Contracts, Cap Management In Vikings' Favor

The Vikings have been ever-improving in the last three offseasons under the direction of head coach Mike Tice and V.P. of football operations Rob Brzezinski, and those two men are keeping a watchful eye on the future as well. A look at the contracts set to expire in the coming two years and the talent signed for the long term shows a bright future in Minnesota.

After the Vikings' 2004 draft, VU asked head coach Mike Tice, a former offensive line coach, about fourth-round pick Nat Dorsey. His comments focused on Dorsey and what he needs to do to be a good NFL offensive tackle, and then Tice gave this reason as further proof why the Vikings felt they should draft Dorsey despite having a solid cast of starting offensive linemen that led the team to the league's No. 1 offense:

"(Right tackle) Michael Rosenthal is in the last year of his contract, and you always look at that stuff," Tice said. "You have to keep that in the overall picture if you're keeping the whole package in mind. We have some players in key spots that are in the last year of their contract."

While Tice's comments focused on the potential for needing to replace Rosenthal after the 2004 season, every NFL team needs to be cognizant of which players on the roster are coming to the end of their contracts. That's where Rob Brzezinski has been masterful in recent years — the best players on the roster were locked into long-term deals either before or right after their original rookie contracts expired.

As one Vikings source put it, Brzezinski is great at managing projects and working the salary cap, but he doesn't get caught in the trap of pretending to be the a hard-nosed football guy. He leaves that up to men who really are, like the coaches and personnel staff.

Among the leaders of the team with long-term deals are center Matt Birk (who is signed through 2008), quarterback Daunte Culpepper (through 2008), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (2008), guard Chris Liwienski (2008), tackle Bryant McKinnie (2008) and wide receiver Randy Moss (2008). Notice that each of those players is on offense, a unit that topped the league's rankings in 2003.

Defensively, the Vikings aren't locked into as many longer contracts, nor should they be with players that haven't proved their consistency yet. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, the team's most productive pass rusher last year with 10.5 sacks and second to Kenny Mixon among defensive linemen with 56 tackles, is inked through 2009. So is cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is considered the team's top signing since unrestricted free agency started more than a decade ago.

Beyond that, no other defender is signed past 2006.

So, besides Rosenthal, what other significant players have contracts set to expire in the near future?

On defense, linebacker Chris Claiborne has only this season remaining on the two-year deal he signed last March, and Pro Bowl safety Corey Chavous' contract is set to expire after the 2005 season. Each of those two should have solid, productive years left in their career after their contracts expire.

Chris Hovan likely will have to prove this season that he is a star on the rise with a strong campaign in 2004 or the Vikings could choose to let him test the free-agent market after his contract expires next March. Safety Brian Russell, who tied for the NFC lead with nine interceptions last season, will also be a free agent after this season, and it's unclear what the team's perception of him is after he received a near-minimum one-year contract as an exclusive rights free agent this offseason.

Also in the secondary, cornerback Brian Williams could be due a payday after his contract expires in March 2005 if he continues his progression as a dependable coverage man.

On offense, as Tice mentioned, Rosenthal's contract is set to expire after the 2004 season, as is guard David Dixon's (meaning the whole right side of the O-line could have new starters in 2005). Since Dixon will be 36 next offseason, he isn't expected to be a high priority, big-dollar re-signing for the Vikings.

Backup quarterback Gus Frerotte has indicated he would like a chance to start somewhere, but as long as Daunte Culpepper is healthy, Frerotte isn't likely to receive that chance in Minnesota. He would be a likely candidate to at least test the waters of the open market next year.

Onterrio Smith, a key backup at running back, will have his contract expire at the same time as Michael Bennett, the starter. The Vikings may have to make a choice between the two of them, but they won't face that decision until after the 2005 season, an eternity in an NFL player's stock value.

All other players set to have their contracts expire in the next two years are either expected to be backups or forever role players.

Brzezinski & Co. have done a remarkable job of getting the stable, proven talent into long-term deals while still positioning the Vikings into the best cap position in the league. Brzezinski has earned his own bonus the last two years.

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