Jobs in jeopardy: Draft impacts veterans

By Sunday, the Vikings will have added at least a handful of promising new rookies … and created job insecurity for a few veterans. The draft can bring hope for rookies and create competition and uncertainty for the established players. Several Vikings veterans talked about the cyclical NFL process that could have them scrapping for employment this year.

When it comes to draft weekend, owners, coaches, general managers and fans revel in stocking their shelves with new talent. It can be argued that nothing is more vital to the success or failure of franchises than how they perform in the draft. Good teams pick at the end of each round, while the worst teams are awarded the chance to draft the premier college talent.

That excitement and joy isn't always shared by veteran players – guys who have busted their butts and, in many cases, beaten the odds to become NFL players. The last thing they want to see is their organization draft a player high at a position they play. Do you think Chester Taylor was excited to see Adrian Peterson come to Minnesota? He took the decision with class, but, after spending his first four years stuck behind Jamal Lewis in Baltimore, Taylor had the most rushing attempts in a season in Vikings history in 2006 – only to have A.P. come in the following years and set the NFL on fire.

The truth of the draft is that younger players present the chance to infuse talent that the organization believes can be difference-makers in the future of the franchise. Even if a highly-drafted player turns out to be a complete bust (see Troy Williamson, Erasmus James, etc.), they are usually given three or four years to prove themselves. Lower-round draft picks, free-agent veterans or undrafted players don't have that luxury. Making a roster is an uphill battle and they can't be blamed for being concerned when a highly-touted youngster joins the locker room.

"Guys can say they don't worry about, but it's always there," said long snapper Cullen Loeffler. "You work hard to get a starting job or a role on the team and then you spend the rest of your career trying to keep it. Every year there is someone getting drafted that wants to be the starter and, depending on the position, there are only one or two spots to be had. You try to focus on what you're doing, but I'm sure guys are looking over their shoulder to see how the young guys are doing."

Last year's fifth-round pick, Jasper Brinkley, came in with the luxury of having little in the way of competition for the backup middle linebacker spot. When E.J. Henderson suffered a season-ending foot injury in 2008, the Vikings scrambled to bring in available veterans to fill the position. None of them were brought back last year and Brinkley had the job essentially locked down.

But if a middle linebacker the Vikings have ranked highly falls to them on draft weekend, Brinkley's grip on a roster spot may not be assured. He said he understands that his job isn't secure until he proves himself again, even after a strong rookie season in which he held up pretty well after being thrust into the starting lineup when Henderson was again injured.

"I think it's all about creating competition," Brinkley said. "At the end of the day, they're going to keep the best guys at the position. If they draft a guy at my position, that would just be motivation for me to take care of my business. I think it's all a way to push each other when you're looking to build a great team."

Unlike other sports, where veteran savvy is appreciated and players bounce around the respective leagues for years, the NFL is a young man's game. If you're a skill-position player other than quarterback, by the time you hit the age of 30 – if you're still around – you're viewed as an old man who will eventually be replaced. For running backs, it's almost a death sentence. Injuries sustained over the years have slowed them down a bit and young, healthy players can do things that veterans used to do, but can't perform as well now.
"It's a challenge," linebacker Heath Farwell said. "Every year, they're bringing in guys to replace the older guys. That's what you want – to have the best team out there that you can. If that means they're going to put another guy in my position, that's the reality of this game. They're always going to draft young guys and are looking for faster, stronger players all the time."

The crown on the heads of most NFL players is wobbly at best. Careers are ended in an instant. Players bounce around like nomads when they reach a certain point in their careers – seeking out franchises with needs at their positions. Critics of the NFL say it is a league without a conscience. Once a player's contract outweighs his contribution, he is released or not re-signed when his contract comes up. While it may sound a little harsh that loyalty doesn't exist, what is past in the NFL is simply prologue to what is coming the following year.

"The NFL is about what you can do for the team right now," Loeffler said. "Every year, they're looking to make themselves better and roster spots are always up for competition. If you don't perform, you're gone. A lot of the new guys that will be coming in know that they will be a long shot to make the final roster, but that brings out the best in them and puts the pressure on the veteran guys who don't have a spot assured to work all that much harder to show they still belong."

Even team leaders and Pro Bowlers aren't immune to the backlash of the team's draft strategy. In 2008, without picks in the first or third rounds following the Jared Allen trade, the Vikings used their only pick on safety Tyrell Johnson, who was deemed their heir-apparent to Darren Sharper. Later in the same draft, the Vikings drafted center John Sullivan, who was tabbed as the eventual replacement for Matt Birk – the vested veteran of the team with a résumé that could be Hall of Fame worthy. A year later, Sharper and Birk were both gone. Fortunately, Sullivan worked out as a replacement with a lot to prove – much like Birk did when the Vikings allowed Pro Bowler Jeff Christy (and guard Randall McDaniel) to leave for Tampa Bay. The ending came out well, but that doesn't happen as often as teams think it will.

"It doesn't always work out that way," Farwell said. "In that instance (Sullivan and Birk), it worked out. I was sorry to see Matt go, but he showed he can still play pretty well in Baltimore. I've seen it happen many times over the years. You think you've got enough at one position, but you take the best available player. A good example was Chester Taylor. He was one of the best running backs in the league and then Adrian was on the board and you had to take him. Most people wouldn't have thought that we would need a running back, but he was the best player available and they didn't hesitate to make that move."

For many of the Vikings veterans who aren't guaranteed a starting spot, the addition of the new players will create another competition and a fight to retain their place on the roster. They know who their competition will be and, in a strange way, will be doing everything they can to help that player eventually take over his job. It's part of the grooming process and something that selected players relish in. To some it would seem like career suicide, but it's part of the NFL honor code.

"When I came in as a rookie, there were three veterans – Sam Cowart, Keith Newman and Corey Chavous – that took me under their wing and helped me along," Farwell said. "It meant a lot to me. You know that these young guys are hungry and want to make their dream come true of playing in the NFL. But I've tried to do the same and help mentor the younger guys and will help any of the new guys who come in if they want help – even if it ends up being that he winds up taking my spot on the roster. To be honest, I'd love to help them. It's my duty as an older guy and, if it helps the team, that's all that matters."

While fans and coaches will likely be beaming about the prospects they bring into the mix for the 2010 Vikings, not everybody will be smiling. Some players will be gritting their teeth, knowing that keeping their job just got a little harder.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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