As the Vikings begin to evaluate their free agents and those from other teams, their assessments go well beyond the simple statistical lines.
The biggest names in the business aren't always the best fits. Schemes play a factor – a 3-4 linebacker won't do much good for the Vikings, and they need their cornerbacks to be physical and willing tacklers – and the coaching staff is always asked to define the characteristics of the ideal player at a position.
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen mentioned several times during the course of the season the chemistry he felt in the locker room in 2012. It was an interesting mix, too, because many long-time veterans were let go and an infusion of youth entered the building. The Vikings had 16 draft picks over the last two years and 35 players total that were on their season-ending roster for 2012 that weren't part of the Vikings at the end of 2010.
Figuring out how a new addition fits into the chemistry of the locker room is an important factor, general manager Rick Spielman said.
"That's part of the process of putting a football team together, too. Those are the things that when you bring guys in – and we are with this young nucleus of players and the type of players they are – you want to try to blend that chemistry so it's the same coming in," Spielman said. "How Chad Greenway evolved into where he's one of our core leaders, not only a great football player for us but a core leader. Now you look at a Harrison Smith and some of these rookies … Rhett Ellison where he fits all those similar characteristics that we want to build this team with.
"I think because of that and that chemistry in the locker room, that can get you through when we did have our dip and went through that adversity during the season. If you don't have all those high-character guys down in that locker room, it could very easily have gone the other way."
Kevin Williams has just about seen it all. He was part of the team during the so-called "Love Boat" scandal. He went through the firings of Mike Tice and Brad Childress as head coaches. He suffered through the tease of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. And he has been a staple in the locker room through the ensuing rebuilding of the team.
He now has seniority on the team, the only player left from the 2003 version of the Vikings, but despite a movement toward youth, he believes the organization is headed in the right direction.
"I think we're on the right track," Williams said. "To bring in the young guys we did and mix them in with the older guys, I think we had good success and can keep building. If we come in next year and bomb I think we'll all be disappointed. We want to build from that and I think we're on the right track."
The Vikings were the fourth-youngest team to start the 2012 season, but Spielman made the decision to keep around certain veterans. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser retired, and offensive linemen Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, along with CB Cedric Griffin were released. Some veteran leadership was needed, and now Spielman is left to make some more decisions with his veterans.
Williams, a 10-year veteran of the league, has two more years left on his contract and will cost $7.5 million against the 2013 salary cap. Antoine Winfield, entering his 15th season, will also count more than $7 million against the cap. And Jared Allen, entering his 10th NFL season, is scheduled to have about a $17 million cap charge in 2013. It's Spielman who has to weigh the value of veteran leadership versus big contracts.
"That's extremely hard, because there's a lot of value to that leadership and a lot of value to the character, especially to (Winfield and Williams)," Spielman said when asked about those two players specifically. "When you go through the whole process and start putting the pieces together, are there ways to keep them there? Should we keep them there? Do we try to renegotiate? Do you let them play out their deal? So there are a lot of different ways, and those are the decisions that we are going to have to make. But you still have to go out there and perform and play."
The Vikings finished the 2012 season with eight free agents on the roster. They hit on fullback Jerome Felton, who signed a one-year contract, helped lead the way for Adrian Peterson's 2,000-yard season, and made the Pro Bowl. They missed on tight end John Carlson, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract and had only eight catches.
"We've got a great GM in Rick Spielman. He obviously brought some guys in this year that helped us win a lot of games, and that's going to continue to help us win," Peterson said. "So I feel like they'll make the right adjustments, ranking the right people to continue and lead us in the direction we're headed."
Spielman indicated the Vikings would take a measured approach to free agency again this year and continue forward with his philosophy of mainly try to build the roster through the draft and re-sign the players he knows best "unless something unique out there happens."
"You never know," he said, "but we'll always have our radar up for anything unique that could eventually happen. But we'll take the same approach as we did last year."
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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