Offseason process begins with own free agents
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman planned to sit down with his staff this week to begin another round of team evaluations. In a lengthy process, Spielman and the team's personnel staff will pour through their current roster, determining fit and cost for each player.
Last year, the decisions made in January were reflected in March with cuts to veterans like Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Ryan Longwell and Cedric Griffin. Among those evaluations, Minnesota re-signed defensive tackles Letroy Guion and Fred Evans and linebacker Erin Henderson, but they waited until the free agency period opened in March to agree to deals, even waiting weeks for an agreement with Henderson.
Don't expect the Vikings to be so quite early this offseason.
Now, Minnesota enters the offseason with 10 unrestricted free agents, including starters Phil Loadholt, Jerome Felton, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, safety Jamarca Sanford and receiver Jerome Simpson. Backup offensive linemen Joe Berger and Geoff Schwartz, linebacker Marvin Mitchell and receiver Devin Aromashodu are also unrestricted free agents. Cornerback A.J. Jefferson and tackle Troy Kropog enter the offseason as restricted free agents.
"Again, we'll start evaluating each guy individually, and we start from our No. 1 guy on our roster to the last practice squad guy on our roster," Spielman said last week. "We have very thorough and unfiltered discussions on each guy, and where we see them at, and whether we see them as part of our (team) going forward. But those decisions have not been determined, because as we work through that, we'll be down at the Senior Bowl the following week, and then we work on free agency and the draft meetings. By the time we get to the combine, I have a pretty good idea of the overall plan and how we'll execute that."
Spielman said Minnesota will have room under the salary cap this season and has said in many cases his preference will be to extend the team's current players if they fit what the team needs. There appears mutual interest in contacts between the Vikings and at least Loadholt and Felton, two cornerstones to the league's No. 2 rushing offense this season. Loadholt has spent his entire four-year career with Minnesota after being a second-round draft pick by the team in 2009.
This season started with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson preaching consistency for Loadholt and he put together perhaps the best season, consistently, of his career. He was an anchor at right tackle, helping solidify a rebuilt offensive line -- one that Spielman would like to see stay together with left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan and right guard Brandon Fusco all signed for next year.
"We'll go through the process of comparing him to the right tackles out there," Spielman said. "I know we would love to have that unit together for a while, just because I think the offensive line -- if you can get them playing together and how they played this year and to have that same group keep working together, especially at the age a lot of those guys are at -- it really helps you solidify yourself up front."
Count running back Adrian Peterson, who finished with the second-highest, single-season rushing total in NFL history, in Loadholt's corner.
"I'll probably talk to them, just to get that guy in," Peterson said. "He's just been improving each year. I'm going to keep my arms around him this offseason as well, just to make sure he's staying on top of this game and he's working out and he's doing the necessary things to make someone want to bring you back as well. So I'll have my toe in somewhere."
One person Peterson would like back, but doesn't feel he needs to put in a good word for, is Felton. Felton, built solely on his strength as a blocker, earned his first Pro Bowl selection this season and was named second-team All-Pro while leading the way on many of Peterson's big runs.
Felton was signed to a one-year contract last offseason by the Vikings. Minnesota had an eye on Felton in the past, particularly when he played for the Detroit Lions and felt a blocking fullback such as Felton could add more to the running game, despite Peterson's preference to run out of single-back sets.
Now, Felton believes he's found a home and hopes to stick with the Vikings, saying he's told his agent he'd prefer to stay in Minnesota. Felton said Spielman expressed interest in having Felton back as well.
"They said they'll be aggressive in trying to get something done and I hope that's what comes to be," Felton said. "I guess you never know how it's going to play out. This is my first real opportunity to hit the free agency like I wanted to. But I want to be here, so hopefully it works out."
Simpson never made the impact that was expected after he signed a one-year, $2 million free-agent contract with the Vikings last spring. He missed three games because of suspension and then a mysterious back/leg injury crept up and bothered him much of the season. He improved late but had only 26 catches for 274 yards and no touchdowns.
Even though Simpson's year didn't go as hoped on behalf of the receiver or the team, Spielman didn't rule out a return.
"We're interested in all our guys," Spielman said. "We'd love to have them all back, whether that's realistic or not, we want all our guys back."
Now it will come down to the evalutions.
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.