Sunday slant: Health will dictate DE decision

The Vikings have their top four defensive ends entering a contract year, with their two starters coming off injury-filled seasons. Their health and production will set the tone for their contract talks, or if the Vikings even want to talk contract with some of them.

Every March, the Vikings face difficult free agent decisions.

Only three months ago, they shocked many when they decided to release Antoine Winfield in order to sign all but one of their other starting free agents to multi-year deals. The old man of the secondary left and Percy Harvin was traded, but the Vikings retained younger starters like Erin Henderson, Phil Loadholt and Jerome Felton. The only starter they elected not to re-sign was middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley (Henderson will fill his spot and others will battle for Henderson's vacated weakside linebacker position).

If no contract extensions are signed the rest of this year, there is no doubt what will be the sensitive position before free agency opens on March 11, 2014. Defensive end will be a battle ground of negotiations for what will likely be the top four pass-rushing ends on the roster right now.

Jared Allen's six-year, $73.2 million deal is coming to an end with one hefty final payment that will weigh more than $17 million against the salary cap in 2013.

Brian Robison's three-year, $13.5 million deal is also set to expire after the 2013 season with his final year counting $6.7 million against the cap.

Less publicized is the culmination of Everson Griffen's four-year, $2.3 million rookie contract (only $765,000 against the cap) this year, and the fact that free agent Lawrence Jackson signed only a one-year, $780,000 contract with the Vikings this year.

The first three of those are saying all the right things this offseason when it comes to their contract situations. Some might have expected Allen, the superstar of the bunch, to grouse about going into the final year of his deal without an extension, but he hasn't.

"I was in an organization (the Kansas City Chiefs) previously that didn't respect where I was at in my contract. They promised me a lot of stuff and didn't deliver. And here, I don't have that problem," Allen said. "Me and Rick (Spielman) have a very great relationship. Me and coach (Leslie) Frazier have a great relationship. Me and Zygi (Wilf) have a great relationship. And we're all on the same page. You know what? I'm excited they're letting me play my contract out."

Allen admitted that he wanted to work on an extension previously, but he's not going to let it distract him from playing this season. At this point, he's lucky the Vikings didn't want him to renegotiate to a lower number, something that easily could have triggered a poisoning vibe with the emotional Allen.

For now, both sides seem willing to wait.

The same holds true with Robison, the other full-time starter at defensive end.

"I let (the contract) take care of itself. The bottom line is that I've just got to go out there and compete and try to become a better ballplayer and do the best I can on the field," Robison said. "Everything after that will take care of itself."

Griffen is in a bit of a different situation. He has never been a full-time starter and is still in his rookie contract, a much more palatable number for the Vikings. But in many ways, his situation is like Robison's was before he received his current deal.

Back in 2010, he was the backup to Ray Edwards, but Robison showed enticing promise as a situational pass rusher, just like Griffen now. The question facing Robison was how well he would hold up with full-time duty and whether he could be an effective run stopper.

He has adequately answered the run-stopping question and has been able to battle through injuries – this year it was shoulder and elbow injuries that both required bracing during the season but no surgery after the season – to remain on the field.

The biggest issue in the Vikings' decision-making could come to the health of the top three (Jackson hasn't proved he belongs there yet).

For Griffen, that hasn't been a problem. Despite minor elbow and quadriceps injuries, he has played in all 16 games the past two years as one of the key backups at defensive end. Robison has missed only one game in the last four years despite him playing like "RoboCop" with all the braces and harnesses last year), and Allen hasn't missed a game since signing with the Vikings in 2008 even though he admitted he was never as plagued by injuries as he was last year.

So far, Allen hasn't participated in offseason practices this year and isn't expect to until training camp, as they wait for a full rehabilitation from surgery to repair his torn labrum. Allen said his No. 1 job is to be ready by the start of the season, and for a player that annually does his own offseason routine that shouldn't be an issue.

After that, it will be a race for Allen, Robison, Griffen and Jackson to prove themselves and try to earn a multi-year extension. The Vikings will likely only have room for two of the three, and if Allen earns a new contract, as the sacks leader of the NFC in 2009 and the NFL in 2011, his potential earnings could force out any other big-money deals at the position.

But before either he or Robison ink a deal, they likely will be asked to show they have fully recovered from their 2012 injuries.

Frazier admitted the players need to keep the team first, despite Allen admitting that defensive ends often earn big contracts based off their sack numbers.

"You have other guys at other positions who are in contract years and you have to be able to get them to focus on the team goals and to understand that if we succeed as a team, they'll be the beneficiaries of it as well," Frazier said. "That will be a part of the task that I'll have, that Alan Williams, our defensive coordinator, will have, and (defensive line coaches) Brendan Daly and Diron Reynolds. With so many guys in the room who are in the final year of their contracts, not to just get stuck on, ‘I have to have this type of year to get paid' and lose sight of what we're trying to do as a team.

"They're playing for a reason, they want to get paid and there's nothing wrong with that, but we want to make sure we're focused on what will help our football team."

The players continue to say all the right things, but eventually it will be time to make a decision. Both Allen and Robison were adversely affected by injuries in 2012. How they rebound and ultimately perform in 2013 will set the tone for how the Vikings approach their contracts, along with those of Griffen and Jackson.

"All we're concentrating on is winning games in 2013 and if we do that, all the other stuff will take care of itself," Robison said. "If we sit there and worry about the contract thing and things like that, it's not going to do anything but hurt our play. I think any guy will tell you as long as your mind is on playing football and you're playing well, everything else will take care of itself."

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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