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.
The NFL Combine officially gets underway Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And while the hype of the event will center mostly around the 40-yard dash times, bench press reps and shuttle runs of the more than 300 draft prospects invited to participate, some of the most significant action of the week occurs behind the scenes as NFL general managers and front office personnel meet with agents to begin discussing the approach of free agency.
At this stage, league rules state that teams are only allowed to talk with the agents of their own players. So with the Vikings needing to make decisions on 10 unrestricted free agents who are scheduled to hit the open market March 12, here’s our quick update on where we think things might be headed.
Today, we look at the six offensive free agents.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman is fully sincere when he expresses his desire to retain continuity on the offensive line. Which makes Loadholt, the starting right tackle, a top in-house priority. But the Vikings don’t have full control of the situation. Loadholt and agent Gary Uberstine will almost certainly take a pulse on outside interest to get a feel for what kind of demand exists and what kind of asking price they can set. Loadholt has shown growth in his four seasons in the league. And he continues to be a mauler in the running game. The Vikings would certainly love to have him back. And he’d love to be back. But there are also business dynamics at play that will create some complexity.
The likely move: This one could get tricky. In some ways, it’s a bit of a surprise Loadholt hasn’t already re-signed. But that could be an indication that the tackle and his representatives believe there might be more out there for them than anything the Vikings have proposed to this point. Diminishing the Vikings’ leverage is the reality that there aren’t likely to be many top-tier replacement options for Loadholt on the free agent market or in the draft. And it’s hard to believe that Kevin Murphy, a practice squader in 2012, or DeMarcus Love, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011 who has yet to be active for an NFL game, would provide enough confidence for the Vikings to let Loadholt get away. Of course, there’s always the option of stamping Loadholt with a franchise tag or transition tag. But those options seem highly unlikely given the price of doing so for offensive linemen.
This should be the Vikings’ easiest decision amongst their in-house free agents. Last offseason, Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier were convinced Adrian Peterson could see a spike in productivity if he had a rugged and dependable fullback ahead of him. Then Felton came to town on a one-year deal, helped spark Peterson to a 2,097-yard rushing season and made his first Pro Bowl. The 26-year-old bruiser appreciates the opportunity he was given and the situation he is in and had made it very clear that he wants to stick around for a while. Which is exactly what the Vikings seem to want too. At this point, it’s simply a matter of Felton’s camp and the Vikings front office getting on the same page with Felton’s value and then setting the appropriate length of the next contract.
The likely move: Felton will almost certainly be re-signed. But it may not necessarily come before the free agent market opens. As a matter of business principal, Felton and his agent will listen to other teams to gauge an appropriate market value, then push the Vikings to deliver accordingly. Still, this deal should get done without many headaches.
Signed to a one-year deal worth approximately $2 million last April, Simpson had a 2012 run that was majorly disappointing. He missed the season’s first three games due to a league suspension, flashed promise in his Vikings debut Detroit, then suffered an odd lower back/leg injury that hindered him in Week 5, made him inactive in Week 6 and then limited him to 11 catches and 126 yards over the next seven games. Yeah, this isn’t what anybody had in mind a year ago. And as the season dragged on, the effervescence Simpson showed during training camp was replaced by a frustrated and somewhat testy deportment.
The likely move: It’s up to the Vikings to determine just how much Simpson’s back ailment contributed to his production struggles. If there’s a) a belief that a return to full health would significantly help the production spike; and b) a cheap deal that can be reached, don’t be surprised if Simpson is brought back for a second go-around. Keep in mind, the needed overhaul of the Vikings’ receiving corps will take more than one offseason to complete. And if you’re looking at the receivers who were on the active roster at season’s end, that’s a list that includes Simpson; Michael Jenkins (approaching his 31st birthday and a candidate to soon be released); Devin Aromashodu (also a free agent) and Stephen Burton (seven catches, 73 yards in his first two seasons.) You can’t start totally over at that receiver position and Simpson is probably worth another roll of the dice.
Understand this: Schwartz has made it very clear he has no intention of going into 2013 as a reserve. So unless the Vikings can find a starting spot for him, he’s as good as gone. Schwartz logged all his time in 2012 at right guard, sharing snaps with Brandon Fusco from Weeks 6-15. But Fusco, who has a big fan in Spielman, started the season as the undisputed starter and ended it that way too.
The likely move: Schwartz missed all of 2011 following hip surgery and then was derailed in training camp last summer by sports hernia surgery. He was decent in the time he played but still lacked the tempo the Vikings hoped to see him play with. As a result, he never did enough with his limited opportunity to stand out and overtake Fusco. There certainly should be opportunities elsewhere for Schwartz to start and he will be more than happy to chase whichever one suits him best. So his one-year stop through Minnesota is likely over.
Selfless veteran. Good teammate. Hard worker. These are all things the Vikings love. Problem is Aromashodu has never quite emerged as the consistent playmaker he seemingly has the potential to be. In two seasons and 31 games as a Viking, he has totaled 37 catches, 650 yards and one touchdown. He’s had only five games in Minnesota with more than two catches.
The likely move: Time to cut ties. Again, the Vikings coaching staff can talk all they want about Aromashodu’s crisp route running and intelligence and easygoing nature. But he just hasn’t delivered enough on game days. It’s time to search for new answers at receiver.
A smart and versatile lineman with eight NFL seasons under his belt, Berger proved to be a serviceable fill-in at both center and guard when called upon in 2011. In 2012, he wasn’t needed.
The likely move: Berger is one of those “Either way” guys. As in, if he’s back, OK. If he’s not, no big deal. The Vikings lucked out with the health of their o-line starters this past season. Berger certainly provides a bit of depth if he’s kept around. But it also wouldn’t be that difficult to find an equal or better replacement either.
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. Over the next 10 days, we will deliver a snapshot evaluation of every position group.
Today, we lead things off with a big picture look at the direction of the franchise.
Get excited: Head coach Leslie Frazier believes strongly in building around high-character players who are not only talented but willing to invest in bettering themselves and the team as a whole. Frazier has talked at length over the past year about molding a “tough, smart, disciplined football team.” And from the results of 2012, it’s clear his vision has been embraced throughout the organization.
Even if it doesn’t generate much buzz, team building is a big, big deal in the NFL. And Frazier is proving to be a master at it, finding ways to keep his squad united and energized even through the inevitable discouraging slumps of a long season. It was one thing for players to buy into Frazier’s blueprint for success last spring when 2011’s disastrous 3-13 finish generated so much hunger for a bounce-back season. But it was quite another for Frazier to retain his team’s belief and buy-in when a skid of five losses in seven games pushed the Vikings to 6-6 in early December. That provided a fork in the road in the 2012 season. And the Vikings steered away from the “Here we go again” path and opted instead to channel their focus on winning four consecutive games to end the season. That they accomplished that goal, earning the NFC’s final wild card berth, provided validation for all Frazier had preached.
Now the Vikings have proof that Frazier’s coaching philosophy can generate significant success. And players have seen the results of retaining strong camaraderie and a contagious team work ethic. As defensive end Jared Allen said, receiving a reward for all the perseverance was essential at the end of a long season.
“It’s like training a dog or something,” Allen said. “You can’t just keep asking him to do something without a reward. So if what the coaches are asking you to do and the hard working isn’t paying off, it’s hard to come back and say, ‘OK, I’m going to keep hitting my head against this wall and hopefully I’ll accomplish something.’ To have the payoff of success [for us] is going to breed confidence and instill that trust that, OK, what they’re saying can lead to success. We’ve done it before.
“Next year, when we’re in tight situations, what if we’re 3-3? How are you going to handle that? Guess what, we’ve been 6-6 and had to make a run and we made it. I think having that kind of confidence, you hope everybody uses that the right way.”
Frazier also seems to have a knack for getting players to focus on the littlest details of preparation each week without losing sight of the big picture after each game’s result. That Frazier is beloved by his players, his coaching staff, the front office and team ownership will go a long way toward propelling 2012’s success forward. A contract extension for the head coach is on the way soon. That’s a “when” not “if” situation.
Keep an eye on: The opening of free agency and April's draft. In his first offseason as GM, Rick Spielman had a concrete plan for the 2012 draft and executed it nicely, putting together an impressive class that yielded standout left tackle Matt Kalil, starting safety Harrison Smith, Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh and promising receiver Jarius Wright. Spielman won't give that class a grade until after the 2014 season. That's his rule. But the early returns are encouraging, which breeds hope for repeat draft success this year.
Still, as strong as the Vikings’ 2012 draft was, Spielman’s stroll through the free agent market last spring produced a pair of high-profile signings in tight end John Carlson and receiver Jerome Simpson that didn’t pay many dividends. That duo was expected to enliven the Vikings’ passing attack. Instead, they combined for 34 catches, 317 yards and zero touchdowns. Yep, combined.
To his credit, Spielman did discover a diamond in the rough last spring in fullback Jerome Felton, who emerged as a Pro Bowler this season. Felton was selfless and tough and always prepared, aiding Adrian Peterson’s monstrous MVP-caliber season.
Remember this: Spielman’s long-term philosophy is to build through the draft and supplement with selective free agent signings. So it will be interesting to see just how active he is this March. There are a half-dozen notable in-house free agents to evaluate first: Felton, Phil Loadholt, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Simpson and Jamarca Sanford. Then, with very few salary cap restrictions, Spielman should be able to browse through free agency for guys who register as "Vikings fits." Under the current thinking, fans should not be expecting a spending spree. There may not even be rewarded any big-name acquisitions. As much as anything, Spielman will have to make sure any higher profile signings he does make produce better results than a year ago.
Reason for worry: Even though the Vikings finished 10-6 and only a game back of NFC North champ Green Bay and even though they appear positioned to use that stellar campaign as a springboard, this is still the NFL. And there are no guarantees that the fantastic turnaround year in 2012 will be followed with another playoff run in 2013. For one thing, the Vikings may reside in the toughest division in football. Aaron Rodgers will have the Packers positioned to win the division for the third consecutive season. The Bears are a 10-6 team that now has new head coach Marc Trestman in position to try and push them over the hump. And for all the flaws in Detroit, the Lions are still stocked with talent. In other words, the Vikings’ margin for error will remain razor thin.
The Vikings will also face a much tougher schedule in 2013 than they enjoyed this past year. And we mean much tougher. In addition to the division games, there will be road trips to play the Seahawks, Bengals, Ravens, Giants and Cowboys plus a “home” game in London against the Steelers that will be followed by a very early Week 5 bye.
We won’t know the order of any of the other games until April. But at present, a home game with Cleveland seems to be the closest thing to a gimme the Vikings will have.
Quarterback Christian Ponder is listed as questionable for the Vikings-Packers game tomorrow because of his sore right elbow. Ponder had limited participation in practice all week.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield is also questionable because of his broken right hand.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Thursday that he expected both to play.
Tyrone McKenzie, one of the team's top special teams player, is out because of an injured shoulder.
Listed as probable are running back Adrian Peterson (abdomen), safety Harrison Smith (knee), defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder), defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder), cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle), defensive end George Johnson (quadriceps), punter Chris Kluwe (left, or non-kicking, knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee).
Update: For the Packers, defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee) and wide reciever Jarrett Boykin (ankle) are out, and running back James Starks (knee) is questionable.
Cornerback Charles Woodson returns from a broken collarbone and is probable, as are wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee), receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb (ankle) and running back Alex Green (hip).
Out means a player has no chance of playing (unless he's Brett Favre). Questionable is 50 percent chance. Probable is virtual certainty he will play.
The Vikings won’t know until later in the week whether cornerback Antoine Winfield will be available for the Packers game on Saturday.
Winfield broke his right hand in the Vikings’ victory at Houston Dec. 23. He returned to play in Sunday’s game against Green Bay before pain forced him to leave the game. The Packers passing game heated up quickly after that.
During his press conference Monday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said was simply pain – not further injury – that forced Winfield out of the game. As for his availability for Saturday’s rematch with the Packers in Green Bay?
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Antoine,” Frazier said. “We’ll see how he does throughout the week. He was in quite a bit of pain [Sunday], so we’ll have to see how he does throughout the week and make a decision, maybe, later on.”
Marcus Sherels was inserted as Winfield’s replacement as the slot cornerback in passing situations. Frazier said the team went with – and stayed with – Sherels for the rest of the game because he has gotten more reps in the slot than rookie Josh Robinson, and that Robinson was best suited to play on the outside. That said, Frazier hinted that, should Winfield be unavailable, the Vikings might re-think their nickel defense.
“There are some things we’ll have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different,” Frazier said. “But it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner.”
Frazier said defensive end Brian Robison, who returned from a sprained shoulder to play Sunday, came out of the game OK.
Running back Adrian Peterson told Frazier that he felt better coming out of Sunday’s 199-yard performance than he did a week ago, when he finished the Houston game feeling a bit banged up.
Frazier said safety Harrison Smith – who left Sunday’s game for a spell with a shoulder issue – should be able to practice this week, though perhaps in a limited way. He is expected to play in Green Bay. The same goes for tackle Phil Loadholt. Frazier said there were some other players who were “nicked up.”
Peaking at the right time?
Recent history suggests that it is sometimes the hottest team – rather than the team with the best record overall – that has an edge as the playoffs begin. So does that mean the Vikings. Who won their last four regular season games, are in a good spot?
Frazier wouldn’t go that far. But it can’t hurt.
“We’ve played some games, in this last month, where we pretty much had our back against the wall, where we needed to get a win each week,” Frazier said. “Particularly these last four weeks. And our guys have risen to the challenge, played extremely well, and got us those wins. Now we’re into a whole new season. We hope we can continue that and improve, ‘cause we’re going to need to improve to go play on the road. It’s a big challenge for us, but we need to keep improving.”
Searching for lost yards?
Given that Peterson finished just nine yards short of setting the NFL’s all-time rushing record, Frazier was asked Monday if he was going to have somebody review the season to see if a few extra yards could be found.
“If we could find those hidden yards, we would do it,” Frazier joked. “They have different people who will be doing that. But we’ll be doing our own homework as well. If we can find nine yards, we’re going to find them.”
Seriously, though, Frazier said he expected another run at Eric Dickerson’s record next season.
“As you know, it doesn’t take much to get him going when he sets a goal,” Frazier said. “I wouldn’t put it past Adrian Peterson to shoot for that record next year and even attain it. He is one of those guys you never bet against. If that’s in his sights, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with Adrian.”
A familiar opponent
Saturday will mark the third game between the Vikings and Packers in five weeks. So, it will probably be difficult for either side to do anything to fool the other.
“We’ll look as hard as we can to see if there is anything we can do differently to help us,” Frazier said. “And for how we can improve across the board as a team. But we’re so familiar with one another, there aren’t a whole lot of new things you can do. But you can try to improve on what you have been doing. And what’s what we’ll try to get done.”
Upon further review…
Frazier said linebacker Erin Henderson should have stayed with Packers receiver Greg Jennings on the third-quarter Packers touchdown. Henderson let Jennings go, and Jennings was all alone in the left corner of the end zone for his five-yard TD reception .
Are the Vikings really out of step in a pass-happy NFL? Six of the eight top rushing teams in the league are in the playoffs, including the second-ranked Vikings.
And the ability to run could become even more important in a game where weather could inhibit a passing attack.
“I would think so,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what the conditions are going to be at Lambeau yet, but I’m still going back to what I think is best for us. It’s a formula I think that can work no matter the conditions.”
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