EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said all along his focus was on re-signing the team’s own group of free agents and preparing for another important draft.
One day into free agency and he’s sticking with his plan.
Throughout Tuesday, Minnesota started to nail down contracts with several of their players that were ready to hit free agency when the new league year began at 3 p.m. Central time. Before free agency opened, the Vikings re-signed right tackle Phil Loadholt to a multi-year deal and reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with receiver Jerome Simpson.
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Shortly after business opened for the 2013 season, Minnesota also signed safety Jamarca Sanford, fullback Jerome Felton, offensive lineman Joe Berger. A busy day that included the release of popular veteran Antoine Winfield and a reported contract restructure with tight end John Carlson continued later in the evening with the apparent re-signing of linebacker Erin Henderson, reported by ESPN1500.com.
“The philosophy here is putting an emphasis on signing your own back,” Spielman said when he met with reporters Tuesday shortly after free agency opened. “We’ve been doing that through the night. We’re currently doing that right now and trying to get as many of our guys back that were UFAs last year because of the success that we had last year. And if we can sign some of those guys back that were a key to that success, and then have another strong draft, we feel very excited about the direction this team is going.”
Loadholt had been a priority for the Vikings since the season ended, hoping to keep together the offensive line that helped MVP running back Adrian Peterson run for more than 2,000 yards. Loadholt, 27, was an unrestricted free agent and minutes away from being open to the entire league. Terms of the deal have not been reported and Spielman would only call it “multiple” years.
Minnesota had talked openly since the season ended in January about re-signing Loadholt and keeping the continuity along their offensive line with left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan and right guard Brandon Fusco. Behind the line, Minnesota was second in the league in rushing, and the Vikings allowed the 11th-fewest sacks in the league.
Loadholt was a 2009 second-round draft choice out of Oklahoma and has started every game of his career for Minnesota, missing only one game in his rookie season. The Vikings had hoped for more consistency out of the penalty-ridden Loadholt, and he followed through last year with one of his best seasons in the NFL.
“That was one of our primary players that we wanted to make sure he returned,” Spielman said. “We drafted Phil, he’s really developed into a player. We feel he is a key part of our offensive line in our blocking, his run blocking, not only what he does on the field, but what he is out in the community and what a leader he has developed in our locker room. As we headed into this, Phil Loadholt was definitely our top priority and we’re very, very excited that Phil Loadholt will be here.”
Sanford, 27, told FOXSportsNorth.com that he agreed to a two-year deal to return after starting 12 games last season and 27 games the past two seasons. He finished with 80 tackles, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last season after re-earning his starting spot. Second-year player Mistral Raymond was named the starter at the beginning of the season and started the first three games before missing time with an ankle injury. Sanford remained in the starting lineup when Raymond returned, and was also a standout special team’s player.
“I never was worried about not coming back or them not making me an offer to come back, so I knew it was going to turn out pretty good for both sides,” Sanford said. “It was a great decision for me because the coaches know me. They know my strengths and weaknesses and I still know the system. It’s not like I have to go run a new system. I know what they expect of me and I know to what to expect from them.”
Spielman and Felton each openly expressed a desire for an agreement earlier this offseason. Felton, who signed a one-year deal with Minnesota last season, became one of the best fullbacks in the league last season blocking for Peterson, who finished with the second-highest, single-season total in NFL history with 2,097 yards. Felton, 26, was named a Pro Bowler for the first time and was a second-team All-Pro and was glad to have his deal done early in free agency.
“Yea, I wanted to get it done and didn’t want to wait,” Felton wrote in a text to FOX Sports North, confirming his new deal is for three years. Multiple reports say Felton received $7.5 million total over three years.
Simpson, 27, struggled through his first season with the Vikings last season because of a suspension and injury, but Minnesota still hoped to have Simpson return and prove what he could do when healthy. His return became more important after leading receiver Percy Harvin was traded to Seattle, leaving the Vikings with only Jarius Wright, (22 catches) and Stephen Burton (five catches) as holdovers from last season under contract. Simpson had 26 catches for 274 yards last season in his first year in Minnesota. Terms of the deal have not been reported.
Simpson tweeted about his return, but Spielman said he couldn’t confirm the signing “just until we have signatures.”
“Jerome had to deal with the suspension and he had to deal with the injury that he had through most of the year, but I know coming back for a second year in the offensive system, coming back healthy, you could see some of the potential that he showed during training camp, that he showed in the preseason.” Spielman said. “And if officially Jerome is signed back here, we look forward to having him.”