Antoine Winfield (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
The Vikings are implementing numerous personnel changes, which is fine with 35-year-old Antoine Winfield, even if he doesn’t know all of new teammates just yet.
Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield looked around during the team’s June minicamp and guessed that he knew, at most, 25 of the 90 players on the field that day.
But the 35-year-old veteran wasn’t complaining or longing for more of the faces from last season. A 9-23 freefall since the team’s NFC Championship Game loss in January of 2010 has Winfield, and others, looking forward to seeing what the next generation of young Vikings can deliver.
“I think it’s good, considering we were 3-13 last season,” Winfield said. “We can’t do much worse. Young guys bring energy.”
An offseason of transition began in January when ownership decided the team’s rebuilding process needed one clear-cut voice. Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager, ending decades of management by consensus/confusion at the top of the Vikings’ organizational chart.
Spielman’s vision, which coach Leslie Frazier insists he’s in step with and co-author of, was clear: Get younger ASAP. Starting guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, both on the wrong side of 30, were quickly dumped. Reliable kicker Ryan Longwell, 37, was cut a week after the draft and less than a year after signing a long-term deal. Other aging free agents, including tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and middle linebacker and defensive leader E.J. Henderson, weren’t re-signed.
The first day of the draft couldn’t have gone better for the Vikings. After creating the perfect smokescreen to drum up national trade speculation concerning the No. 3 overall pick, Spielman was able to steal three picks from the Browns (third, fourth and fifth rounds) to drop down one slot. He took Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil, the player the Vikings wanted all along. Then, armed with 12 picks, Spielman had the firepower to trade back into the bottom of the first round and fill another huge position of need with Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith at No. 29.
Kalil and Smith are instant starters and upgrades. Don’t be surprised if as many as six of their draft classmates join them in playing a significant role on the team this season.
Speedy cornerback Josh Robinson, a third-round pick, is in the mix with free-agent acquisitions Zack Bowman and Chris Carr at the suddenly competitive nickel back position. Arkansas teammates Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, both fourth-round picks, bring much-needed depth at receiver. Wright also has the inside track on the No. 1 punt returner job. Notre Dame’s Robert Blanton (fifth round) was switched from corner to safety and could end up starting next to Smith, giving the Vikings two rookie starters at a position that’s been a weakness since Darren Sharper left after the 2008 season. And in a real leap of faith, the Vikings took Georgia kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round and gave him Longwell’s job despite a senior season that saw Walsh make just 21 of 35 field-goal attempts.
Spielman stayed true to the youth movement in free agency, bypassing older, bigger-name stars and signing several younger, less-celebrated players to one-year prove-it deals. The most noteworthy of these came when the team took a chance on Jerome Simpson. The former Bengals receiver, who pled guilty to a drug-related felony charge in March, will serve a three-game suspension to start the season. But he also has the length and speed to be the No. 1 outside receiver that the Vikings have sorely lacked since Sidney Rice was healthy during the 2009 season.
Another key acquisition for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s tight end-friendly offense was former Seahawks tight end John Carlson. Carlson and fellow Notre Dame alumni Kyle Rudolph give the Vikings one of the best pass-catching tight end duos this side of New England.
Like Simpson, Kalil and the literal changing of the guards, Carlson is part of the master plan to give second-year quarterback Christian Ponder what he needs to prove he’s worthy of the 12th overall draft pick in 2011. That’s still very much up in the air. And if it turns out that he’s not the answer, the Vikings’ return to relevance in the rugged NFC North will be delayed by another five years as the team wrestles with how long it waits to start over at the most important position in all of sports.
The Vikings head to training camp on July 26 hoping for one of those unbelievable worst-to-first storylines that are prevalent in the NFL. But, realistically, they arrive with a young roster filled with rookies, an unproven quarterback, a franchise running back (Adrian Peterson) that’ll be only seven months into a knee reconstruction and a defense that’ll have a new coordinator (Alan Williams) and new faces up the middle at nose tackle (Letroy Guion), middle linebacker (Jasper Brinkley) and at least one safety spot.
With the Packers, Bears and Lions so clearly ahead of them, the Vikings are more than likely using their 2012 training camp to get a jump on the 2013 season.