The ball is back in Antoine Winfield’s court now. The Vikings have made it clear to the veteran cornerback that they’d love to have him back for 2013, even after releasing him in the hour before free agency began last week.
But now Winfield has to decide whether that reunion is something he is truly up for and will be worth it with whatever the Vikings feel they can afford to lure him back.
On the one hand, you’d think the tough-minded cornerback might be magnetized back to the franchise where he has shown his talents since 2004. The prospect of starting over, in a new city with a new team within a new defense, has to be somewhat daunting for a guy in the stretch run of his career.
But on the flip side, interest from other teams has been brewing. And given Winfield’s incredible productivity last season, he’s probably worth more than the Vikings can afford to pay him next season.
Consider this a battle between familiarity and true value.
And in his most recent conversation with Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, Winfield expressed at least some appreciation that the door to Winter Park has not been slammed shut – even if the Vikings’ vision would be to use him exclusively as a nickel corner going forward.
“He made me believe that there was a possibility that things could be worked out here, that he would be back in Minnesota,” Frazier said on the final day of the NFL’s annual meetings Wednesday. “I do know there are other teams calling and seeing what his interest is in continuing to play. And he does want to continue to play. But he gave me the impression that he’d like to be able to be back here in Minnesota. Now it’s just a matter of can we work things out financially to his liking as well as our team’s liking.”
By all accounts, Winfield handled his surprise release last week with professionalism. Sure, Winfield was blindsided by the timing. And initially, he was stunned by how abrupt his nine seasons as a Vikings came to an end. But having been in the league since 1999, Winfield understood no player is ever safe from getting axed.
At times, roster reshuffling and contractual analysis turn an incredibly emotional sport into a cold business process. And with the Vikings needing extra piles of cash to push through the first week of free agency, Winfield’s $7.25 million salary was seen as a major obstacle to the organization, which later needed the salary cap space to deliver hefty contracts to receiver Greg Jennings, right tackle Phil Loadholt, quarterback Matt Cassel and fullback Jerome Felton.
But inevitably, there are also complications to that approach. Winfield, after all, is more than just a salary figure. He is a leader around whom the Vikings’ young secondary rallied last year. He set an example on how to prepare. He used 14 years of NFL experience to teach his younger teammates. He was consistently a blast of positive energy throughout a season in which the Vikings surged to 10 wins against all odds.
“He was the glue,” Frazier said. “The way that he was in our meeting rooms, at practice, his participation in the offseason program. He was one of those guys who had not been around a lot in the offseason. And he was at everything a year ago. So his influence, you can’t put a dollar figure on that. It made a big difference on our season and in the development of a lot of players as well.”
Yet now, the Vikings will have to put a dollar figure on all that if they’re to realize any hopes of keeping Winfield in Minnesota.
“That’s the business part of our business,” Frazier said. “He understands it. … Now it’s just a matter of can the numbers work?”