People never get younger, but teams can.
The Minnesota Vikings in 2010 were one of the oldest teams in the NFL, and it's not difficult for a cursory look to show why. There was Brett Favre playing quarterback at age 41. There was Pat Williams in the middle of the defensive line at 38. There was Ryan Longwell kicking at age 36.
The Vikings finished the 2010 season with 15 players 30 years or older on their active roster. With players entering the NFL as young as 20 or 21 years of age and the average career expectancy between three and four seasons, it's easy to see why the Vikings were one of the oldest clubs in a young man's sport. That is bound to change in 2011.
"We're going to be a younger team for sure going into next season," said Rick Spielman, the Vikings vice president of player personnel. "Rookies are going to get forced into action. They are going to have to step up and play. I also have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and their history of developing young guys and getting them ready to play."
Last year, the Vikings returned all 22 starters from their 2009 roster. This year, that number is likely to shrink into the teens. Favre is retiring. Williams is scheduled to be a free agent and isn't sure he'll be returning to the Vikings, a team he views as being in rebuilding mode. Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice and Ben Leber are other starters who are also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents if the rules of free agency return to 2009 form or earlier, which is the anticipated path a new collective bargaining agreement would take.
But, despite all the potential defections, Spielman sees hope for the immediate future.
"I think there is a good, young nucleus on this football team," he said, but … "I also think there were some older guys on this football team. We have a lot of unrestricted free agents up. You say you would love to keep them all back, but that's not the reality, so we are going to make some tough decisions. But I know we are pretty excited about some of the youth we have on this football team and some of the nucleus and core pieces that we do have in place."
Most of the impressive young talent has come through the draft, including Rice and running back Adrian Peterson, who were both products of the 2007 draft. Receiver Percy Harvin came in the 2009 draft and linebacker Chad Greenway was a product of the 2006 draft.
Last year, however, not many of the Vikings drafted were worked into a starting role early. Cornerback Chris Cook, the Vikings' first selection in the second round, looked like a viable starter until medial collateral ligament injuries in both knees derailed his season. Running back Toby Gerhart eventually became a workable backup to Peterson. Fifth-round pick Chris DeGeare ended up being a starter at guard out of necessity when Steve Hutchinson's thumb injury sent him to injured reserve, and sixth-round pick Joe Webb – originally drafted as a wide receiver – started the final games after Favre and Tarvaris Jackson were lost to injuries.
It was never the plan to have the rookies of 2010 start.
"Last year's draft was done because we had everybody back. It was done for, I wouldn't say depth, it was done for the future," Spielman said. "Some of those guys, again, when you had as much depth as we had, you had the veteran roster we had, those guys were going to be role players for you. We had some injuries and some guys had to step in. When the guys did step in, we were very excited about some of the stuff Chris DeGeare showed at the end of the season and how he progressed in his first start to where he was at the end of the season. The Joe Webbs. Toby Gerhart got better and better as the season went along. Everyone can see the Green Bay game, but what Chris Cook did in those other games when he played against the Calvin Johnsons of the world, we were very encouraged about the signs he showed. We're pretty excited about the class last year."
This year, because of potential free-agent losses, the Vikings could be drafting a few starters. The personnel department is about halfway through the evaluation process. They have gone through the college season, bowl season and all-star game season. The NFL Scouting Combine starts in earnest Thursday for the next five days, and pro days, private workouts and predraft visits are on the March and April horizons.
The wildcard in the decision-making is the starting date of free agency. It was scheduled to start on March 3, but it won't begin until a collective bargaining agreement is reached. The NFL and the NFL Players Association is at the tail end of seven days of mediated negotiations, but it's unclear if any real progress is being made in what has been an otherwise seemingly adversarial process.
If free agency is delayed until after the April 28-30 draft, it could change the dynamics of how teams view the value of college prospects.
"I think you know as you go through you've got to understand where the strengths are in free agency," Spielman said. "First, you have to understand where your holes are on your roster and where you need to get better. Then you've got to understand, what are the strongest positions in free agency? And then, where are the strengths in the draft? Taking all those things, your holes, and then do you have to fill it through free agency or can you go ahead and fill it in the draft? Would you rather go with younger and try to build it that way."
No matter the timing free agency, it appears clear the Vikings will be getting younger, and they will be getting the chance to interview 60 incoming rookies with this week's NFL Scouting Combine.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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