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.
In our story today in the Star Tribune, we wrote about five key issues facing the Vikings when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is finally in place and the lockout is lifted. (And, folks, eventually that is going to happen.)
Issue No. 1 was the fact that Vikings are going to have some work to do managing the salary cap. ESPN's John Clayton has reported the cap is going to be $120 million and that the Vikings will be $5.1 million over that limit.
One way to cut salary in quick fashion would be to jettison guys like wide receiver Bernard Berrian ($6.258 million cap hit) and safety Madieu Williams ($5.5 million). Left guard Steve Hutchinson has a cap number of $6.73 million and could be a candidate to have his deal restructured.
However, it now appears that guys like Berrian, Williams and Hutchinson might not be in as much trouble as first thought. Pro Football Talk reported today that the new deal is expected to protect veterans from becoming cap casualties.
There weren't any real details in the PFT story but considering how fluid this situation is that's not surprising. One likely scenario could be that the salary cap in 2011 would be a soft cap that would give teams some type of relief in order to keep veterans.
This does make sense given that when unrestricted free agency opens there likely will be 400-plus players on the market. Forcing teams to cut veterans to get under the cap would put even more guys in a situation of trying to look for a job in a very short period of time.
Update: There will be special transition rules to protect veteran players in 2011, when the salary cap will be $120.375 million. All teams will have approximately $3.5 million in what would otherwise be performance-based pay available to fund veteran player salaries. Each club may "borrow" up to $3 million in cap room from a future year, which may be used to support veteran player costs.
Ponder eager to get to work
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder returned to the Larry Fitzgerald-led workouts Thursday on the University of Minnesota campus for the third time this week. Ponder plans to keep working out and throwing passes at the facility through Tuesday, when it's expected the workouts will end. (Here's Star Tribune video of Ponder in action.)
But Ponder said the second he is able to have contact with Vikings' coaches, he will be on his way to Winter Park. The Vikings will want all their draft picks in the facility in short order because that group will need to play some serious catch up.
"Once this thing gets lifted, I'm definitely going to head straight to the facility, give Coach [Bill] Musgrave a call, sit down with him and hopefully talk some ball," Ponder said. "We report [July] 31st [so I will] do everything I can until that day."
Ponder last was able to talk to Musgrave, the Vikings' new offensive coordinator, in late April right after he was drafted and during a brief window when the lockout was lifted. He said his plan Monday and Tuesday -- if the lockout is over --would be to go to the University of Minnesota campus in the morning and then spend the afternoon studying with Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson.
Ponder said he has not been able to get his hands on any of the Vikings film from last season so he can study plays or players, but he added that he doesn't know if that would help much since the system will change under Musgrave. "I've had no access to film," Ponder said. "That's been really frustrating to me. As a quarterback you like to watch some film."
Ponder did get a clip of Falcons film -- Musgrave was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta -- from one of the coaches he worked with this offseason. "Other than that, it hasn't been really much," Ponder said.
Ponder admitted he was very rusty throwing passes on Monday, after he took two weeks off to take care of matters. But Thursday seemed to go far better.
"I'm just getting more comfortable with what I'm doing," said Ponder, who found a place to live this week in Eden Prairie near the Vikings facility. "Getting my feet back underneath me and getting comfortable with everything."
Told it seemed he was opening it up with his arm, Ponder agreed: "I am, I am. I'm just feeling more comfortable, knocking all that rust off. Took two weeks off, which probably wasn't the smartest thing, but had so many things to take care of to get up here. But I'm getting back into it and it's getting better."
Ponder praised the fact there are so many receivers at the Fitzgerald workout and likes the fact he can get his arm ready to go without overdoing it.
"The good thing is we get a decent amount of throws here but we're not throwing too many," he said. "We're not throwing posts. We have a couple of go-routes but that's about it. So nothing too crazy but it's been good work."
Waiting to hear
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, one of 10 plaintiffs in the "Tom Brady vs. NFL" antitrust lawsuit, said he doesn't know any details regarding the reports fellow plaintiffs Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson are asking to either be unrestricted free agents or be given $10 million each once the CBA is in place.
"I haven't been briefed yet," Robison said. "That's something that they really have to call each person about, so I have not been spoken to about it yet. That's something that I have to get a hold of my agent and see what's going on with that whole deal. But the bottom line is I'm just ready to start football and that's all that really matters to me."
The final word
Ponder on if he had spoken to wide receiver Sidney Rice, who almost certainly will be an unrestricted free agent when the CBA is done: "I talked to him early this summer, but other than that I haven't had too many conversations with him. Hopefully, he comes back. It would be nice, it would be good for me. And, if not, obviously we have a lot of good guys and probably would bring in someone else as well."
The Vikings could be faced with some interesting decisions when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is complete and NFL business resumes.
John Clayton of ESPN reports the salary cap will return for 2011 after a one-year absence and likely will be $120 or $121 million but could be as low as $117 million. (The cap in 2009 was $127 million.) Clayton points out that if the cap is $120 million that approximately seven teams would be over that figure and that the Vikings would be one of them to the tune of $5.148 million.
The Vikings have one of the NFL's best salary-cap executives in vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski and the reality is that Brzezinski, vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier likely already have decided how they would approach this issue.
Remember, however, the $5.148 million figure would be before the Vikings ever dipped their toe in free agency or made an attempt to retain likely free agent wide receiver Sidney Rice.
Clayton points out the Vikings could save around $3.7 million by releasing wide receiver Bernard Berrian. Then there is the matter of running back Adrian Peterson's contract. Peterson is entering the last year of his deal -- the 2012 season is included on his contract but will void -- and is due $10.72 million this year.
Peterson is going to want a new long-term deal and the Vikings are likely going to be willing to give him one since they could create cap room by doing so.
There will be other contracts and players to keep an eye on. Safety Madieu Williams is due $5.4 million in 2011, up from $2.97 million in 2010, and the Vikings could look to restructure his contract or even release him. Left guard Steve Hutchinson, due $6.68 million this season, also could be asked to restructure.
Frazier made it clear at the owners meetings last March that he had no intention of dumping Berrian or Williams but that was before the Vikings knew what the salary cap would be. Only time will tell if the team's thinking has changed.
When the St. Louis Rams released O.J. Atogwe in February, there were more than a few Vikings fans who wondered if the team might attempt to sign the safety.
Turns out the Vikings did pursue him.
Atogwe, who is taking part in workouts this week on the University of Minnesota campus that are organized by Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and strength and conditioning specialist Bill Welle, said Thursday that he spoke briefly with the Vikings before deciding to sign a reported five-year, $26 million deal with Washington.
“There were a lot of teams that showed interest, but maybe a handful of teams that had some serious interest," Atogwe said. "The Vikings were one of the teams, but the timing issue and just where I believe I was being led by God told me to go to the Redskins.”
Atogwe, who will play free safety for the Redskins, has 22 interceptions in six seasons and had a career-high eight in 2007 while playing under former Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Haslett now holds the same job with the Redskins.
The Vikings free safety is Madieu Williams, who has three interceptions in three seasons with the Vikings since being signed as a free agent in 2008.
It remains uncertain if the NFL lockout will really end in the coming days or if the NFL will get the stay they are looking to obtain from the 8th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Vikings are making plans to begin their offseason program.
The team is calling players this evening and telling them to report to Winter Park on Monday to begin working out. Once the league year begins, the team can begin holding Organized Team Activities and conducting its workout program. Those two things are optional.
However, assuming the league goes back to working under the 2010 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Vikings also will be able to conduct two mandatory minicamps. The team will get an extra one because Leslie Frazier is considered a new head coach, despite the fact he was the interim coach for the final six games last season.
"I'm coming to workout everyday that we are allowed," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said in a text message. "[I] can't wait!"
Vikings players will be able to get into Winter Park starting Friday morning to workout, if they so desire.
The Vikings aren't the only NFC North team to make quick plans, now that it appears there is a good chance the new league year will have to start. The Detroit Lions have a Monday meeting and will start OTAs on Wednesday. The Bears have a meeting scheduled for Monday morning.
The players with the most incentive to show up starting Monday will be the guys with workout bonuses written into their contracts. Those players likely either have to be at Winter Park for a set number of workouts or a percentage of them during the offseason.
Here's a list of those players:
DT Kevin Williams, $500,000
LT Bryant McKinnie, $250,000
WR Bernard Berrian, $100,000
LB E.J. Henderson, $100,000
OG Anthony Herrera, $100,000
TE Visanthe Shiancoe, $100,000
S Madieu Williams, $100,000
CB Chris Cook, $80,000
TE Jeff Dugan, $50,000
CB Cedric Griffin, $50,000
OG Steve Hutchinson, $50,000
P Chris Kluwe, $50,000
WR Percy Harvin, $27,500
WR Greg Camarillo, $25,000
LS Cullen Loeffler, $20,000
RB Toby Gerhart, $12,500
OT Phil Loadholt, $2,500
Note: For the next five weekdays, we’ll take an exclusive look at the Vikings’ draft on the blog and with an Access Vikings video that also can be found on this website. We’ll combine positions on some days in order to address as many areas as possible. Check for a new post each day through April 28.
The issues: Starting left cornerback Antoine Winfield will turn 34 in June, starting right corner Cedric Griffin has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees over the past two seasons, 2010 second-round pick Chris Cook had arthroscopic surgery on both knees at different points last season to repair meniscus tears, and starting free safety Madieu Williams has failed to live up to expectations since signing a free-agent deal in 2008 that included approximately $13 million in guarantees.
What they have: In a perfect world, Winfield will have another solid season in 2011, Griffin will return to the form he displayed before his injuries, Cook will be healthy and step into a regular role in the nickel defense as the left corner (Winfield would move inside) and Asher Allen would become a reliable backup.
The Vikings, however, learned last season that it’s dangerous to expect things to go as planned and that a team can never have enough depth at cornerback. The trade of Benny Sapp to Miami for wide receiver Greg Camarillo in late August was done because the Vikings felt they had sufficient depth and could give up a player who had been solid playing in the nickel.
But injuries and a lack of quality time from veteran Lito Sheppard soon showed the Vikings had some real issues. Allen, a third-round pick in 2009, saw more playing time than expected (11 starts) or probably than the team wanted to give him.
Veteran Frank Walker was signed off the street after Griffin was injured and ended up playing in 11 games and starting twice. Sheppard and Walker will both be free agents when a new collective bargaining agreement is completed and are unlikely to return.
The Vikings safety situation also is unsettled. Williams hasn’t been the same since suffering a serious neck injury during his first training camp with the Vikings and last season struggled with taking the proper angles on his tackles.
Coach Leslie Frazier said this offseason that Williams’ spot on the roster is not in jeopardy but if he continues to struggle with his technique one would think his starting job could definitely be lost.
Husain Abdullah, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Washington State in 2008, won the starting job at strong safety during training camp last summer, beating out 2008 second-round pick Tyrell Johnson and 2009 seventh-round pick Jamarca Sanford.
It sounds as if the Vikings still have hopes that Johnson can rebound. Interestingly, Frazier said that Johnson will compete with Williams for the free safety job. That could mean Sanford will challenge Abdullah for the starting spot at strong safety.
Abudllah did finish last season tied with middle linebacker E.J. Henderson for the team lead with three interceptions.
What they need: Given the fact Griffin is coming off two serious knee injuries, the Vikings are going to have to have a backup plan in place at right corner.
The expectation could be that Cook would step into that job, but that would create a question about what the Vikings would do when they go to five defensive backs in passing situations.
It remains a bit up in the air how much of a role the Vikings will want to give Allen, but even if he does see a regular role, depth is going to become a concern again.
LSU’s Patrick Peterson will be gone by the time the Vikings select 12th in the first round, but there is a chance Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara still be on the board. Amukamara started 14 games at left corner for the Cornhuskers last season and was a finalist for the Thorpe Award.
The Vikings lack a third-round pick but do have the 43rd pick in the second round. Pro Football Weekly has Louisville’s Johnny Patrick and Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling listed as potential second- or third-round picks.
While depth doesn’t appear to be as big of an issue at safety, the Vikings certainly could stand to improve. The problem is that this draft class isn’t a very good one when it comes to the safety position.
Conclusion: It would not be surprising to see the Vikings add a corner in this draft, although it might be later on. If Amukamara is around when the Vikings pick 12th, that could be interesting. Odds would seem better the Vikings would add a safety when free agency begins rather than trying to draft one.
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