Free-Agent Feelings

Jim Kleinsasser is the top priority for the Vikings in free agency, but other offensive free agents give their opinion on re-signing with the Vikings in the offseason.

With days remaining in the regular season, Ethan Lock, the agent for Vikings running back Moe Williams, was asked what kind of purse his client could fetch in the free-agent market this offseason.

"He's worth whatever anyone will pay him," Lock told VU.

For many unrestricted free agents, money is the bottom line. Whatever team offers the biggest signing bonus — normally the only guaranteed money in the contract — most often wins the recruiting war.

The Vikings' personnel department has about two months to identify and prioritize a list of players they hope to re-sign when the free-agency period begins on February 28. Several players on offense will be on that list, including Williams, Jim Kleinsasser, Hunter Goodwin, Corbin Lacina and Chris Walsh.

JIM KLEINSASSER — Of the five free agents aforementioned, Kleinsasser will command the most attention during free agency. It's fairly certain, though, he will be one of the Vikings' top priorities, and if he wants to return — it appears he does — both sides will reach a deal.

The Vikings offense has produced one of the top rushing games in the NFL this season. Moving Kleinsasser, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound four-year veteran, from fullback to tight end to start the season played a vital role in the Vikings' running success.

"I just think he's a different player at the line of scrimmage," head coach Mike Tice said, explaining the position change. "He matches up better against defensive ends. He's the same size as most of the them."

Kleinsasser has had his most versatile (and healthy) season for the Vikings. He was a short-yardage rusher, a pass and run blocker, as well as occasional receiver.

"He means a lot to this offense," quarterback Daunte Culpepper said. "He's definitely a comfort factor for me when I see him out there lined up."

Goodwin, another tight end eligible for free agency, marvels at Kleinsasser's 2002 season. "Jim Kleinsasser has played as good as I've seen any tight end play," Goodwin said. "He has dominated since day one. He's a very big reason we've had success in the running game. It's been a tremendous year for him, and it's gone unnoticed."

MOE WILLIAMS — Having scored three touchdowns in his first six seasons in the NFL, Williams surpassed all expectations this season by scoring more touchdowns (11 so far) than any other Vikings player.

Williams has fulfilled a role that has evolved in the NFL, a short-yardage runner who most often enters the game when his team gets close to the goal line. He was Michael Bennett's closer in 2002. Bennett ran between the 20s, but usually when the Vikings got within a couple yards of the end zone Williams entered the game. Just as often, he'd cross the goal line with the ball.

Williams says he isn't surprised at the high amount of touchdowns this season. "Everything Coach (Tice) told me did come to pass in the manner he said it would," Williams said, referring to conversations he had with Tice before he signed with Minnesota. "That was a position that was supposed to be open. I had to compete for it and hoped to get the opportunity. It was everything we talked about and it all panned out."

Williams, who played five years in Minnesota, then last season in Baltimore, won't reveal his hand regarding how high of a priority it is to return to the Vikings next season.

"Really, it's up to them," said Williams, 28. "We'll just see how things go as far as contract negotiations. Everything goes into it. You look at the location, if it's close to home (Florida). I'll weigh what's on the table and make a decision as far as how much money is involved, as well as if I have an opportunity to contribute to the team."

Even though Bennett is the Vikings' main running back, Williams said he would be satisfied with his role as a goal-line running back and third-down back in passing situations.

"At my age, I really don't need any other role than what I'm doing now," he said. "I definitely feel like an old man. I'm 28 in my seventh year and I went through a lot to get here."

CORBIN LACINA — Lacina, who finished his fourth year with the Vikings, could be relegated to a reserve role on the offensive line next season if he returns. That might be the ideal situation for Lacina, who will enter his 10th season in the NFL next year.

Certainly not a top priority of the Vikings, he is a role player the team would like to see back. It appears the feeling is mutual.

"I definitely would like to return. Absolutely. It's Minnesota and I could stay home," said Lacina, who, like Matt Birk is a Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul) graduate. "Physically, I feel really good. I can go out and play another four or five more years and be very productive."

If it sounds like Lacina is making a sales pitch, that's because he is. He has been part of an offensive line that has grown closer and worked more efficiently as the season progressed.

"I'd like to be part of this offense next year," Lacina said. "We're the No. 1-ranked offense in a lot of categories, and I feel like I'm a big part of it."

But as every free agent knows, the NFL is a business. And not all players return to their team, even if both sides appear they'd want nothing else.

"There are a lot of things out of my control," Lacina said. "I feel good, I've had a very solid year and my level of play, if anything, is really starting to peak. But the history of this team is they wait until March. Otherwise, Jimmy Kleinsasser's deal would be done."

CHRIS WALSH — Walsh, a wide receiver and special-teams maven, is the ultimate role player for the Vikings. Walsh is completing his 10th year in the NFL, his ninth with the Vikings. Walsh, who said he has had very informal talks with the team about returning, will be surprised if he isn't wearing purple next season.

"It's a situation where if I want to come back, I believe they want me to come back, so I think it'll probably get done," Walsh said. "From the conversations I've had, I'd be surprised if I'm not back."

Saying that it might be unrealistic, Walsh hopes to play five more years in the NFL. But to do that — especially on special teams and as a third or fourth receiver — money can't be his top priority in future negotiations.

"At this point in my career, money's not the most important thing," Walsh said. "It's about being in a place you want to be playing in for a team you want to play for and for coaches you want to play for.

"I love it here. I hope to come back and I think that'll happen."

HUNTER GOODWIN — Goodwin, another role player, was a key run blocker in several of the Vikings' two-tight end sets this season. Obviously he won't be one of the highest priorities, but the Vikings would like to see him back next year, and so would Goodwin.

"I feel like I'm a freshman again and we're building something special," Goodwin told VU. "I know Mike (Tice) has taken a lot of flack, but we had to start from scratch. You have new coaches, you have new coordinators, and we've all learned a lot about each other and we all want to see it pay off.

"I really believe what they're doing here and I want to be part of it. It's a great organization and I really enjoy this team. We've positioned ourselves for a lot of success down the road."

Goodwin said the Vikings' coaching staff and players made great strides this season. It's only a start, he said.

"This is the first year in my career that I haven't made the playoffs, but I feel like I've learned a lot about the game," Goodwin said. "It sounds crazy, but this has been a great year. As a group, our staff never gave up on us. And we as players never gave up on the staff."

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