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 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.
Once again, Leslie Frazier's support of quarterback Christian Ponder was unwavering.
"He's our starter," the Vikings head coach said today during his final press conference of the 2013 season.
As for the team's plans for No. 2 QB Joe Webb and No. 3 QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, well, the support from the top of the Purple coaching tree was polite, but far from unwavering.
"[Webb will] be a guy that will compete for the No. 2 spot again next year, barring something that we may end up doing in our personnel meetings," Frazier said. "But we'll discuss Joe's position and everyone's position in our personnel meetings and then we'll make a decision what's best."
Asked about Bethel-Thompson's status as the No. 3 QB and the possibility that a veteran could be brought in to be the the No. 2 while Webb fills the No. 3 job, Frazier said, "It's so hard to say just two days after our season. ... Our roster is going to change. All of us in this building who've been around this league as long as we have know that. It's hard today to say that Bethel's going to be No. 3 until we see how the roster unfolds."
Webb played only three snaps during the regular season and didn't attempt a pass. Bethel-Thompson was inactive for all 16 games. But they moved up the pecking order when deep bruising on the triceps and elbow of Ponder's throwing arm kept him from playing in Saturday night's 24-10 wild-card playoff loss at Green Bay.
Webb played the whole game and was, well, awful. Trailing the Packers 24-3 after three quarters, Webb had completed 7 of 20 passes for 61 yards, an interception and a 23.1 passer rating.
"Yeah, it was a tough day for Joe," Frazier said. "Tough day all the way around. Put in a tough situation having to go start a playoff game in that environment against a good football team. We still have a lot of confidence in Joe. We understand the circumstances he played in."
Meanwhile, Frazier was clear-cut in his feelings about Ponder being the team's long-term answer at quarterback.
"We're excited about his progress," Frazier said. "The way he played down the stretch, he was great. He had a lot to do with us winning those last four games the way we did. It's unfortunate he wasn't able to play that last ballgame up at Lambeau. He wanted to play. He tried everything he could to get on the field. It just wouldn't have been a wise decision to put him out there with the injury that he had. Just didn't get the flexion back in that tricep. But he did everything in his powers to get out there. His rehab, his work ethic was tremendous. So we're pleased with the progress that he's made.
"We saw glimpses of what he can bring to our football team and the way he led us down the stretch, you feel like you've got a chance to win every game when your quarterback plays the way he played. So we're excited about his development and looking forward to him getting better this offseason."
Kluwe to have surgery on left knee: Punter Chris Kluwe, who spent several weeks on the injury report with a left knee injury, will have surgery to repair the meniscus, Frazier said. Defensive end Jared Allen will have shoulder surgery after the Pro Bowl. Special teamer Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder), cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) and quarterback Christian Ponder (right triceps, elbow) won't require surgery, while running back Adrian Peterson's abdominal injury will be evaluated after the Pro Bowl. Peterson battled the injury down the stretch and left the Houston game early with it , but only after the Vikings had full control of the game.
Singletary, Priefer to interview with the Bears: Frazier confirmed reports that linebackers coach and special assistant to the head coach Mike Singletary and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are among the 13 candidates who have been asked to interview for the Bears' vacant head coaching position. Singletary, who played his Hall of Fame career in Chicago, and Priefer, whose NFL coaching career began in 2002 in Jacksonville, joined the Vikings in 2011. Singletary was the 49ers' head coach from the final nine games in 2008 until the 15th game of the 2010 season.
Frazier said he would like to keep this year's coaching staff intact for next season.
"I mentioned earlier that our coaches did a great job getting our players ready to play every week," he said. "Barring someone getting a promotion, I'm hoping all our guys are back. They did a terrific job throughout the season."
Evaluating the season: Frazier obviously was disappointed to see the season end after the first round of the playoffs. But he's also encouraged because, well, you know, all the rest of us thought they'd win six games, max.
"The foundation has really been set for our team without question," Frazier said. "Our core identity showed up. The traits that we talked about throughout the year, about being a tough, smart, disciplined football team were exemplified through this group of young men."
What about that contract extension, Leslie?: Frazier, whose contract expires after next season, is expected to receive an extension soon. Asked if he's talked to ownership about a contract extension, he said: "I haven’t had a chance to talk with them at this point. These last 48 hours in the building have been meeting with players and talking with them about the future and so on, and some other things in their lives. But eventually we will talk and not worried about it. Things will work out just fine. Not worried at all."
Asked if his agent, Bob Lamonte, has spoken with ownership, Frazier said: "Not at this point. But we will have those discussions.”
The biggest surprise of the first day of the NFL playoffs came 90 minutes before the Vikings kicked off at Lambeau Field. That’s when 16-game starter Christian Ponder was declared inactive, too bothered by a stiff and bruised throwing arm to get the green light for Saturday’s game.
Like the rest of the country, many of the Vikings players said they had no idea Joe Webb would be their starting quarterback until they were inside of 2 hours before kickoff.
“I didn’t know at all,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “Until I saw Joe out there warming up. That’s when I knew.”
It was a late twist that left the Vikings handicapped for their playoff opener, a 24-10 loss to the Packers.
Having not thrown a pass in a game since August, Webb sputtered to an 11-for-30, 180-yard passing night. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble in the third quarter. And after scoring a field goal on the opening drive, the Vikings went nine scoreless possessions before adding a late meaningless touchdown.
As for the mental hurdle of trying to ready for a high-stakes playoff contest with such a late change in plans, Jared Allen simply shrugged.
“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think there was a mental hurdle for us. When you find out, you have to go with it. There are no surprises in this league. People go down, the next guy’s got to step up. You can’t sit around like, ‘Oh, goodness!’ You’ve got to give that guy your full support and go out there and try to win the game.”
Allen pinned the blame of Saturday’s loss on a defensive effort that allowed 326 total yards and 24 points and not on the late quarterback switch.
“When you hear that [news], you just keep your mind focused on what you can do,” Allen said. “I can’t throw the ball. I can’t hand it off. So it doesn’t matter what they do over there. So if I can tackle guys and get to the quarterback, I’m doing my part.”
Receiver Michael Jenkins, who had two catches for 66 yards including a late 50-yard TD grab on busted coverage, also admitted surprise at the quarterback decision.
“We didn’t know until game time like everybody else,” Jenkins said. “But [Joe] prepared all week like he was going to be the starter. And he did everything he could. We just weren’t efficient as we could have been on offense trying to win the game.”
Counting to 12
Jasper Brinkley might have been the Viking caught sprinting to the sideline when the field goal block unit was flagged for having 12 men in the huddle in the third quarter. But Brinkley wasn’t the one at fault. Instead, he was designated to count the Vikings on the field, a role that requires him to sprint off if there are too many out there.
“We needed to get one of our defensive ends off the field,” said coach Leslie Frazier. “We had two defensive ends on the field that play the same position.”
That penalty was arguably the most costly of the four flags the Vikings drew Saturday night. It came on fourth-and-4 with Green Bay’s Mason Crosby lining up for a 32-yard field goal. Instead, the Packers received a first down at the Vikings 9 and completed the drive on the next play with a 9-yard TD catch by John Kuhn.
Allen was miffed at the 12 men in the huddle call, under the impression the ball had to be snapped for the defense to be penalized in that situation.
Said Allen: “The refs said that was a new rule this year. Because I don’t know how a defense ever has 12 men in the huddle. We don’t huddle. … So that was news to me. I guess I should let the refs explain it. I really didn’t want to hear it. So I was just like, ‘See ya.’”
Cornerback Antoine Winfield fought through the pain in his fractured right hand as best he could Saturday. Winfield started and never aggravated the injury but admitted afterward the sturdier soft cast he wore to protect the hand made it more difficult to jam receivers.
“The way my hand was in the cast, it wouldn’t bend all the way back,” Winfield said. “So my hand placement was kind of off.”
Winfield, 35, has now completed his 14th season in the league and has one year left on his contract. He said he certainly plans to be back in 2013.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve got to get 15 in. That’s a good number.”
Quotes of note
Here’s Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on the pride he had in this season’s 10-win campaign: “The effort they gave every single week over the course of this season, including tonight. These guys never let anyone put limitations on what they could achieve. They played as hard as they could and tried to do the very best they could to give us a chance to win. And I told them that after the game. We are all extremely proud of every one of them.
And here’s Frazier on the skills in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers he admires: “He’s a very accurate passer on the run. That’s the thing that sticks out. When you get him moving around like you want to, he has the ability to make throws on the run. [That] creates a lot of problems for your defense. Because guys end up uncovered even when you get a good pass rush. It just creates a lot of problems, his ability to throw as well as he does on the run.”
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