Thanks to their proactive approach in wrapping up their own priority free agents the last two seasons, the Vikings don't have many must-sign players scheduled for free agency that could be a problem.
They leave the 2007 season behind with nine players scheduled for free agency – eight unrestricted and one restricted, three on offense and six on defense, and only one of those is a part-time starter.
We take a quick glance at what is ahead for the Vikings in free agency, and we will have much more extensive individual stories with interviews from them in the coming weeks.
Tony Richardson, FB – The 13-year veteran of the National Football League is the only starter among the Vikings' free agents this year. Although the fullback position can produce what can only be considered part-time starters in the Vikings offense, Richardson has been acknowledged once again as one of the best at his position with a Pro Bowl selection again this season, his third selection to the honorary postseason game.
Richardson totaled only seven rushes and 11 receptions this season, but he has been an integral part of the Vikings' record-setting rushing attack. He helped lead the Vikings to a franchise-record 2,581 rushing yards, 83 yards more than the 2002 Vikings.
Richardson is the type of veteran leader the Vikings need, and he is the players' representative to the NFL Players Association and part of a committee that meets occasionally with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. With all of that off-the-field experience and 13 years in the league, retirement considerations would be a natural assumption – but it would be a wrong one, according to Richardson.
"I'm still having fun and enjoying the process and enjoying the young guys," he said, making it clear throughout an interview last week that retirement isn't an option. "Whenever you have a guy like 28 (Peterson) in your backfield, it kind of gives you life. So those types of things you kind of take care of at the end of the season and I think everyone knows where my desires are and where I'd like to be."
Robert Ferguson, WR – The seven-year veteran was claim by the Vikings when the Green Bay Packers waived him, and Ferguson has been a solid, if seemingly underused, contributor as a newcomer to the team. He isn't, however, a newcomer to the offense, which is one of the reasons he says he'd like to return to the team.
"I've been in this particular system for 10 years. It was identical to what I ran in college. I actually ran this offense in junior college," he said. "I probably could install this offense at this point. It suits me. It's a catch-and-run and run-after-the-catch type of deal."
Ferguson was solid as a receiver, catching 32 passes for 391 yards, and was exceptional as a blocker down field on numerous long runs by Peterson and Taylor. His familiarity with the offense, team-first attitude and locker room presence would make him a good fit to return.
Mewelde Moore, RB – Moore has been a team player, keeping his comments extremely bland and team-oriented during a very trying time, when it would have been easy to let malcontent comments fly. He has shown time and again he has the talent, but he has been in the injury doghouse with two head coaches and now is stuck behind not only Chester Taylor but also Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson.
Moore has set down roots in Minnesota, but he's likely to get more than a third-string offer elsewhere. Most baffling about his 2007 contributions was a lack of punt returning despite being the most comfortable and productive in that position when given a chance.
Darrion Scott, DE – Scott wasn't thrilled about getting only a third-round tender before free agency 2007 hit, meaning the team's leading sacker from 2006 was to earn $850,000 in 2008. He also was forced to go into a competition to earn a starting role again and it appeared that former first-rounder Kenechi Udeze was given every chance to beat out Scott. By October, none of that mattered because Scott was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a Jones fracture in his foot.
He was back running on the sidelines during practice the week before Christmas, but then a citation for marijuana possession last week in his native Charleston, W. Va., put another strike against his chances to return to the team. The Vikings could use more production from the defensive end position, no doubt. But they need someone to offer more pass-rushing pressure, and Scott is more of an all-around player from the base left end position than he is a quick player to the quarterback, despite what his sack status from 2006 says.
Dontarrious Thomas, LB – Thomas is an unassuming role player that has the talent to eventually play a starting role if injury to another player required. However, the Vikings already have three solid starters at linebacker and Thomas would have to be content to be a primary backup to them if he was to remain in Minnesota. It sounds like he would be fine with that role if the Vikings want to re-sign the former second-round pick.
"Definitely it's a place I'd want to come back to," Thomas said. "I'm comfortable here. I've been here for all four years. This team drafted me, so it's comfortable for me with the area. It's a good place for me to end your career with, but we'll see. Hopefully we can get something together."
Tank Williams, S – Williams is a soft-spoken, low-key player who doesn't make excuses, but there is no doubt his injury history will be a factor as the Vikings contemplate his future. Williams came to the Vikings looking to recovery from a knee injury suffered while he was a member of the Tennessee Titans and had his initial season in purple (2006) end with a broken kneecap in training camp. He rebounded from that injury and signed another one-year contract with the team in hopes of proving his value. While he struggled with another knee injury in 2006, he was able to play in 13 games and even started two of them. Williams insisted that he couldn't do anything about a minor injury this season and that it wasn't anything like his past injuries.
"If something happens in special teams and my knee gets rolled up into, you've just got to rehab it," he said. "It's not anything like last year where I had to have season-ending surgery."
Mike Doss, S – The Vikings will have plenty of decisions to make at safety. Pro Bowler Darren Sharper would appear safe, but with off-the-field issues with Dwight Smith and injuries histories with Tank Williams and Doss, there are plenty of ways the team could go. Smith, Williams and Doss are all possibilities.
Like Williams, Doss signed a one-year contract with the team after coming off an injury in 2006. Like Williams, Doss also battled injury in 2007, working through a hamstring strain after he felt he had finally recovered from his 2006 knee injury.
"I actually feel like I got over the wall maybe midway through the season, just being able to trust my body and being able to play on special teams and knowing the different plays I've got," he said. "I got an opportunity to start against Detroit for a couple of snaps, so I felt like my confidence is growing and I really feel like I'm right there. Once I get another opportunity, I'll be able to showcase what I can do and I'm still Mike Doss as a football player."
He played in eight games, starting one while Smith was benched for the opening series with disciplinary issues, and Doss registered only one tackle on special teams.
Spencer Johnson, DT – Early in the season, Johnson led all NFL tackles with sacks, but he realized it was going to be a blip on the radar as the season progressed. The former undrafted free agent knows his role on the team – as a backup to Pro Bowl tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams – and he performs that role admirably.
He finished the season with 24 tackles and three sacks and could be brought back for a similar role in 2008.
Heath Farwell, LB – With Farwell being a restricted free agent, the Vikings hold all the cards and likely will get him re-signed. Because of the solid job the team has done in re-signing their priority free agents, Farwell, a special teams concentrate, is actually one of the more important free agents the Vikings have this offseason.
He led the team with 31 special teams tackles and has been a season-long workhorse covering punts and kickoffs. He would like to see more action on defense, but he also knows his role with three solid starters in front of him. To call a coverage specialist indispensable might be too strong, but the Vikings know Farwell's value and will almost surely get a contract or a one-year tender completed before the start of free agency on March 3.
"It doesn't matter if you're in a contract year or not, you've got to put the best film out there," Farwell said a few weeks ago. "That's the key. I'm not concerned with it."
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