EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have made tough decisions on costly, aging veterans the past two years. The latest was a big surprise.
Minnesota released 14-year veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield before the new league year began at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, shedding one of the team’s most respected leaders after he reportedly refused to take a pay cut. Winfield, who turns 36 in June, was set to earn $7.25 million in the final year of his contract with the Vikings.
“Antoine Winfield was a very tough decision,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said, while refusing to offer specific details on why Winfield was released. “It was a business decision as we move forward. Antoine is a great football player for us. He’s another one that’s a tremendous leader and great at what he does in this community. We definitely want to keep the door open on his possible return, but at this time we had to release him in order to get him out in free agency.”
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that releasing Winfield was considered a cost-cutting move, with Winfield’s agent, Ashanti Webb telling Rapoport, “It’s financial.”
Winfield, a three-time Pro Bowler and considered one of the best tackling corners in the NFL despite his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame, had 110 tackles last season for Minnesota and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. A year after missing 11 games due to injury, he played all 16 games last year as the Vikings rested their top cornerback during the week to keep him fresh for game days.
“Antoine played very well last year,” Spielman said. “He probably is one of those players that defied odds for his age on what he did for our football team last year. There’s no question about what Antoine Winfield does for our football team on the field and off the field as well.”
Because Winfield was still playing at a high level, his release was unexpected. Last year before free agency opened, Minnesota cut longtime veterans Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera and Cedric Griffin. The Vikings cut receiver Michael Jenkins, 30, on March 4 with the receiver due a $2.45 million roster bonus if he was on the roster on March 16.
But Winfield was still one of Minnesota’s most consistent defensive performers and a presence in the locker room.
“That really tore me apart,” said safety Jamarca Sanford, who re-signed with the Vikings Tuesday.
Sanford later added: “It’s a business at the end of the day, so they’ve got to make the best decisions for the organization. That’s why we call it a business. Things aren’t always going to work out like you planned them all the time.”
As Spielman continues the youth movement for his team, he knows cutting a player like Winfield can send a poor message to his team. Yet, he maintained releasing Winfield was a business decision and hoped to re-sign Winfield, who’s spent the past nine years in Minnesota.
“These decisions are very, very hard to make,” Spielman said. “That’s why we want to definitely keep the door open for potentially having Antoine return. But we have to make all the pieces fit into the puzzle, as well.”
Winfield has acknowledged he doesn’t have many years left in the NFL, but said after the season he wanted to return to the Vikings. At 36 years old though, Winfield is once again a free agent for the first time since Minnesota signed him away from the Buffalo Bills in 2004. Spielman mentioned several times Tuesday he’s keeping the door open for Winfield to return, at a lower cost.
“I mean, we’re always going to keep the door open on someone of that, not only as a football player but what he means to this organization, what he means to this football team,” Spielman said. “And when you have to make tough business decisions, it makes it extremely hard. I mean, one minute you’re elated because you got Phil Loadholt done. And the next minute you don’t feel as good because you had to do something with Winfield, which makes this job extremely, extremely difficult.”
Without Winfield, Minnesota is once again shallow at cornerback. Chris Cook is considered the team’s top cover corner, but he has missed at least six games in each of his first three seasons in the league. Last year he returned from a broken forearm suffered in Week 8 to play in the final two weeks and Minnesota’s playoff game.
Behind Cook, the Vikings have Josh Robinson (who had an inconsistent rookie season last year after being a third-round pick), Brandon Burton (who has played 14 games in two NFL seasons), Marcus Sherels (who is considered more of a punt returner), A.J. Jefferson (who is a restricted free agent), practice squad player Bobby Felder, Nick Taylor (a former basketball player who missed all last season with a shoulder injury) and offseason free-agent signees Greg McCoy and Roderick Williams, neither of whom played in the NFL last season.
“We feel confident the way Josh has developed and tendering A.J. Jefferson and Chris Cook,” Spielman said. “We have a couple other young guys that we’re going to look at as well. But by no means do we want to shut out Antoine. I want to hopefully have the door open for his potential return, if that’s possible.”