Vikings try to fill Winfield’s leadership role

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Harrison Smith is only in his second year as a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, but he envisions having more of a vocal role in the team’s secondary.

The way Smith sees the young secondary, everyone will need to step forward after losing veteran leader Antoine Winfield in the offseason.

“He was obviously the leader of the group and we all had a ton of respect for him and looked to him for advice,” Smith said. “Now, it’s really an opportunity for the rest of us to kind of fill that void and somebody to step in at corner and nickel and just make plays; just kind of gel together and fill that hole.”

Winfield, who signed a one-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks after he was cut in a salary cap move by Minnesota, was the player the members of the young secondary looked up to. Winfield, with 14 years in the NFL, was a mentor to players like Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson as rookies.

“His study habits are superb,” Robinson said. “He’s one that’s always been, ever since his rookie year, he said he learned that he had to study better and he became a great player. He’s a great tackler, everyone knows that. His coverage skills are still there, even at 35 (years old).”

Smith and Robinson said it was tough to see how Winfield’s situation unfolded this offseason. The Vikings attempted to re-sign Winfield after releasing him in March because he was due a $7.25 million contract next season. Many of the team’s leaders, including coach Leslie Frazier and linebacker Chad Greenway, tried to get Winfield to return.

“That was a hard one, I’ll tell you that much,” Greenway said. “A fan favorite, a player favorite, a team favorite, hard one to see happen. Obviously we know it’s a business, but I was texting him back and forth quite a bit. It was a decision that was tough for him. We know if it’d have worked out, he’d have been here. But he’s got a good fit out there. On paper, they’re the cream of the crop this year. So we’re always going to be happy for Antoine, but when we go up there to play him, now he’s got to tackle 28 in real life. We know he’s a great tackler, so we’ll see how good he is. But he’s one of the favorites of all time, all-time Vikings, in my opinion. So, it’s sad to see him go, but happy that he’s still playing.”

Smith said he doesn’t have the same anxiety he did as a rookie and he feels more comfortable stepping forward in his second season. Smith made a dramatic difference in the team’s secondary last year, coming up with several key plays and tying Winfield for the team lead with three interceptions.

“I think being a guy that’s played and made some plays on the team now, this is a time where I don’t have to completely focus on myself and I can’t reach out to anyone else,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m a guy that somebody can ask questions to, because I’ve been through a year. Not that I’m, by any means, a veteran, but I’ve got a little experience under my belt.”

Quarterbacks watching their new highlight-maker: As soon as Minnesota traded four picks for the right to jump back into the first round and draft Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings’ quarterbacks took to the Internet to see what the fuss was about and what type of playmaker they’ll be dealing with next season.

“I was able to watch his highlight film because I hadn’t heard of him before, so I went like everybody else and YouTubed him and checked it out,” Matt Cassel said. “It’s very impressive. He’s a big kid. He can run. He’s got explosive speed. Again it’s about him getting in here, integrating into the culture of the team and learning the offense. And by that, he can have an impact.”

Patterson is another target, along with receiver Greg Jennings, to help starting quarterback Christian Ponder grow in his third season.

“I think he’s going to make an impact this year,” Ponder said. “A first-round pick, had a lot of hype coming out. I watched some film on him and he’s great with the ball in his hands. And he’s a taller guy. He’s 6-2. He’s a legitimate size receiver. We’ll probably put him at the ‘X’ and do some things with him. We’ll obviously try to get him the ball and see what he can do.”

Jennings sees the difference from Green Bay: Jennings, the big free-agent acquisition from the Green Bay Packers, has been in Minnesota for a while and is learning life is a bit different in the Twin Cities than Green Bay.

Jennings said he plans to just rent a home in Minnesota instead of buying, due to the cost of living.

“Man, the cost of living is ridiculous here,” said Jennings, who signed a five-year, $45 million contract. “Beautiful homes, beautiful neighborhoods, but I can’t afford it, honestly. I’m quite frugal. I know the contract might say otherwise, but I’m a little frugal. It’s exciting. It’s just a little bit more to do here than previous locations, but I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the change. My family’s excited about it. That’s what makes it even easier. We were ready for change. We were excited about it and being in a bigger city is a little exciting, a little different.”

Smith received Te’o questions: With Minnesota interested in Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in the NFL draft, the Vikings had a close connection to see what Te’o was like after his personal life was dissected heavily following a girlfriend hoax he allegedly fell victim to.

Smith got all the Te’o questions he could handle.

“Honestly, everyone I’ve talked to has asked me about Te’o,” Smith said. “I think most people kind of know. It’s obviously just a weird story, so there’s a lot of attention on it. But at the end of the day, I think everybody knew that he’s a good guy and obviously the tape is what they’re going to go off the most. I was asked by literally everyone I came in contact with that is involved in football.”

Smith knows Te’o will get ribbing inside any NFL locker rooms, and Minnesota and San Diego—which took Te’o in the second round—aren’t any different. Smith, one of five former Notre Dame players, would have welcomed Te’o to the Vikings’ defense.

“I would have fun (playing) with Manti,” Smith said “I played with him for four years and he’s a good guy. He plays hard and he has a lot of passion. That would have been fine with me.”

Kalil’s weight fluctuated: Like Smith, left tackle Matt Kalil enters his second offseason with the Vikings and said he’s worried about putting weight on after he suffered from pneumonia in Week 16 last season.

Kalil, who said he weighed about 310 pounds during much of the season, said he dropped to about 290 pounds after catching pneumonia.

“Yeah, I couldn’t eat anything for about three days,” Kalil said. “That wasn’t very good.”

Kalil said he’s looking to reach 315 pounds for the season.

“For some other guys, they start working out and they gain weight,” Kalil said. “I shrivel up myself working out. But I started a couple months ago, getting back into it, and it’s going to continue.”

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