a leadership role with the Vikings, even though I’m technically not employed by them anymore," he said. "But nonetheless guys still have my e-mail and I have those guys [e-mail]. I’ve been in contact with them, not really recently because everything has been pretty stagnant, but definitely that March, April period when things were hot and heavy and there were a lot of questions. For sure. Steve [Hutchinson, who is the Vikings player rep] and I we had different e-mails [for teammates]. We would get together and kind of cross over and send a couple e-mails to some guys and let them stay informed.”
Getting in some work
Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe confirmed in a text message that he spent the past three days working out with quarterbacks Christian Ponder and Joe Webb at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Ponder and Webb have been working at the camp for a few weeks and were joined by about seven teammates in late May and early June. Shiancoe was not at those workouts.
The Vikings will have a long list of free agents to deal with when the NFL lockout finally does end, but vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said team officials have "a pretty good idea" of the players they want to keep. That such decisions have been made comes as no surprise given the amount of time the Vikings have had to analyze any situation that might happen when the work stoppage is done.
"Our history has been to keep our young guys, especially trying to come out of their first contracts [as well as] get those guys," Spielman said Wednesday while playing in the team's charity golf tournament that benefits the Vikings Children's Fund at Rush Creek in Maple Grove. "I think that’s the top priority and then we’ll kind of see where everything else falls in place. That also depends a lot on what type of [salary] cap number you’re working with, if you’re working with a cap number, and the years. You don’t know anything [about what the rules will be].”
Indeed that is a major issue facing the Vikings and other NFL teams. When the salary cap was in place, players were eligible to become unrestricted free agents after four years of service. Last year, with the salary cap gone and the collective bargaining agreement entering its last year, a player had to have six years of service to become unrestricted.
It remains unclear what the requirement will be for unrestricted free agency under a new CBA, but many expect it will go back to four years.
That would mean the following list of Vikings could hit the open market during what would be a wild free agency period: Nose tackle Pat Williams (14 years of service); kicker Ryan Longwell (14); linebacker Ben Leber (nine); quarterback Patrick Ramsey (nine) cornerback Lito Sheppard (nine); wide receiver Greg Lewis (eight); cornerback Frank Walker (eight); wide receiver Hank Baskett (five); defensive end Ray Edwards (five); defensive tackle Fred Evans (five); offensive lineman Ryan Cook (five); quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (five); fullback Naufahu Tahi (five); safety Eric Frampton (four); and wide receiver Sidney Rice (four).
Linebacker Chad Greenway, a veteran of five seasons, also could join the above list but that will only happen if there is no franchise tag included as part of a new CBA. The Vikings put the franchise designation on Greenway after the 2010 season, meaning he would make about $10 million in 2011.
Going by what Spielman said about keeping younger players, the two names that jump out are Rice and Edwards. Rice had a brilliant 2009 season but he is coming off hip surgery last year and there is a chance that given the Vikings situation at receiver they might be willing to pay him more than some other teams that might be worried about the hip.
As for Edwards, that's an interesting situation. The starting left end for the Vikings has had 16.5 sacks the past two seasons in 30 starts. Edwards, though, has made it clear he does not want to return to the Vikings, going so far as to refer to himself as a "former Viking" in the press releases that have come out while he has been boxing during the lockout.
“I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and players are going to get frustrated and the business side is always going to be frustrating for them," Spielman said when asked about Edwards' situation. "We’ll just see. We don’t know if he’s restricted, unrestricted, what’s going on in that area and if we can sign him or not sign him to a long-term deal."
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