Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
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.
Phil Loadholt never wanted to be anywhere other than Minnesota. As a Viking. Sure it took the organization that drafted Loadholt in the second round in 2009 until the 11th hour Tuesday to prevent the mammoth right tackle from hitting free agency.
But in the end, Loadholt got everything he wanted. He got a lucrative deal – four years, $25 million.
He got the opportunity to stay put – anchoring the right side of an offensive line that will now return all five starters from a year ago.
He got his peace of mind back.
“I had let it be known publicly and privately that I wanted to be a Viking,” Loadholt said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m pretty sure that everybody knew that that was my priority coming into this situation. It took a little longer than I expected. But the business part of football is shaky. You never know what to expect. But ultimately everything ended up just right.”
No, technically Loadholt was never a free agent. The Vikings secured their new deal to re-sign him after 2 p.m. Tuesday, in the final hour before the NFL’s new league year began and free agency opened. But with the previous three-and-a-half days giving Loadholt’s agent an opportunity to measure other teams’ interest and determine a true market value, Loadholt held great leverage throughout a process that was still, in his words, stressful.
The Chicago Bears had expressed serious interest, aiming to overhaul an offensive line that has come unhinged over the past few years. And what their outside interest did was force the Vikings’ hand, causing them to reach deeper into the vault to get Loadholt the money he commanded.
He will be due to make $2.9 million in base salary in 2013 and could earn as much as $4.75 million.
Just as gratifying, Loadholt said, was the opportunity to remain a Viking, to continue plowing holes for league-MVP Adrian Peterson, to remain a part of a starting quintet up front that has seen its chemistry grow.
Loadholt said he never feared a possible departure. But he also never exhaled to feel like he would remain here for certain.
“Like I said, the business part of football is very shaky,” he said. “So it was definitely a tough time for myself and my family. You never know what can happen. So there was definitely times I was a little nervous.”
After signing Loadholt on Tuesday, General Manager Rick Spielman reiterated once again that the organization had accomplished one of the offseason’s top priorities. Spielman echoed head coach Leslie Frazier’s sentiments that Loadholt is still an ascending talent. Spielman lauded his physicality as a run blocker and his leadership skills and his continued growth under line coach Jeff Davidson.
In the end, Loadholt got what he wanted most: to stay put.
“I was thinking about coming in in ’09, being drafted here. Just the season we had last year. Adrian running for as many yards as he did last year, getting close to that (single-season) record. The continuity that I have with the guys here on the offensive line. I love playing for Coach Davidson, Coach Frazier. My family loves Minnesota. I could just keep going down the line. It was a great situation for me. I’m glad I’m back.”
It’s a cold-hearted business sometimes, this NFL.
And if we all didn’t have a true understanding of that concept already, Tuesday provided another eye-opening example.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield had gone to the Vikings’ facility, per his usual routine, to work out. He had no way of knowing that would be his last trip into the building. About an hour before free agency opened, as the Vikings sorted through some complex financial discussions, Winfield became just a number.
Two numbers really.
In decisive form, General Manager Rick Spielman made a business move, void of emotion. He summoned Winfield upstairs and told him he was cut. The awkwardness of that move and the confusion it created for one of the most beloved players in franchise history is detailed in our story from last night. We suggest you give that a read and soak it in.
But to understand the maneuver from a business standpoint, it must be noted that Spielman and the front office were active Tuesday in re-signing several of their own players. A half-dozen of them in all. Most notably: right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton. Loadholt reportedly inked a deal worth $25 million over four years. Felton was given a $7.5 million contract over three years.
The Vikings also rewarded linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Jamarca Sanford, receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive lineman Joe Berger by keeping them around.
Spielman’s vision for the future forces him to make such tough decisions. As this week goes on, and really as the Vikings’ plow ahead from now through the end of the draft in April, they will do so with a plan. And then a Plan B. And Plans C, D, E and F.
“This is a very fluid business,” Spielman noted Tuesday.
And so even the GM acknowledged the conflicting emotions of such a busy day.
“When you have to make tough business decisions, it makes it extremely hard. One minute you’re elated because you got Phil Loadholt done and the next minute you don’t feel as good because you had to do something with Winfield, which makes this job extremely, extremely difficult.”
What made Winfield’s release all the more confusing for the cornerback and his agent is the lack of discussions that preceded it. At no point, during the league’s 87-hour negotiating window from Saturday through Tuesday where teams and agents could be in contact, was there any hint that Winfield could soon be on the street. No one from the Vikings front office even proposed a pay cut or contract restructuring.
Winfield and his agent knew, in this league, that’s always a possibility. But they didn’t expect, after nine seasons of service, that in the snap of two fingers, a loyal locker room leader would have a trap door opened beneath him.
Sure, the Vikings had talked with Winfield’s agent, Ashanti Webb, at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis three weeks earlier. And yes, in passing, the Vikings had mentioned just generally that Winfield’s $7.25 million salary could catch their eye as free agency nears. But, according to Webb, the conversations in Indy were casual, informal. No specific proposals were drawn up. And none were offered Tuesday when Winfield was released.
Spielman was asked if he had offered Winfield a chance to stick around at a lower cost.
“I don’t want to get into the details of it,” he said. “It was just a very, extremely hard decision to make but hopefully we’ll be able to keep the door open for him.”
Four days before free agency began, I had approached an NFL source to ask whether the Vikings had been in contact about a contract restructuring. They hadn’t, the source told me. And even if they did, it wasn’t something Winfield was going to consider.
Said the source: “The way he played last year? Please. You need to look at the game film and not the birth certificate. The only way Antoine is taking a pay cut next season is if the NFL decides to suddenly up its AARP taxes.”
So who knows what would have happened had restructuring discussions come up between Spielman and Webb? The fact is, for three weeks leading up to free agency, that possibility was never brought up. It led to a very unceremonious end of a terrific Vikings career.
By late Tuesday afternoon, as you might imagine, calls inquiring about Winfield’s availability were pouring in. The message was made clear. Even if Winfield’s days as a Vikings were over, his career is not. He fully intends to play next season. And, if 2012 is any indication, he can still play at a high level.
Spielman repeatedly noted Tuesday that he would leave the door open for a possible reunion with Winfield in the weeks or months ahead. What would that take?
“We’ll just have to see,” Spielman said.
He shall see just how much other teams value Winfield’s service. He shall see if the manner in which Tuesday’s transaction went down will leave Winfield itching for a new home. By all accounts, amid the awkwardness and confusion, Winfield handled Tuesday’s business with his characteristic professionalism and positive energy. On the way out the door, the Vikings encouraged Winfield to keep in contact and to report back to them with any numbers that might be out there for him in free agency.
It now becomes one of the more interesting subplots around the NFL.
Jerome Felton will remain a Vikings. He never wanted to go anywhere else.
If anyone understands the value of a true fit, it's the 26-year-old fullback who spent his first four seasons bouncing around the NFL. From Detroit to Carolina to Indianapolis. For four seasons, Felton couldn't find a heightened role.
Then, in the spring of 2012, the Vikings dipped into free agency and offered Felton a one-year opportunity to showcase his strengths. They told him they needed a bruising fullback to maximize the production of running back Adrian Peterson. The coaching staff and front office believed Peterson would be at his best with a lead blocker. And they believed Felton had the unselfishness, toughness and vision to be that guy. Then, over 16 games, Felton played a significant role in aiding Peterson to his best season yet, a 2,097-yard rushing campaign that few saw coming.
Peterson won the MVP award. Felton earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
When the season ended, Felton told the Vikings and General Manager Rick Spielman that he wanted to be back. The Vikings promised to make it happen. And on Tuesday afternoon, the two sides finally hammered out the business end of the reunion with Felton agreeing to a three-year deal and re-signing with the organization. Felton's deal coudl be worth up to $7.5 million in total. And his return to Minnesota should not be taken for granted. His efforts in 2012 were a big deal. And his understanding that opportunities like the one here, in a run-first offense and the league MVP stealing the show, just don't come around often.
News of Felton's deal gave the Vikings five players that they re-signed Tuesday. The others: right tackle Phil Loadholt, receiver Jerome Simpson, safety Jamarca Sanford and offensive lineman Joe Berger.
Not so fast, Chicago.
The Vikings have signed right tackle Phil Loadholt to a multi-year contract extension, keeping the Bears from getting their offensive line-starved mitts on the big fella and maintaining valuable cohesion for a Vikings offensive line that started the same five players in the same five spots for all 17 games a year ago.
Loadholt, a second-round pick in 2009, has been durable and decent throughout his four seasons with the Vikings. Inconsistency, not effort by any stretch, has been his biggest issue. But at 27, he's still on the upswing, still developing and should get better and more consistent the longer he works with the same unit up front. And the signing also keeps a division rival from inflicting major damage at a starting position.
Had the Vikings lost Loadholt, they might have been forced to use one of their two first-round picks on an offensive tackle. Now, they can focus on receiver and possibly linebacker.
Terms of Loadholt's deal are not yet available.
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