One of the first nameplates to disappear Monday from above the locker stalls at Winter Park was Jerick McKinnon’s. But the running back wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere.
He stopped by nearly every teammate in the room, shook hands, exchanged hugs and said a few words.
McKinnon said he loved playing for the Vikings, but he is about to enter free agency, and he knows the Vikings might not be the best option for him to advance his career. McKinnon has little interest in being a part of a crowded backfield that would likely include his running mate for most of the season, Latavius Murray, who is under contract through 2019, and Dalvin Cook, the talented rookie who was getting most of the carries before he tore up his left knee in Week 4.
“I don’t put in all the work in the offseason to come back and be in this role,” said McKinnon, 25. “I appreciate the role. It worked out well. But I want bigger and better things for myself. We’ll see what happens.
“There’s a lot of things that go into that whole situation that can be a determining factor — offensive schemes, financial reasons. It’ll be a lot to sit down and think about, but it’ll be a fun time to experience too.”
McKinnon saw his opportunity skyrocket after Cook went down. The versatile back finished with 570 yards rushing, 421 yards receiving and five touchdowns. McKinnon said he would love to return to the Vikings, where he said there is “a lot of love and support in the locker room.” But love doesn’t equal money and it doesn’t equal opportunity in the NFL.
“If I don’t come back, I’m definitely going to miss all the guys in this locker room. It’s like brotherly love,” said McKinnon, a Vikings third-round draft pick in 2014. “I’ve got nothing but respect for everybody. I appreciate the way everybody works; they come to work every day in practice, give it all on Sundays. That’s been my main thing. Just cherishing these last couple hours, seconds, before I really don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Up and down the roster, from McKinnon to quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings will have decisions to make on several key free agents.
Among them are defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson; receiver and St. Paul native Michael Floyd, who declined to comment Monday; and kicker Kai Forbath, who hit 32 of 38 field goals during the regular season.
Stephen, who had 28 tackles, doesn’t know what to expect in the days and weeks to come.
“We have the same goal in mind, just to win,” Stephen said. “I think for me, I love to be around these guys at this point, I just want to see what happens.”
The same goes for Forbath, who said his goal was to remain with the Vikings but wasn’t sure if the team had him in its plans.
“That’s out of my control,” Forbath said. “I did what I could this year. Hopefully I made enough kicks to where they want me back because I definitely want to be back here. …
“It’s tough because you don’t know what the future is going to hold. I loved playing for this team and made it very clear that this was somewhere I want to be.”
But the harsh reality is not everyone who wants to be back next season will be.