As the season winds down for the Vikings, the team's personnel department and head coach Dennis Green will likely begin discussions about their offseason personnel moves.
A year ago those discussions were particularly painful as the Vikings had about $19 million to trim from their payroll to get under the league's salary cap. The result was a lot of very tough decisions, including the loss of four good football players in offensive tackle Todd Steussie, defensive tackle John Randle, linebacker Dwayne Rudd and defensive tackle Tony Williams, all who were still very much solid to quality starters at key positions.
This year's task should be less problematic, though still not without the exposure of some mistakes from the past. There are still salary cap implications from the past that will be incurred in 2002. Running back Robert Smith, who retired last February, will count $3.17 million against next year's cap. And another $3.75 million from the late Korey Stringer's contract will also go against next season's cap.
According to published reports, the Vikings are currently slightly under the projected salary cap of $71.8 million for 2002. That doesn't mean there still won't be some tough choices to make, but nothing like it was a year ago.
As of right now, it looks like the team would have about a dozen unrestricted free agents — those free to sign elsewhere without the team receiving compensation:
Cris Carter (WR) — Technically is signed through 2006, but that was essentially a bookkeeping deal for his willingness to restructure his contract to help with the team's salary-cap situation. They did this by spreading out a signing bonus over a longer period of time with the understanding that he would essentially become a free agent after this season due to a huge roster bonus that is unlikely to be paid next spring. Under the current terms of his contract, Carter would reportedly count $5.938 million against next season's salary cap.
Despite talk of retirement, Carter remains at the top of his game and is a future Hall of Famer. He would likely garner interest from other teams looking to go over the top. The Vikings have no clear-cut successor if he leaves and might greatly miss his leadership. However, to come back he will probably have to do so for less than the $6.1 million he reportedly counted against the salary cap this season.
Robert Griffith (SS) — As with Carter, Griffith is technically signed long-term, until 2005, but with an $8 million roster bonus due on March 1, he essentially will be an unrestricted free agent.
Bringing back Griffith, the heart and soul of the team's defense, should be a high priority. At $3.75 million, he's currently the NFL's fifth-highest-paid safety, according to NFL Players Association figures.
Dale Carter (CB) — The long, long, long search for a cornerback seemed to end when Carter came into the fold. He's been an outstanding addition since entering the lineup. The question will be what kind of interest he'll garner and how much it will cost to keep him. It'll probably be more than the prorated veteran minimum he signed for this season. Still, might there be some loyalty there?
Kailee Wong (LB) — Hasn't had a total breakout season, but has gotten better and still has some upside potential. The Vikings would like to keep him if at all possible and they might need to move quickly before an all-out bidding war emerges if he gets to free agency.
Byron Chamberlain (TE) — Has been a terrific addition as a pass-catching tight end and has also more than held his own as a blocker. Traditionally, the Vikings are pretty thrifty with what they're willing to spend on a tight end, so the upside is probably limited for Chamberlain to stay. They'd love to keep him, though. He's been a fine addition to the organization.
Gary Anderson (K) — Has had a slow year and has limited range but is generally very automatic from in close. Certainly won't receive a raise to come back, but nobody's looking for the uncertainty of trying to find a new kicker, either.
Lance Johnstone (DE) — Hasn't been the double-digit sack producer the Vikings had hoped but has been a nice addition just the same. If the price is right, he'd be more than welcome to return.
Harold Morrow (FB) — A journeyman fullback but a dynamite contributor on special teams. Still, the going rate for that might not be much above the NFL minimum for veterans.
Jake Reed (WR) — Not the three-deep threat he was during Randy Moss' rookie year, but a solid No. 3 receiver. Like Morrow, the market rate for that might not be much more than it was this season.
Andrew Jordan (TE) — As usual, he has been a reliable blocker but is pretty limited in the passing game. Again, veteran minimum to return.
Calvin Collins (OG) — Solid in a couple starts and some spot duty at left guard since being signed off the street. A cap casualty himself a year ago, his market value may now be limited.
Nate Jacquet (WR) — Speedy return specialist who has bounced around. Won't get more than the veteran minimum to stay with the Vikings.
The team's list of restricted free agents, which would require some level of compensation for the team, based on the tender the Vikings offer, if they sign elsewhere and the offer goes unmatched, are:
Chris Liwienski (OL) — An emerging player since being thrust into the starting role at right tackle. Liwienski figures in the team's long-range plans on the offensive line, whether it remains at right tackle or he moves back inside to left guard.
Talance Sawyer (DE) — Has started for two full seasons now with steady but unspectacular results. The coaches seem to like him and feel he can still get even better. Sawyer is the kind of workmanlike pro the team would like to keep, but it will probably depend on the market.
Kenny Wright (CB) — Began the year as the starter at left corner and has played mostly in nickel and dime coverages since Dale Carter arrived. His paycheck with the Vikings is probably very dependent on their ability to re-sign Carter.
Don Morgan (S) — Has seen some action in reserve and done OK. Nobody will break the bank to sign him, but the Vikings would probably like him back. They've invested a fair amount of development time in him, and he's a solid player.
Cory Withrow (OL) — Actually an exclusive-rights free agent, which means he's completely off limits to offers from other teams. Did really well in brief but full-time duty at right guard. Might have a future as a Jeff Christy-type center if the team were to move Matt Birk outside to one of the tackle spots. With the team having all the bargaining power at this stage, he'll be back next year.
Other players who might be vulnerable to salary cap implications during the offseason include: linebacker Ed McDaniel ($2.75 million base salary), free safety Orlando Thomas ($975,000 base), offensive lineman Everett Lindsay ($1.1 million base) and cornerback Robert Tate ($975,000 base).
McDaniel might have to take a pay cut to stay. He's still a solid player, but the upside market value might be limited for him.
Thomas, who lost his starting job this season, is a likely salary-cap casualty and has just never been the same player since blowing out his knee and suffering through nagging hamstring problems. His range, quickness and open-field agility seem to have vanished.
Lindsay has been a savior this season because of his versatility. They need at least one guy like him on that offensive line every year anyway. Why not just keep him instead of looking for someone like him.
Tate is a pretty good player who struggled with some injuries this year. Whether he starts or not, he can contribute on defense and on special teams.
Could the Vikings afford to be a player in free agency during the offseason? Probably, if they want to, but it's more likely they focus on re-signing their own key players and trying to draft well.
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