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Updated: March 12th, 2013 10:32pm
Pelissero: Cutting Antoine Winfield was strictly business for Vikings

Pelissero: Cutting Antoine Winfield was strictly business for Vikings

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

Antoine Winfield was working out at the Minnesota Vikings' facility on Tuesday when he was summoned to general manager Rick Spielman's office.

Winfield probably knew what was about to happen, unexpected as it was. What he probably didn't know was why.

The veteran cornerback's surprise release on Tuesday came shortly after the Vikings finalized a contract with right tackle Phil Loadholt that ended up being worth $25 million over four years.

That was more than the Vikings ever expected to pay Loadholt, according to NFL sources, but they weren't letting him out of the building. So, Winfield was shown the exit instead.

There was no negotiation of a potential paycut, nor had there been any talks since a vague meeting weeks earlier at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

If there had been, Winfield -- due $7.25 million in base salary for 2013 -- might have listened.

Instead, the Vikings' oldest and one of their longest-tenured players was on the street, where his performance even at age 35 figures to land him a chance somewhere to play a 15th NFL season.

The Vikings were left with one big question mark in their secondary and another about the meaning of releasing a productive player who set a supreme example for a young team.

But doing what it took to keep Loadholt -- ripping up the $5 million annual ceiling they'd set from the start of negotiations after the Chicago Bears pursued him -- showed just how strongly Spielman believes in keeping his home-grown players.

The Vikings had seen too much growth in Loadholt, 27, since they drafted him in the second round (54th overall) out of Oklahoma in 2009.

They'd seen Loadholt play too big a role in Adrian Peterson's MVP season to risk disrupting the continuity of a young, talented offensive line.

Spielman had about $16 million in cap space when he set out to secure his young core on Tuesday, with Loadholt the most important target by some margin.

By day's end, the Vikings also had retained fullback Jerome Felton (age 26), linebacker Erin Henderson (26) and safety Jamarca Sanford (27) on multi-year deals.

They'd restructured the contract of tight end John Carlson (28) and agreed to one-year deals with receiver Jerome Simpson (27) and offensive lineman Joe Berger (30).

The Vikings were continuing to work the phones on Tuesday night, although their targets in unrestricted free agency were lower-profile players.

They'd passed on trying to beat the five-year, $60 million deal the Miami Dolphins gave receiver Mike Wallace and, contrary to reports, had no plans to pursue injury-prone, soon to be 30-year-old Greg Jennings as long as he's seeking a similar deal.

If Spielman is running things, the Vikings always will be reluctant to get into a bidding war for someone outside the building. But they showed on Tuesday how far they'll go to keep someone who's already in it.

Cutting Winfield created an expanded hole at cornerback, in addition to those they still must fill at receiver, middle linebacker, defensive tackle and backup quarterback.

It was a business decision, but one that raised some eyebrows among veterans -- even those who commended Spielman for the return he got from trading top receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle a day earlier.

The Vikings didn't want to dump Winfield. They know he can still play. They know what he'd given them for nine years, including a 2012 season that began with the death of his brother and ended with him taking a shot to play through a broken hand in a playoff loss at Green Bay.

Spielman left the door open for Winfield's return, but he's not coming back. Not after the way things ended, and with several teams instantly inquiring about his services.

So, the Vikings must trust in Spielman's plan, trust in the 11 picks he has in April's draft, trust that keeping their own can keep one of the NFL's youngest rosters ascending.

And the oldest Viking of all must head into the free agency for the first time since 2004, when the team sent a plane to pick him up instead of leaving him to find his own flight out of town.

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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