Lance Johnstone signed a contract with the Vikings before the 2001 season that was voidable by either side. After 2001, they renegotiated and signed a new one-year deal. Now that 2002 is over, it could be time to look at another deal between the sides … or maybe not.
That uncertainty is the life of an NFL free agent. Johnstone has known the feeling each of the last three offseasons, and younger players like Tyrone Carter and Antonio Wilson, restricted free agents, will get their first taste of that feeling this offseason — albeit far different since they are restricted.
Johnstone led the Vikings with seven sacks and was forced to basically come from behind in a battle to win the starting right end. His competition came from another free-agent signee in 2002, Lorenzo Bromell. Higher expectations were placed on Bromell, but it was Johnstone who ended up starting every game. What is his prize for beating out Bromell? He'll probably have to sit with an unknown future until at least the start of free agency on Feb. 28.
Still, Johnstone felt like the defense made strides in 2002.
"You always think about the things you can do better, but overall I think as a whole defense we kind of grew together," Johnstone said a day after the regular season ended. "We finished a little bit better than we started."
"I think that's what kept this team close, that we could see improvement. We just had to learn how to win, and we did here at the end."
Until he is told otherwise, he still feels like he's a contributor.
"Right now it still feels like I'm part of this program. I haven't even shifted to that way of thinking," he said. "Who knows? I'll probably be back anyway. … Hopefully we can work that out."
For Wilson, a contributor almost exclusively on special teams and a restricted free agent because of his limited number of years of service (three) in the league, the choice isn't really his to make initially. All the Vikings have to do is wait and see if Wilson is given another offer, and at that point they can decide to match the offer or be given compensation in the form of a draft pick.
In Wilson's case, a linebacker with little playing time on defense, the chances of him being offered another NFL gig while he still has restrictions are minimal.
"Whatever comes about, I'll deal with that situation. I don't really know what's going to happen," Wilson said.
"Whoever wants to play me and pay me, that's where I'm going to go."
Carter is also a restricted free agent, but he has spent far more time on defense and getting on film for other teams to judge what he is worth. He played in all 16 games in 2002 and started seven. For him, the toughest adjustment was being moved to cornerback after spending much of the Vikings' preparatory camps at safety.
"That just shows the versatility that I can do corner, safety, whatever. I can do whatever they need me to do," Carter said.
That versatility could be an asset or it could indicate to other teams that he isn't a prototype at either position. But he isn't going to worry about free agency too much yet.
"With that, you never know," he said. "Mainly I'm just going to enjoy myself now that the season is over, being a father."
But pretty soon he'll be back working out — and this offseason he is committing to learning the finer points of the cornerback position from his high school friend and teammate, Al Harris, who is still involved in the playoffs as a cornerback with Philadelphia.
"Now I'm playing corner, so I've got to get fundamentally sound in corner drills and get my hips right," Carter said.
Soon Carter, like most NFL players, will begin his offseason workouts. Carter will be in Arizona and Florida, as will many of his more established teammates. Others will take part in the Vikings' offseason workout program at their Winter Park practice facility — at least those who are signed and not worrying about their free-agent futures will do that.
Free agency will do that, have players worrying and have fans wondering about the possibilities.
Free Agents In Limbo
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