A More Aggressive Free Agency?

While still promoting the building of a roster through the draft, Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman didn't discount the team going after bigger names in the free-agent market. See what Spielman had to say inside.

Rick Spielman and Brad Childress continue to talk about draft picks being a valued currency in the NFL, and the Vikings vice president of player personnel and their head coach agree that continued success drafting is the key to building a long-term winner.

However, Spielman said several times during a sitdown interview with Twin Cities reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that the Vikings are willing to take a swing at blue-chip prospects that could be available when free agency starts on Feb. 29.

"Now, with the young guys that are playing well for us, and we do have some older vets with a little bit of a window here with some of our veterans, we may be more aggressive if we feel there is a blue-chip guy out there," Spielman said. "We may take a swing at him. We were pretty aggressive trying to go after some guys last year, but also there is a breaking point, where if this guy goes beyond that breaking point, you have to have enough discipline to say, ‘OK, he's gone. What's our next phase?'"

That happened on two occasions last year, Spielman said, and one of those was when the Vikings aggressively pursued wide receiver Kevin Curtis before he decided to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency.

This year, there are several intriguing wide receiver prospects that will hit free agency if their teams don't reach long-term deals with them before the start of free agency next Thursday. Seattle's D.J. Hackett, Chicago's Bernard Berrian, Arizona's Bryant Johnson, Oakland's Jerry Porter, Houston's Andre Davis and New England's Randy Moss are all receivers who could be available.

But, while the Vikings could be more aggressive this year in going after veteran players to fill positions of need, they still contend that the best policy is drafting well and signing their own draft picks to extensions before they become free agents.

"To me, if you draft guys and they become players for you, you want to invest your money in that player because you know what kind of player he is. He knows your program, he's grown up through the system and he's very productive," Spielman said. "When you go out in free agency sometimes, those guys come from different systems, a different culture and sometimes it takes them time to adjust to a different culture.

"Sometimes they're more ready to play, but people don't realize those guys go through an adjustment period as well – from how practice is run to how Coach Childress structures everything to what's expected of players. I think our players downstairs know if they're good football players, good people, everything we want in this program, we are going to be as aggressive as we can, which we have been the last two years."

The Vikings have signed their prized players to long-term extensions before they reached free agency, players like former first-round draft picks Bryant McKinnie and Kevin Williams, second-rounder E.J. Henderson and even free-agent finds like Pat Williams. All of those players got multi-year, big-dollar extensions before they reached free agency.

This year, the free-agent market might be slighter better than in 2007.

"I would say maybe a hair more with the blue-chip players," Spielman said.

But almost a dozen teams avoided letting their top players reach free agency by putting a franchise tag on their top potential free agent. That move will block other team from negotiating with the player if the "exclusive" version of the franchise tag was used – which requires a one-year payment equal to the top-five salaried players in 2008 at the player's position – or two first-round picks as compensation if the "non-exclusive" tag is used – which requires a one-year payment equal to the top-five salaried players in 2007 at the player's position if another team doesn't make him a better offer and he doesn't sign a long-term extension before signing the franchise tender.

"If a guy is getting franchise, they are more than likely going to get a long-term extension," Spielman said.

But going after a non-exclusive franchise player isn't likely for the Vikings because of the value they place on their draft picks.

"If we can keep on continuing layering draft on draft on draft, pretty soon those are the guys that you're going to be spending money on," Spielman said. "Not to say you wouldn't go after a blue-chip guy or a non-exclusive franchise guy, but still I think the safest bet for your money is through the draft."

Of course, the Vikings will be engaging the agents for their own players that are scheduled to be free agents this year. Those discussions will take place at the Combine over the next several days.

"A lot of times they may want to go up and see where their market value is, but we always want to keep the door open and try to get those guys back," Spielman said. "Also knowing that when you get out in the UFA (unrestricted free-agent) market, there is a likelihood that you'll lose those guys as well. All those guys that we do have that are unrestricted, we would always look to bring them back in some way, shape or form if the opportunity presents itself.

"We don't write anyone off. You never know if those guys will come back in September when we have an injury and that guy knows our system, knows the culture that Coach Childress has set forth, and you never know when you're going to bring one of those guys back, whether it's free agency or sometime in the season."

The Vikings' chief contract negotiator, Rob Brzezinski, the vice president of football operations, was heading to Indianapolis on Thursday for that negotiating reason, among other things.

In fact, just like the Vikings rank the college prospects, they also rank their own free agents against those that are expected to enter the market from other teams. In addition, they put up their whole roster against a free-agent board.

"We stack our current roster on the board with potentially unrestricted free agents to see where the strengths and weaknesses are to help our roster," Spielman said.

It all could lead to a few unexpected and welcome additions in the coming weeks.

NOTES

  • Former first-round draft pick Troy Williamson isn't scheduled to be a free agent, but his status on the Vikings' roster after another disappointing season may not be secure.

    "We're in the talking process. We have no comment on where he's going or what's going to happen to him," Spielman said. "Right now, there are a lot of yet-to-be-determineds. We don't line up or play until September."

  • Spielman on defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia: "I think coach has addressed that and the privacy that KU wants. I just know that all the thoughts and prayers from everyone in our organization are with him. He is a fighter on the field and will take that same approach I'm sure as he fights that next battle."

    Spielman was asked how Udeze's likely absence from at least the 2008 season would affect the Vikings' future at the position.

    "Without sounding callous, you still have to know what you're dealing with it from the football end and understand what may become available in free agency and what could possibly be available in the draft and where the depth is in the draft and kind of projecting," he said. "Can you get a guy with the 17th pick or can you get a guy in the second or third round if the position is that deep?"

  • On Friday, head coach Brad Childress is scheduled to have a press conference with the media assembled at the Combine and do another session with Twin Cities reporters as well.


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