Pelissero: If Jerome Felton leaves, Vikings may lean on Rhett Ellison
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The Minnesota Vikings have told Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton they want him to return and reiterated that stance to his representatives in recent weeks.
But the Vikings have formulated contingency plans if Felton signs elsewhere once unrestricted free agency opens at 3 p.m. Tuesday -- and tight end Rhett Ellison could be the one who ends up filling the void.
Ellison, 25, played only 23.7% of the snaps (including playoffs) on offense as a rookie, splitting time inline, in the backfield and in the "H" movement role in Bill Musgrave's offense. He also was a core special teamer, and his attitude and physical style won fans in the locker room.
One teammate called Ellison the Vikings' best draft pick -- high, if overboard, praise in a class that included left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith and place-kicker Blair Walsh. The website ProFootballFocus.com rated Ellison as the NFL's second-best blocking fullback, based on his time in the backfield. (Felton, who played 37.7% of the snaps, was ranked fourth.)
The Vikings consider Ellison a tight end, though, and there is a push to keep him there as a complement to Kyle Rudolph, a pass-catcher by trade who took on the strongside, inline blocking role this season. Backup John Carlson isn't known for his blocking either.
Tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson was the one who came back from the University of Southern California's pro day and said the Vikings needed a guy like Ellison after longtime blocking specialist Jimmy Kleinsasser's retirement. And Johnson, among others, wants to keep the former fourth-round draft pick (128th overall) as a tight end, in part because fullback isn't a fulltime job in the Vikings' offense anyway.
There's no doubting the impact of Felton, 26, on the way the Vikings ran the ball last season. They incorporated more lead plays than they ever did with predecessors Naufahu Tahi and Ryan D'Imperio, and Adrian Peterson did much of the damage in his MVP season with Felton in front of him.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Peterson racked up 1,622 of his 2,097 rushing yards (77.3%) and eight touchdowns out of a two-back set, averaging 7.3 yards on 223 such carries -- remarkable production for a player who always said he preferred not to run behind anyone. It's no surprise Peterson has stumped publicly for Felton to return.
But is one solid season in which Felton played just 37.7% of the snaps (414 total) enough to justify making him one of the NFL's highest-paid fullbacks? Because just one year after he settled for a $750,000 contract, Felton figures to have some kind of marketplace.
The investment would be relatively modest, considering the three-year, $11 million deal Vonta Leach signed with Baltimore in August 2011 remains the standard at a position about half the league uses sparingly, if at all.
Only four other fullbacks -- San Diego's Le'Ron McClain (three years, $8.25 million), Green Bay's John Kuhn (three years, $7.44 million), Seattle's Michael Robinson (two years, $5 million) and Carolina's Mike Tolbert (four years, $10 million) -- have deals averaging at least $2.5 million a season.
But the Vikings have other holes to fill and other players to re-sign, starting with right tackle Phil Loadholt -- another player who is important to what they do in the running game. Is keeping continuity and keeping Peterson happy enough to justify beating Felton's best offer?
In the end, the Vikings might be more comfortable offering a one- or two-year "bridge" contract, rather than making a longer-term commitment to a five-year veteran who bounced between bad situations (Detroit, Carolina and Indianapolis) in a 2011 season that left him low on options.
A fifth-round draft pick (146th overall) out of Furman in 2008, Felton never has hit free agency with leverage before. He received a $136,100 bonus on his four-year rookie contract, then took a minimum salary benefit deal from the Vikings two weeks after the market opened last year.
Felton made clear after the season he was interested to test the market, and rightfully so. But few teams are as committed to the run as the Vikings, as Felton has found out before, and there aren't many backs like Peterson either.
The Vikings are $14.8 million under the salary cap, which is enough to do business. They want Felton back, and he wants to stay. If the market speaks for Felton, though, the question the Vikings must answer is whether it's worth paying the price when they have another player on the roster they feel is capable of doing the job.
Vikings' other free agents
The following is a thumbnail look at the Vikings' other 13 unsigned players. Tenders for restricted free agents and exclusive-rights players is 3 p.m. Tuesday, the same time the market opens:
• WR Devin Aromashodu, 28: Figures to get a minimum-type deal somewhere, but he might be out of chances with the Vikings. A No. 4 receiver at best.
• OL Joe Berger, 30: Is a logical candidate to return on another multi-year deal because of his versatility to play several spots, including center. Won't get a chance to start here.
• MLB Jasper Brinkley, 27: Has shown he's just a two-down player and a liability in coverage. May walk or return on a one-year deal as the Vikings look for an upgrade.
• WLB Erin Henderson, 26: Took a step back in his second season as a starter. Once again hits a market where he'll be hard-pressed to find a significant multiyear deal.
• RT Phil Loadholt, 27: Is a solid a run-blocker and the most important player to re-sign before the market opens. Figures to command a deal worth around $5 million a year.
• LB Marvin Mitchell, 28: Was the Vikings' No. 4 linebacker and only experienced depth last season. Could be back on another short-term deal with a minimal guarantee.
• OL Geoff Schwartz, 26: Had his bid to start derailed by a sports hernia in camp but will have more chances. Figures to land elsewhere.
• WR Jerome Simpson, 27: Wasn't healthy for most of his first season with the Vikings. Could be back as a No. 3 receiver for less than the $1.6 million he made in 2012.
• CB A.J. Jefferson, 24 (restricted): Probably is best-suited for subpackage duty at this stage. Probably will get the low tender.
• OL Troy Kropog, 26 (exclusive rights): Spent most of last season bouncing between practice squads. Figures to be tendered.
• S Andrew Sendejo, 25 (exclusive rights): Played extensively on special teams. Figures to be tendered.
• CB Marcus Sherels, 25 (exclusive rights): Has handled punt returns the past two seasons and served as the Vikings' backup slot man. Figures to be tendered.