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Updated: November 30th, 2012 12:35am
Pelissero: Antoine Winfield can make a lot of money in coming weeks

Pelissero: Antoine Winfield can make a lot of money in coming weeks

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Vikings negotiated a four-year contract extension with Antoine Winfield's agent before training camp opened in 2009, both sides envisioned a scenario in which, by this point, Winfield would be a part-time player.

The veteran cornerback would be 35 by the time he began this, his 14th NFL season. Few corners this side of Darrell Green are still up to the task of starting at that age. And few players throw around a 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame quite with such reckless abandon.

So, a clause was placed in the final three years Winfield's new deal that would de-escalate his base salary if he fell below a specified play-time threshold in the previous season for any reason -- including a reduction to work in the nickel package only.

The thinking was the Vikings would be more likely to keep Winfield on the roster at a lower salary and with a lower cap number. In turn, Winfield could earn back most of the difference if he ended up playing more snaps the following season.

That came into play last season, when a strained neck and broken collarbone limited Winfield to 322 snaps (30.4%) over five games. His 2012 base salary de-escalated from $7 million to $3 million, helping him hang around amid a series of veteran cuts.

Now healthy again and having one of his most productive seasons, Winfield is about to start making back that money -- and perhaps securing his place on next year's roster regardless of how much he is owed.

Winfield has as many interceptions (three) as the rest of the Vikings combined this season. He ranks second in tackles (85), tackles for loss (10) and passes defended (10). And he already has played 738 of 767 gradable snaps (96.2%).

According to sources with access to NFL salary data, Winfield could earn incentives totaling as much as $3 million if he plays at least 75% of the Vikings' snaps for the season -- a virtual given if he makes it through Sunday's game at Green Bay healthy.

If Winfield plays 80% of the snaps, he would keep his scheduled base salary for 2013 at $7.25 million, placing the Vikings' oldest player among their highest-paid again in the final year of a deal the team has not approached him about restructuring.

A first-round draft pick (23rd overall) by Buffalo in 1999, Winfield has told those close to him for some time he hoped to play 15 years. There's little question he plans to get there next season, particularly since he's healthy.

The Vikings need him, too, at a position where you can never have enough quality players and they've struggled to fill for years through the draft.

Chris Cook hasn't proven able to stay on the field. A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson still are developing. Winfield no longer is an ideal cover man outside but remains better than all of them in run support, which is crucial in the Vikings' scheme.

The website ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down tape of every NFL game, has Winfield atop its rankings of all cornerbacks this season in large part because of his ability to make plays in the run game, particularly when manning the slot in nickel.

Winfield also commands respect in the locker room, as evidenced by the weight with which players took his rare speech after the Vikings' Sept. 16 loss at Indianapolis.

He played in the season opener four days after his brother was shot and killed in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and continues to fight through a knee issue that has nagged him for a couple months.

Rebuilding or not, the Vikings aren't looking to sever ties with productive players who can set that kind of example for one of the NFL's youngest rosters.

Nobody involved in negotiating Winfield's extension three years ago could know he'd be headed towards the last year of his deal as a full-time starter. But the Vikings can't really complain about the millions he can make in the coming weeks.

Right now, Winfield is earning every penny.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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