The Vikings may not have a chance to even bid on wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who would hit the free-agent market on Feb. 29 if the Chicago Bears don't apply the franchise tag by 4 p.m. Eastern Thursday or sign him to a long-term contract before the start of free agency.
Bears coach Lovie Smith said from the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday that retaining Berrian is one of the club's goals.
"We drafted Bernard. We've seen him grow as a person and of course as a player. He's a very good football player. He's a (number) one receiver," Smith said. "Hopefully we can find a way to keep him in Chicago."
If they can't sign him to a free-agent contract before 4 p.m. Thursday, placing the franchise tag on him might be the next most likely option.
"Of course we're keeping all options open, but right now more than anything I'm just interested in us finding a way to do it, to keep him there," Smith said.
Berrian had 51 and 71 catches, respectively, in the past two seasons for 951 and 775 yards despite what is generally considered a less-than-desirable quarterback situation in Chicago.
With the Vikings' need at the receiver position, Berrian would seem to be a player they would be interested in if he does reach the free-agent market. Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman declined to comment on Berrian specifically on Thursday because he is still under contract with the Bears, but Spielman indicated there aren't too many "blue-chip" wide receivers on the market but there are "some."
"I would say there are a lot of players at that position, but not that many blue-chip players," Spielman said. "There are some."
If Berrian doesn't make it to the open market, Seahawks receiver D.J. Hackett is generally considered the next-best prospect, but Berrian would be the cream of the receiver crop if he isn't franchised.
"We're monitoring who gets franchised, who does not get franchised and I know speaking with the ownership and laying out our game plan with Brad (Childress) that if there are some blue-chip-type players out there, we'll try to do everything to make a swing at them, regardless of position," Spielman said.
Former Dolphins receiver Marty Booker and former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler have already been released and can be signed at any time.
"The guys that have been released, we've gone through all the tapes and evaluated them. But if there's a blue-chip guy out there in free agency that we can go take a swing at, we're going to," Spielman said. "If there is a veteran out there that can help us, we'll definitely look at that. But I feel very strongly about building this thing through the draft."
Spielman said the fact that the team hasn't signed any free agents doesn't mean they aren't interested.
"That doesn't say that we haven't talked to their agents," he said. "Pretty much our whole office is down here right now at the Combine and there are a lot of agents down here at the Combine. There are guys on the street that you are able to talk to their agents about, there potentially could be conversations here."
But the Vikings also bowed out of the bidding for two coveted free agents last year, and Spielman said they have to be cautious about not spending more on a player than they perceive he's worth. And now a number of teams have a lot of money to spend in free agency.
"What's going to happen is there will be less than blue-chip-type players getting blue-chip money," Spielman said. "You have a roster in your locker room and those guys are all under contract, and you bring in this guy who may be less talented but making more money, how does that affect them? But that's what the market is dictating. That's another reason we're very specific on if we're going to go out and spend blue-chip money, we want to make sure we have all the stars aligned with that player, not only on the field but off the field as well."
Spielman said the Vikings haven't had an issue with that in their locker room, but they also have been aggressive in signing guys to extensions who are in the last year of their contract.
The Vikings are also meeting with the agents for all of their own free agents during the Combine, Spielman said. That list includes fullback Tony Richardson, running back Mewelde Moore, wide receiver Robert Ferguson, defensive end Darrion Scott, defensive tackle Spencer Johnson, linebackers Dontarrious Thomas and Heath Farwell and safeties Tank Williams and Mike Doss.
The Vikings are currently about $15 million under the salary cap and are expected to be about $30 million under at the start of free agency, when certain salary-cap maneuvers (incentives that are termed not likely to be earned) will kick in for the 2008 league year.
Spielman Talks Free-Agent Possibilities
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