Last Chance for Would-Be Free Agents

Sunday's game against Chicago will be the last opportunity for more than a dozen players scheduled for free agency to impress the coaching staff and personnel department. We analyze the prospective offensive free agents in this installment, with a look at the defensive free agents later as part of Viking Update's kickoff to offseason free agency and draft coverage. On offense, the Vikings have at least four full- or part-time starters scheduled for free agency in March.

The Vikings could be playing for Mike Tice's job, but for more than a dozen players scheduled for some form of free agency they might also be playing for their future.

Whether it is Mike Tice and the personnel trio of Rob Brzezinski, Paul Wiggin and Scott Studwell or any combination of those men and potential new people added to the organization, the franchise has many decisions to make this offseason.

On offense, third-string quarterback Shaun Hill is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March. His status could be linked to the progress of two situations he can't control.

Hill has been a project of Mike Tice, as both are Maryland alums, and Tice has remained loyal to Hill. If there is a new coaching staff in place and Daunte Culpepper suffers any setbacks between now and March, that could force the Vikings' hand if a new coaching staff doesn't believe Hill gives the team another game-ready quarterback. Also sitting in the wings is J.T. O'Sullivan, who was signed off the Chicago practice squad on Nov. 9, more than a week after Culpepper's injury.

The Vikings also have two running backs set to experience unrestricted free agency, Michael Bennett and Moe Williams. Williams indicated to Viking Update earlier this season that he will be considering retirement after 10 years in the league. That seems more likely with him being placed on injured reserve after not being able to recover from a knee injury.

Bennett is one of the team's biggest decisions. Since rushing for 1,296 yards in 2002, Bennett's health and production have been jointly on the decline. He rushed for 447 yards in eight games in 2003, followed by 276 yards in 11 games in 2004. This year, he has rushed for 391 yards and averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry.

Bennett declined interview requests Wednesday, but said, perhaps portending to his future: "It's a sad, sad week for me, guys."

Thursday, he said his future is not about the money, but being happy. With the way the coaching staff has been pulling running backs in and out of the starting lineup, whether that's because of injuries, miscommunication or a quick hook, it doesn't appear that Bennett would be happy in Minnesota if Tice remains the head coach.

"I think Mike has had a solid year. At one point in our team meeting I pointed to Mike as the epitome of a team guy that's hung in there, a guy that's battled through some adversity," Tice said. "When we called on him to play, he played pretty decently. I said to someone this morning, ‘If we didn't have Mike Bennett, we probably would have lost both Detroit games.' He played well in both of those games."

Part of the struggle for the running backs this season has come from the an inconsistent offensive line that has seen only one player, Bryant McKinnie, hold his starting spot the entire season. The group is likely to be shuffled again in the offseason with the pending free agency of centers Cory Withrow and Melvin Fowler and guards Toniu Fonoti and Adam Goldberg. Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is also expected to return.

Withrow and Fowler are both free agents, and each would likely return if the Vikings wanted them. But with Birk's expected return, that might leave only one opening between Fowler and Withrow. Withrow has more experience, but Fowler appears to have more upside, but if Tice isn't maintained all bets are off here. There is also the possibility they would sign both and have them battle for one backup spot in training camp.

Goldberg, an exclusive rights free agent, is almost certain to stay with the Vikings, but Fonoti's situation is a little more uncertain. He's an unrestricted free agent and it remains to be seen if the Vikings are willing to stick with him after trading away a seventh-round draft choice to San Diego to obtain him, only to have him play one game before he injured his groin muscle.

While the tight ends are all sewn up contractually, the same isn't true at wide receiver, although the situation looks promising for the organization.

Nate Burleson is a restricted free agent and was hoping for a contract extension during the season before a host of injuries limited his effectiveness for much of the middle of the season. However, being restricted, the Vikings could offer Burleson a first-round tender like they did with cornerback Brian Williams this year and likely retain his services for another year.

Burleson's long-term future could be tied to the Vikings' efforts to re-sign Koren Robinson. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but both sides appear to want to continue their relationship. Robinson said earlier this week that he thought his agent, Alvin Keels, and the Vikings would be talking about an extension very soon, possibly even this week. Keels did not return a phone call from Viking Update.

Robinson, however, has made it no secret that he would like to remain with the Vikings since they first approached him about a return to the NFL following a 28-day program to rehabilitate from alcohol abuse this summer. But the down-field receiving threat and the NFC's leader in kickoff return average would certainly garner interest on the open market, making any talks this week extremely important for the Vikings.

The good news is that when the Vikings restructured Robinson's contract to a one-year deal, it is believed they inserted a clause that gives them the ability to match another offer if he hits the open market and gets that far with other teams. However, if the Vikings would decline to match such on offer, it is believed they wouldn't receive compensation like they would with a restricted free agent.

Note: will address the defensive free agents in the coming days and go in-depth on individual free agents in the coming weeks.

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