Will Kleinsasser Stay?

With free agency looming, many teams are finalizing their own re-signing plans before players hit the open market. Barring a late flurry of activity, it looks as though the Vikings are going to move on without Jim Kleinsasser when the free agent period opens.

A year ago, the Vikings were so concerned about losing tight end Jim Kleinsasser that they did what many NFL observers thought was unthinkable -- slap a franchise tag on a tight end. Ordinarily, as its name implies, the franchise tag is reserved for players like Peyton Manning. The only other team to designate a tight end was the same team preparing to do it to Manning -- the Colts -- when they franchised Marcus Pollard.

Two years after the fact, Pollard is in a time share with the future being in 2003 rookie Dallas Clark. One year after franchising Kleinsasser, the Vikes appear willing and able to move on.

Red McCombs has insisted that he would prefer Kleinsasser to remain a Viking. So did Mike Tice, who has only recently stopped talking about Kleinsasser's future with the team.

Some might point to the stockpiling on young tight ends as an indication the Kleinsasser ship has already sailed. But, when you look at the list, you aren't going to be finding Todd Heaps or Shannon Sharpes among them. Kleinsasser has developed into one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and a much more dependable receiver. In an era that has spread the West Coast Offense faster than monkey pox, a tight end who is versatile has an incredible value.

Tight end was almost an afterthought in past years on draft day. But that has changed with the proliferation of the WCO. In the last two years, seven teams have taken a tight end on draft day -- four in the first round -- and Miami's Kellen Winslow looks to go in the top 10 picks this year. Tight end is a position of value and the Vikes may not be willing to spend to keep up the pace.

Kleinsasser got $3 million in 2003 for accepting the franchise tag. With the release of Byron Chamberlain, there is money in the budget to pay him. The drama now centers on how badly both the Vikings and Kleinsasser desire to stay together. If a team comes with a suitcase full of cash, the Vikings will have to re-assess the tight end position, which could eventually affect their draft strategy.

* Former Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson was named the Bears' quarterbacks coach. His first job will be to speed up the progress of Rex Grossman, who looks to enter this year's training camp as the starter.

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