Free-Agent Evaluations Near Completion

The Vikings continue to learn better ways to handle free agency, and it is Paul Wiggin and his staff that are responsible for ranking 300-plus players, a process that is expected to be completed next week. Last year yielded their top available defensive end, Kenny Mixon.

There is no off-season in professional sports.

Sure, players can take time off to unwind, but no franchise has the luxury of shutting off the lights and getting away for very long.

Paul Wiggin's office at the Vikings' Winter Park facility in Eden Prairie is evidence of this. One day after the Buccaneers' victory over the Raiders in the Super Bowl, Wiggin's workload was as heavy as ever.

The Vikings' director of pro scouting — his desk covered by scouting reports on various players with a VCR, tapes and a computer surrounding him — and his staff of three are hard at work preparing for their most important season — free agency.

The period for signing veteran free agents begins Feb. 28, and Wiggin, Jeff Robinson, Frank Acevedo and Ryan Monnens are in the process of assembling a book that will contain information and rankings on every player available.

This information will end up in the hands of Mike Tice and his coaching staff, as well as Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings' vice president of football operations.

"We are talking about evaluating probably 300-plus players," said Wiggin, noting the book will be done by Feb. 10. "Those are just free agents. Of that number, we may end up getting one or two guys. In the end result, we could have eight or 10. But I'm talking about key replacements to our football team."

When Wiggin moved from the Vikings coaching staff to the personnel department in 1992, the NFL's free agency system was in its infancy. Plan B was still around, and because salary-cap concerns did not yet exist teams did not have to worry as much about setting themselves back if a player turned out to be a bust.

It might as well have been a hundred years ago. In his office today, Wiggin can get information on any player from a number of different sources.

"We did a lot of things wrong in those early days," he said. "We were just finding ourselves. I go back and look at some of the things we did at that time and it's amazing how little information we had. Now it's amazing what kind of information we can get on a player."

The stakes, of course, are much higher in 2003. Not only does the salary cap mean teams must use extreme caution when giving out big contracts, but organizations such as the Patriots and Rams have proven that making good moves in free agency, along with having quality drafts, can turn a club into a Super Bowl contender in a hurry.

"(Free agency) has gotten bigger and bigger because it's more important," Wiggin said. "When you sit down and start thinking about what a mistake is in our business it tells you the magnitude. We have made some here, and we have made some without doing our homework. There were some impulsive things that were done in the past years that have hurt us. I'm not going to get into the reasons behind it, but they did. They didn't kill us, but we could have done better.

"What they want from us, more so than ever before, is they want us to be totally thorough. That's why we have more people doing this. A mistake in our business, if you are talking about the top echelon, might be a $2 or $3 million mistake. That more than pays for people to go into great depth to look at everybody available so you know as much as you can know. It's critical."

The plan
Wiggin said because he and his staff were still in the process of evaluating players, and because Scott Studwell, Wiggin's counterpart on the college scouting side, and his crew were doing the same with the draft, that it is too early to say what the Vikings' philosophy will be entering both free agency and the draft.

"We really don't know yet," Wiggin said when asked if there would be certain positions that might be addressed in free agency. "We do know that we have needs on our football team. There is no question about that."

One concern Wiggin brought up was the fact that players have to be evaluated on more than talent.

"We know for a fact that this is a very cohesive football team," he said. "The chemistry is really good here. Does Mike do that with no matter who is here? I don't know. We know that the people here, they all work hard in the weight room, they all do the things … so it's going to be important for us to find someone that might fit from that category."

In examining the free-agency pool, the Vikings also must look inside the organization. The team has 13 unrestricted free agents, including tight ends Jim Kleinsasser and Hunter Goodwin and running back Moe Williams.

There also are six restricted free agents: cornerback Tyrone Carter, running back Doug Chapman, tackle Lewis Kelly, long snapper Brody Liddiard, linebacker Antonio Wilson and offensive lineman Cory Withrow.

"We are determining who we want and who we are not going to let get away," Wiggin said. "It's pretty evident. I don't need to tell you who we don't want to lose."

Number one on that list is Kleinsasser, who finished third on the Vikings with 37 receptions for 393 yards and a touchdown this past season.

"He's a great player," Wiggin said. "If you went around and were (talking to) Tampa Bay today and said, ‘In free agency, who are you looking for?' They would say, ‘We would like to have that Kleinsasser guy.'"

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