Sunday slant: Which Vikings to keep

Phil Loadholt (Joe Robbins/Getty)

The Vikings have 10 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, but not all of them are worthy to be brought back. We rate the priorities in our view after hearing feedback from some of the decision-makers in the process.

The start of free agency is one month and two days away. For fans of some teams, it will be Christmas in March; for others, they will find comfort that the free-agent winners rarely are the playoff winners.

Last year, teams like the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were aggressive in courting their outside envies.

The Bucs added Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Eric Wright and Dallas Clark … and went 7-9.

The Redskins got Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan and retained Fred Davis and London Fletcher … and went one-and-done in the playoffs.

This year the Vikings anticipate waiting for the initial wave of free agency, and the accompanying dizzying prices, to pass before making serious moves on the remaining free agents. Fans never want to hear that, but general manager Rick Spielman is convinced that the draft is the way to build for the long term, and if he continues to draft as well as he did in 2012 over the next two or three years he will be proven right.

"My philosophy has always been we're going to try to build this team through the draft," Spielman told KFAN 100.3 on Friday. "We're going to try to keep our own and develop our own because they understand our culture, what we're trying to accomplish, and then sprinkle in some UFAs (unrestricted free agents) here and there. But unless there's something exceptional to the rule, I really don't believe in going out and spending a lot of big money on free agency."

Keeping their own will be the first priority and there are several key decisions, although there are no Vikings scheduled for free agency that feel like must-have re-signings. Here are they are, in order of how I would rate the importance in re-signing:

1. RT Phil Loadholt – Loadholt has never been a Pro Bowl-type player, but he has been a solid force up front and part of Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard season. He can occasionally get burned because his footwork is nowhere near as quick as that of left tackle Matt Kalil, but Loadholt can be a mauler. While he should be their top priority, they don't have to break the bank on him because there are decent options in free agency and the draft. Right tackle simply isn't as valuable as left tackle and Loadholt, while solid and reliable, isn't elite. He wants to stay and the Vikings want him back.

"Phil has been a very solid player for us. That's a true warrior-type player. There's no question that he's going to go and lay it on the line for you 16 games, hopefully more, 20 games a year," Spielman said. "We'll go through the process as comparing him to the right tackles out there. 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."

2. FB Jerome Felton – The Vikings entered the 2012 season preparing for an abundance of two-tight end looks, but because of injury to John Carlson and a high level of performance from Felton, the Vikings implemented Felton more than they originally anticipated and he proved worth it. Quite simply, he has been the best fullback Peterson has had since at least his rookie year of 2007 and maybe ever. Felton was so good at sealing blocks at the second level that Peterson may actually want a fullback in front of him – after looking at the tape, he certainly should want that.

"I think when you have a guy like Adrian, you know they're going to run the ball. That's not going to change here, they're built on that," Felton said. "I've been on teams where the promise was to run the ball and things like that, but in reality that's not what it was. Just to be in a place where you know that was going to be – we were built on our foundation – I felt like I could succeed in this offense. They gave me an opportunity and I just wanted to take full advantage of it and I think I was able to do that. Like I said, I'm not satisfied. I think my best football is ahead of me. I think this team's best football is ahead of us."

3. S Jamarca Sanford – He might have been the most improved player from 2011 to 2012. He didn't win the starting job out of training camp, but when Mistral Raymond suffered an ankle injury in Week 3, Sanford proved even better. He improved the angles he took to the ball, saved some touchdowns with important open-field hits and rarely got burned over the top. No, he's not ever going to be Harrison Smith, but he turned himself into a reliable complement that shouldn't cost too much to keep.

4. MLB Jasper Brinkley – Back in June, there were concerns on how durable Brinkley could be. He was missing practices because of hip or groin issues (there was a difference of opinion there), but once the preseason came around, so did Brinkley. The Vikings could afford to move on without both of their free-agent linebackers and look for speedier options to cover better, but since Brinkley made the calls to coordinator Alan Williams' liking he could be another reasonably priced re-signing.

5. OLB Erin Henderson – Once Henderson was fully past his early-season concussion, he got better in coverage. He was used more as the nickel linebacker late in the year, but part of that was due to the style of opponents the Vikings were facing. Henderson settled for a one-year contract last year in free agency when nothing better came along and sounded determined to get a long-term deal this year. Whether that's with the Vikings remains to be seen. There are plenty of viable options scheduled to be free agents, so he and the Vikings may have to wait and see what the market produces and he might not be happy with the answer because of a relatively flat salary cap compared to last year.

6. WR Jerome Simpson – Simpson wasn't happy with his season, and for good reason. He teased observers with his athleticism during offseason workouts, but shortly after returning from a three-game suspension he woke up with nerve issues in his back that affected his foot and leg. He was never completely the same and his stock is likely flat after signing a one-year prove-it deal that proved nothing. From the sounds of it, the Vikings may be his biggest supporters, but if he is looking for more than a one-year deal he isn't likely to find much guaranteed money accompanying it. At full health, he could be a decent No. 2 or No. 3 receiver to stretch the field and re-signing him could offer the Vikings some protection heading into free agency and the draft.

7. OL Geoff Schwartz – Judging by a recent tweet of his, in which he suggested he isn't settling to be a lineman for depth, he may have to be patient with the market. A sports hernia in training camp took him out of the running to win the starting right guard spot, relenting to Brandon Fusco, who is likely to retain that role in 2013. Schwartz also tweeted that he prefers guard, which means he likely wouldn't be a preferred option if Loadholt doesn't return. Expect his signing, with whatever team ends up with him, to wait until after the first week of free agency.

8. LB Marvin Mitchell – Had Brinkley been injured in 2012, Mitchell would have been his likely replacement, but he never got much of a chance to show what he could do. He wasn't much of a factor on special teams, either, and had two penalties. Even so, if both Henderson and Brinkley were to leave, Mitchell at least has some familiarity with Williams' defense, making him worth at least a minimal deal if that's the case.

9. OL Joe Berger – John Sullivan powered through some injuries once again (he had microfracture surgery less than two weeks ago), and Berger barely saw the field. The economics don't make sense for Berger, who would be owed $925,000 as a minimum salary in his 10th NFL season.

10. WR Devin Aromashodu – Aromashodu was supposed to be known for his deep speed, but for whatever reason he struggled to get separation from defenders. He could be on the open market for quite some time.

In the NFL, there is the phrase "no one is irreplaceable." In the case of the Vikings' free agents, that's true this year, but they would like to keep most of those on the top of that list at a reasonable salary. Most negotiations will take place during the NFL Scouting Combine in two weeks, but some could commence before then.

"There are going to be a lot of decisions that have to be made," Spielman said. "You're going to have to make some tough decisions as we go through our roster, but we'll look and see what's the best thing to do for the ball club and how can we get better. To me, until you win a Super Bowl, that's why you're in this business, that's what your ultimate goal is. And we definitely have to keep working and keep improving to reach that ultimate goal."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.


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