Pelissero: As young Vikings grow, the likes of Michael Jenkins must go
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To many who have watched Wright every day in practice the past couple of months, it's a wonder the Minnesota Vikings' best receiver had to get hurt for Wright's chance to come.
But coaches have been reluctant to play the rookie at the expense of ninth-year veteran Michael Jenkins -- the last relic of a roster philosophy Rick Spielman has plainly aimed to eradicate in 11 months as general manager.
In short, Spielman wants to avoid doing deals that could force the team to choose between keeping an established player who's not a part of the long-term solution and flushing cash and cap space down the tubes to keep a younger player with upside.
"We definitely had the mindset to go and get younger and to build through the draft," Spielman said this week in an interview with 1500 ESPN. "But you can only do so much. You only have so many picks each year."
The last thing Spielman wanted to do was repeat the same mistakes the Vikings made coming out of the NFL lockout in July 2011, when he and coach Leslie Frazier had equal control over personnel.
In a three-day span, the Vikings agreed to contracts with four veterans: nose tackle Remi Ayodele, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, special teamer Eric Frampton and Jenkins, a former first-round draft pick who had just been released by Atlanta.
Each signed for at least three years. Their bonuses totaled a little more than $10 million. Each lasted one largely disappointing season.
Ayodele was cut in March, Longwell in May and Frampton in August, leaving the Vikings with a $5.4 million cap hit, to say nothing of the actual cash wasted.
Jenkins seemed like a goner at one point, too. But he agreed to cut his base salary from $2.5 million to $1 million, and the Vikings were short on options with Greg Childs (knees) injured and Jerome Simpson facing a three-game suspension.
Coachers have a comfort level with veterans and often are reluctant to replace those viewed as locker room leaders such as Jenkins, 30, who couldn't get in and out of his breaks or create separation even before he began complaining of foot pain during the bye week.
In a recent sitdown with reporters, Spielman praised coaches for their willingness to let younger players grow on the field. In reality, Jenkins -- who is due a $2.425 million roster bonus in March that almost surely won't be paid -- is one of few spots on this Vikings roster where Spielman even gave them an option.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield is 35 years old but still playing at a high level. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams (32) is in decline but clearly a cut above backup Christian Ballard -- one of 24 first- or second-year players on the 53-man roster (45.3%).
Eight of those young players (quarterback Christian Ponder, left tackle Matt Kalil, right guard Brandon Fusco, safeties Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond, nickel cornerback Josh Robinson, place-kicker Blair Walsh and tight end Kyle Rudolph) qualify as starters.
The only other player over age 30 is long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who has no young backup to wait on the sideline instead of getting a chance to develop during a playoff drive that continues on Sunday at Chicago.
"It'll be a great experience, because we are a younger ballclub," Spielman said. "We've got a lot of first- and second-year guys that are playing significant roles for us, and this is going to be four out of the next six games on the road and a lot of them against division opponents."
Spielman provided the symbolic start to the youth movement in March by cutting veterans Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera and Cedric Griffin -- all players in clear decline for which the Vikings believed they had immediate replacements.
Of all the deals the Vikings did in the month that followed, the only immediate flop was 34-year-old quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who was beaten out in camp by McLeod Bethel-Thompson despite having $500,000 in guaranteed base salary on his two-year contract.
They also have yet to see a return on tight end John Carlson -- the only outside free agent they gave significant money (five years, $25 million, $7.9 million fully guaranteed) -- who only recently has appeared to be over the knee injury he suffered in camp.
The Vikings signed seven other unrestricted or street free agents to one-year contracts, ending up with two starters (Simpson and fullback Jerome Simpson) and two key backups (guard Geoff Schwartz and linebacker Marvin Mitchell) at a total cost of around $4 million.
The other three signings (running back Lex Hilliard, cornerbacks Chris Carr and Zackary Bowman) all lost out to younger players -- which always was the preferable scenario anyway, especially when the combined cost was all of $75,000 in bonuses.
"Then you add in your draft class, and it doesn't lock you in to just keeping this guy on the roster because you paid him a lot of money or locked him in for four or five years," Spielman said. "It creates that open competition so, if a younger guy is better or you think a younger guy's going to be better three weeks into the season or five weeks into the season, then it gives you the option to keep the younger guy over the vet.
"But it covers you, too, on vets when you have some vets that are maybe on one- or two-year contracts, that if you have injuries during the preseason or you lose someone, that you have a guy that's been in your system, that understands going into the season what an NFL game is about and that gives you a comfort level as well."
None of which is to say Spielman wants to eschew free agency, nor that every move he's made so far is a hit. For instance, the Vikings probably wish their pursuit of free agent receiver Pierre Garcon had been successful and they hadn't had to settle for Simpson, who has struggled to play through a back injury.
They're still $8.2 million under their adjusted 2012 salary cap. They figure to have room to work with in 2013, too, with 44 players under contract and plenty of possibilities for massaging a cap figure that currently falls in the $111 million range.
But the Vikings aren't going to spend just to spend, and they're certainly not going to try to put themselves into situations like the one at receiver, where there's no excuse to let comfort get in the way of the fact a guy no longer can play.