Vikings Maintain Cap Versatility

The Vikings are in great shape with the cap, this year and into the future, thanks to creative contracts. For this year, that means the ability to sign their draft picks and add anyone else that may become available as they see fit without mortgaging the future.

Vikings owner Red McCombs, often criticized for being tight-fisted with his billions of dollars, opened his wallet and dished out about $18 million in up-front bonuses during the first week of free agency.

It started on the eve of free agency when the Vikings re-signed tight end Jim Kleinsasser, keeping him from making a beeline to Washington for a huge payday on the first day of free agency. Kleinsasser was given $15 million over five years with a $4.25 million signing bonus.

The Vikings listed Kleinsasser as their No. 1 priority in free agency. Three days later, priority No. 2 was met when Bills free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield was whisked away from under the noses of Jets management and given the largest free-agent contract in Vikings history.

Winfield signed for $35 million over six years with a $10.8 million first-year roster bonus. The Jets offered $30 million over six years with a $10 million signing bonus.

Four days later, another one of the Vikings' top offseason needs was met when Ravens free-agent receiver Marcus Robinson was given a four-year, $9.4-million deal with a $2 million signing bonus. He will be the team's No. 2 receiver alongside Randy Moss.

The Vikings increased their offer after learning Robinson was on his way to visit the Lions.

"Despite what many people say, Red and [his wife] Charlene always step up when we need a player," said Rob Brzezinski, vice president of football operations. "We have made our team significantly better with these three additions. Red deserves some credit for that."

McCombs has been keeping a low profile during free agency, returning few calls from reporters.

A cynic would say McCombs had no chance but to ante up. After all, the Vikings were $33.3 million under the $80.6 million salary cap before re-signing Kleinsasser. That meant they needed to add about $20 million in payroll for this season just to reach the minimum salary.

Either way, the Vikings improved their chances of winning the NFC North by re-signing the top tight end available and signing the best cornerback available.

A closer look at the Winfield deal reveals what a team can do when it has a healthy salary-cap situation.

The Vikings were able to sign a 26-year-old shutdown left cornerback, and a former first-round draft pick, without mortgaging their future.

Instead of back-loading Winfield's six-year, $35-million contract, the Vikings front-loaded it with a $10.8-million first-year roster bonus. Combined with his first-year salary, Winfield will count $12.5 million against this year's salary cap.

The Vikings are one of the few teams in the league that could do that. They began free agency with $33.3 million in cap room.

They've reached the salary minimum of $67 million and still have enough room under the $80.6 million cap to sign a veteran punter, their draft picks and compete for players who will be released on June 1.

"Normally, what happens is teams spread out the money as far as they can into the future because they're fighting the cap," said Richard Katz, Winfield's agent. "Then the team comes to you in a couple of years in a financial pinch and asks you to take a pay cut or be released."

MONDAY NOTE
* The Vikings are in good health heading into the start of the offseason strength and conditioning program on March 22. LB Chris Claiborne is a player to watch closely coming off shoulder surgery and a heel injury.





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