Cornerback Options Plentiful

The Vikings are definitely in the market for a cornerback, and the market is definitely ripe at that position. So who are the options, how do they stack up next to each other for production and how many of them will really see the open market on March 3? We take a look.

This much is certain: The Vikings have cornerback as either their No. 1 or No. 2 offseason personnel priority, and the options are many.

If the Vikings would strike out in the initial phases of free agency, starting March 3, the draft is also deep with talented prospects. According to TFY Draft Preview, the 2004 draft has five four-star cornerbacks — Oklahoma's Derrick Strait, South Carolina's Dunta Robinson, Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall, USC's Will Poole and Ohio State's Chris Gamble. All have size (from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-2), but none of them have the pro experience — and immediate insertion into the starting lineup — that a free-agent pickup would bring to the Vikings' secondary.

A look at the potential free-agent market also draws the conclusion that the time to nab a top-flight cornerback has never been better. Eight cornerbacks with big names could enter the market. Here is a look at them:

CHAMP BAILEY: The Redskins' Champ Bailey is the cream of the crop, but it is for that reason that the 6-foot, 192-pound corner is expected to command top dollar. That could be with the Redskins, his current team, or with someone else they have allowed him to pursue. A franchise tag by the Redskins would come with a price — at least $6.8 million this season.

Washington has been working to get him re-signed without that designation, and the arrival of new head coach Joe Gibbs was expected to help those negotiations, but so far the franchise's original offer that guaranteed a $7.4 million signing bonus was rejected, and they are now acting as if they might not be able to re-sign him.

In five years with the Redskins, Bailey has averaged 3.6 interceptions, but teams have generally shied away from testing him repeatedly. He has averaged 61 tackles a season.

With a market rich with cornerbacks, it's unlikely the Vikings would break the bank for Bailey, but because of that market Bailey might not get what he was hoping for from another NFL team.

CHRIS McCALISTER: The Raven's Chris McAlister is another player that is expected to receive the franchise tag if the team can't re-signed him before Feb. 24, but his agent, Mitch Frankel, said last week that he isn't optimistic about a long-term deal getting done in time.

McAlister earned $5.962 million last season as the team's franchise player and would receive a 20-percent increase if the team decides to apply that tag again. That would mean a $7.1 million salary for next season. There is speculation that McAlister wants a bonus ranging between $16 and $19 million.

If the Ravens franchise McAlister and another team signs him, they would owe the Ravens two first-round draft picks as compensation. That's an unlikely scenario, though.

Like Bailey, teams know full well McAlister's ability, and his opportunities for interceptions and tackles in one of the league's best defenses have declined because team avoid his side of the field more often. But still, at 6-1 and 206 pounds, he is a valuable commodity on the corner. He has averaged 2.8 interceptions and 51 tackles in his five NFL seasons.

ANTOINE WINFIELD: The Bills' Antoine Winfield might be more in line with the Vikings' interests. He is pound-for-pound among best tacklers in the NFL and can cover, but a lack of interceptions hurts his chances of signing a top deal, particularly with the gluttony of talent hitting the market. The Bills will make an attempt to re-sign Winfield but won't go overboard, and he has sent off plenty of signals that he's ready for a change, according to those covering the Bills.

One major connection the Vikings have to Winfield is that he played under new Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell when Cotrell was defensive coordinator in Buffalo. While Winfield is the smallest of the best at 5-9, 180 pounds, he is also one of the most active tacklers. His average of 1.2 interceptions in his five years in the league can be overlooked when considering he has averaged 71 tackles per year.

BOBBY TAYLOR: Ranked the fourth-best available free-agent cornerback in 2004 by TheInsiders' Lane Adkins, the Eagles' Bobby Taylor has size (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) and NFL experience (nine years).

Philadelphia is in a bit of a predicament with their cornerbacks. It has two quality veteran cornerbacks in Taylor and Troy Vincent who are both scheduled for unrestricted free agency, and the Eagles also have two decent younger corners, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, who might have the potential to be solid full-time starters. Expect them to lose either Taylor or Vincent, and possibly both.

The best of Taylor's nine seasons may have come in 2002, when he had five interceptions, 57 tackles and 10 passes defensed.

CHARLES WOODSON: One of the biggest questions surrounding Oakland's Charles Woodson is this: Is he a malcontent or was he simply the spokesman for a team that had lost all confidence in former Raiders coach Bill Callahan? It is probably the latter, as the friction between coach and players grew and became more public as the season progressed.

As for tools and skills, Woodson definitely has them. The 6-1, 200-pounder has been considered one of the top cornerbacks since entering the NFL in 1998. He has averaged 59 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per season. He has been resisting the notion of having the franchise tag applied and seems to be pushing for top dollar.

AHMED PLUMMER: The San Francisco 49ers' Ahmed Plummer was a player the Vikings were thought to be interested in when he was in the 2000 NFL draft. Since then, he has averaged an impressive 67.5 tackles and three interceptions a year, including four in 2003, when he garnered one NFC Defensive Player of the Week honor in October.

He, too, has the height teams look for at the position, with his 6-foot, 191-pound frame.

TROY VINCENT: The Eagles' Troy Vincent is the elder statesmen of the Philadelphia backfield. He has the build (6-1, 200) and experience (with 12 seasons), but the latter may be a hindrance for the Vikings. Although the Vikings are interested in Vincent, with Ken Irvin and Denard Walker already in the fold, they would prefer to bring in a cornerback who still has multiple years of upside.

As mentioned above, Philadelphia might be able to keep only one of their two star cornerbacks, and either would be an upgrade for the Vikings. Vincent has been a model of consistency, never playing in fewer than 13 games and only once dipping below 50 tackles in a season. He has averaged 61 tackles and 3.5 interceptions per year.

SHAWN SPRINGS: The last of the big-name cornerbacks in free agency, Seattle's Shawn Springs may be the riskiest of the eight. He came back from a broken shoulder blade in 2003 to play 12 games, but Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren voiced concerns about Springs' tentative play in the second half of the season, even taking away his starting spot for a few games in late November and early December. Springs also missed eight games in 2001.

He is another Ohio State cornerback with good size — 6-foot, 204 pounds — that has gained respect as athlete around the league. He has averaged 57 tackles and almost three interceptions per season, but with the Vikings looking for a fundamentally sound tackler and solid cover corner and Springs showing signs of being tentative during the latter stages of 2003, he could be a high-risk, high-reward acquisition.

Those are the big eight in free agency in 2004.

They will be battling each other for the market's dollar, and the Vikings would be happy to play one against the other as they have been doing with free agents since Mike Tice took over. That strategy for a cornerback this offseason could reap a very favorable price tag for solid starting talent — or it could leave the Vikings waiting for their opportunity at one of the four-star cornerbacks in the draft. Either way, the NFL teams seem to have the upper hand on the players this offseason when it comes to supply and demand at cornerback.

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