Focus On Free-Agent Period

How much are Mike Tice the Vikings willing to spend in free agency? That depends on whom you talk to and what day you caught them, but the prevailing word in adding new players is "character."

The Vikings ended the season with a number of positive notes. Despite a generally young roster, they finished with the No. 2 offense in the NFL and the No. 1 rushing game. They also finished first in the NFC in the following categories: yards per play, rushing yards per attempt and first downs per game. Even on defense, the Achilles' heel of this team for many years, they improved some. They finished with the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL and the NFC's fifth-ranked rushing defense.

The problems were obvious, however. Simply, they stunk on turnovers and penalties. Only St. Louis had a higher turnover differential than the Vikings' minus-18. And they finished 29th in the league in pass defense.

To cure those ills, Minnesota is $25 million under the salary cap for 2003, so the natural assumption is that it would spend much of that money in free agency. That is one of the reasons head coach Mike Tice is meeting with owner Red McCombs today. But each of them has been vague about how much the team will spend. When Tice returns, he may have more answers.

On Sunday night's "Sports Wrap with Mike Tice," while answering in general terms a fan's question about free-agent-to-be cornerback Chris McAlister from Baltimore, Tice said he would hope that no player would be too highly priced for the Vikings to pursue.

On Monday, McCombs was doing a radio interview. When asked if he thought the team would approach free agency like New England did a few years ago — before winning the Super Bowl, by going after a good number of medium-priced free agents — McCombs said he thought the team would do a little of both: go after a couple of a high-priced free agents and even more role players.

However, just hours before, Tice told VU that the Vikings would be cautious about the kind of players they pursue after free agency starts Feb. 28. The word that continues to surface around Winter Park when talking about players is "character."

Tice explained why he is so adamant about bringing in quality people: "I think when you tend to bring in some of those superstars — if you will, big-name players — you have a couple negative situations, I think. I saw it happen with (Brian) Bosworth when I played in Seattle. You have guys like Steve Largent, Jacob Green and Kenny Easley, Curt Warner, really great players, and then all of the sudden you bring in a Brian Bosworth and you break the bank with him. All of the sudden we were a 10-6 team that went to 8-8. When we felt we were on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl we went backwards. Part of the problem was we blew our chemistry in the locker room.

"So, my point, when you bring in a superstar player, the great part of it is if he's a play-maker and going to make a lot of plays. The negative of it is if he's not the right type of guy and he doesn't fit in with the locker room with the other personalities, now you've created a problem. And as opposed to him coming in and helping you win two or three games, he could come in and help you lose two or three games."

Tice believes his team will make the playoffs after the 2003 season, and he continued to praise the team's tight-knit locker room. He really doesn't want to break that unity by bringing in the wrong type of player.

He admitted they didn't bring in any superstars through free agency last year, either. But most of those he did bring in worked in his favor.

"Although we didn't go out and get any marquee star players, we were able to go out and get some players that built a good foundation for us," Tice said. "They are all very quality young men, and we're all very appreciative of what they came in and did for our football program."

The Vikings' first priority is to analyze their own players, something Tice said they would do over the next two weeks. But linebacker Greg Biekert, one of those high-quality free agents the Vikings signed before the regular season began, said the makings of an up and coming team are already in purple.

"It's a very young team. In my opinion, from who is becoming free agents and who isn't, we make sure we keep a few of the guys that are here that are going to be up (for free agency), this team is only going to get better with experience. That makes it very exciting," Biekert said.

He saw that progress throughout the season. "This defense has really come a long ways," Biekert said. "You look at, and this is the first year a lot of the guys have played in this system, so we've had some growing pains."

They do have a number of their own players to concern themselves with before free agency starts, chief among them being Jim Kleinsasser.

The team's unrestricted free agents are Kleinsasser, TE Hunter Goodwin, RB Moe Williams, DE Lance Johnstone, LB Lemanski Hall, FS Ronnie Bradford, OG Corbin Lacina, DE Talance Sawyer, WR Chris Walsh, LB Jim Nelson, PK Gary Anderson, P Kyle Richardson and DT Darius Holland.

Their restricted free agents are C Cory Withrow, OT Lewis Kelly, CB Tyrone Carter, RB Doug Chapman, LB Antonio Wilson and LS Brody Liddiard.

Just re-signing their own players won't cut it for fans, but Biekert is confident Tice will sign the right guys to add to the roster.

"They'll get what we need. I know that," Biekert said. "Mike Tice will go after what he feels like are some needs for us, and I'm sure that they'll be good signings. You sign what you feel you need, and that can make you better. You don't always have to go out and get the $30 million guy to improve yourself. There are other issues involved in that — the salary cap and the type of guys you bring in."

If Tice does bring in the right players again this offseason, his bold prediction from Monday should come true: "We're going to go to the playoffs next year, I'll tell you that right now," Tice said. "That's why I said we're not as far off as we might seem. … Next year our goal is to get into the playoffs, without a doubt and absolutely. We're not going to set our goal to win more than we lose. We're going to set our goal to be in the playoffs.

VU caught up with a number of the team's own restricted and unrestricted free agents before they boarded flights out of town earlier this week, and we'll continue to update their status in the coming weeks.

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