Sunday slant: Looking for leaders

The release of Antoine Winfield left a huge leadership void on defense. Who are the potential replacements in that category?

Leslie Frazier knows that one of the risks of an increasingly younger roster is the potential lack of leadership, and the Vikings head coach lost one of his favorites when management decided Antoine Winfield's age and production weren't commensurate with his salary.

It was only little more than two months ago that Winfield was let go, but his presence was felt off the field at key times. He wasn't the everyday rah-rah inspirational leader from an emotional standpoint, but last year, when the Vikings needed a big boost most, it was Winfield that provided it.

To wit: The three successive headlines on VikingUpdate.com with Winfield's name in it:

  • Oct. 10: "Winfield plays days after brother's death"

  • Oct. 14: "Winfield returns after brother's funeral"

  • Oct. 19: "Winfield makes rare speech to Vikings"

    In the midst of his 14th NFL season, and playing under Mike Tice, Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier during his nine years with the Vikings, Winfield knew time was fleeting on his NFL career. For years, the Vikings had been talking about a reduced role for him to save on the wear and tear to his body, but he was too valuable in a secondary that was often thin on viable replacements.

    He tied rookie safety Harrison Smith for the team lead with three interceptions. Josh Robinson had two and no other cornerback had an interception last year.

    Replacing Winfield off the field may be just as difficult.

    The day after the Vikings fell to 1-1 with a 23-20 loss to an Indianapolis Colts team that was starting a rookie quarterback, Winfield didn't want one loss to spiral into three or four and have their playoff hopes essentially be dashed before the season was halfway over, which happened the previous year.

    "I only stand up and say stuff when it's coming from the heart, when I think it needs to be said," Winfield said days after his delivery while declining to get into specifics of what he said. "I don't get up there and stand up there and say something every week.

    "I'm only playing this game because I want to win a championship. It's not about the money anymore. I still love to play. I think I'm still productive. I can still play at a high level, so that's why I'm here."

    The Vikings rebounded and won their next three games, including knocking off the eventual NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers with a 24-13 win at home.

    For weeks, teammates and coaches talked about the difference Winfield's speech made and the respect they have for him as a person and professional. His study habits on opponents and knowledge of the game have especially made an impact on the defensive backfield.

    He was certainly important to the Vikings on the field, but he was a 5-foot-9, 180-pound leadership giant off the field.

    So how do the Vikings go about replacing that?

    In the defensive backfield, Jamarca Sanford is the player with the most experience with the Vikings, and he is entering only his fifth NFL season. Still, Winfield was one of Sanford's closest friends on the team and Sanford saw how he operated, which may have been part of what turned Sanford from a seventh-round draft pick in 2009 into a valued starter in 2012.

    Their personalities are far different. Winfield will take down a 230-pound running back with a head steam, pop back up and return to the huddle with a smile on his face. Sanford would send his broader shoulders into that same running back and tell everybody else about it. His good-natured trash talking is usually reserved for teammates in the locker room or practice field, but he lacks no confidence.

    The defensive line has a few wily veterans, Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, but this being Williams' final season in purple seems like a foregone conclusion, and Allen is also in the final year of his contract.

    In the middle of the defense, Erin Henderson badly wants to become that missing leader and embrace the responsibilities that come with it.

    "Definitely, no questions asked. You're in charge of all the checks and everything else. Fortunately for me, you have teammates out there who are communicating and talking as well and see the same things that you see. A lot of the onus isn't always on you, but when it comes down to it, you have to be the one making the checks so it is more responsibility," Henderson said.

    "That's pretty simple for me to just yell at people and tell them what to do so it's not a problem."

    The question is whether Henderson has establish himself on the field enough to gain the kind of respect Winfield earned in his nine seasons as a starter, including three Pro Bowls. Henderson can't force that issue.

    The closest combination of experience, talent and long-term sustainability could be Chad Greenway. He isn't afraid to tweak a teammate or even a coach with his touch of sarcasm, and his play on the field is respected, too.

    Management made a calculated, numbers-crunching move with the release of Winfield. Now it's on the coaches and players to figure out how to replace his value off the field as much as his production on it.

    It could take a Vikings village.


    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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