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Updated: July 18th, 2011 12:38am
Pelissero: Lots of business, little time for Vikings when lockout ends

Pelissero: Lots of business, little time for Vikings when lockout ends

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

Barring an unforeseen snag in labor talks this week, the NFL could be back in business by next Monday.

For the Minnesota Vikings, five months of preparation would culminate with a one-week frenzy as wild as any in the post-lockout league.

"I've seen their free-agent list," an executive in personnel for an AFC team said on Sunday night.

"That's going to be a battle for some teams. How about all of these teams that have basically paid it forward, who didn't do any deals with anybody last year? Look at the New York Jets. If it's all four-year players that are making it to the class here, making it to free agency -- those guys, they're dealing with some significant issues.

"Teams like the Vikings, too, a team like the Jets, they've got a lot of business to do. I don't know how they're going to do it all."

Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel, was back in the office shortly after the Fourth of July to resume meetings about the roster.

The Vikings have had several versions of their free-agency board ready to go since February. But like everyone else, they'll have only days to digest the rules and language of the new collective-bargaining agreement and comply with a reduced salary cap before handing out tens of millions in new deals.

According to NFL sources and several reports, an agreement could be finalized as soon as Thursday, when owners are scheduled to meet in Atlanta. An exclusive window for re-signing a team's own incumbent free agents, as well as undrafted rookies, would then begin late Sunday night, with full free agency starting 72 hours later.

The following is a breakdown of the tasks immediately facing the Vikings and other teams, based on conversations with a variety of sources and a timeline based on the deal being approved by Thursday:

1. Undrafted free agency (projected start: 11:01 p.m. Central on Sunday)

Most teams had their boards set for this before the draft even began, and there's every reason to believe the main wave will end in a matter of hours, as usual. How many undrafted rookies actually get signed remains to be seen, though.

Normally, most teams sign enough players to reach the 80-man offseason roster limit, not including draft picks who aren't yet under contract. That's an extra 250 or so players who wouldn't be signed this year unless the NFL expands rosters, since draft pick negotiations will be going on simultaneously, before practices begin.

Even if the NFL expands rosters to as many as 90 players, there is skepticism about how many teams will take advantage, since coaches' primary focus on the truncated timeline will be getting their top 53 ready for the season. Instead, teams may redeploy the bonus money they'd normally spread over 20 or so players to just a handful of top targets.

The Vikings have 51 players under contract, plus two tendered restricted free agents and 10 draft picks (63 total). They figure to target camp depth at several positions where they're light on numbers, including defensive end (five), defensive tackle (five), fullback (one), halfback (three) and offensive line (12).

2. Draft pick signings (11:01 p.m. Sunday)

The reformed rookie wage system that's expected to be included in the new CBA could drastically simplify compensation for first-round picks. Rather than haggling over the value of the "escalated" fifth year in each deal, agents and teams will be locked into a system in which every first-round pick signs a four-year pact with a fifth-year option based on salaries of top players at the position -- not unlike the mechanics of the franchise and transition tags.

At least for this year, though, both sides will be feeling out a system that teams hope will truly "slot" players and reduce contract value by in the neighborhood of 50%. Even the less complex second- through seventh-round negotiations will be somewhat unusual this year, given that the market will have to settle itself in a matter of days, rather than months.

The Vikings need their top pick, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder (No. 12 overall), to be in camp on time if he's to have any chance for competing to start immediately. So, they'll need to do everything they can to lock him up in the 72-hour window before free agency begins to avoid threatening his availability for the first scheduled practice on Aug. 1.

Ponder is represented by veteran agent Jimmy Sexton. Second-round draft pick Kyle Rudolph (Notre Dame) is represented by David Dunn, another agent with a long client list who could cite the Vikings' talk about Rudolph's first-round value in pushing for a better escalator/incentive package.

The Vikings shouldn't have any trouble reaching deals with the rest of their picks: end Christian Ballard (fourth round, Iowa), cornerback Brandon Burton (fifth, Utah), offensive lineman DeMarcus Love (sixth, Arkansas), defensive back Mistral Raymond (sixth, South Florida), center Brandon Fusco (sixth, Slippery Rock), linebacker Ross Homan (sixth, Ohio State), end D'Aundre Reed (seventh, Arizona) and receiver Stephen Burton (seventh, West Texas A&M).

3. Incumbent free-agent signing period (11:01 p.m. Sunday)

Top free agents such as receiver Sidney Rice almost surely will wait until the free-agency gates open before considering an offer to stay put. But second-tier players such as linebacker Ben Leber and older players such as nose tackle Pat Williams might be willing to re-sign a short-term deal for the right price during the "exclusive" period, rather than hazarding an unfamiliar situation without the benefit of a full offseason -- or worse, being out of work when camps begin.

In a normal offseason, 200 to 250 players hit the unrestricted free-agent market in early March. This year, 400 to 450 players could be available, improving depth of options at many positions and shifting some leverage to teams once the initial spending spree peters out. Of course, once business starts, illegal conversations are sure to take place between agents and other teams, allowing them to accurately gauge the market for their clients.

The Vikings are one of seven teams that reportedly would be over the projected salary cap of $120 million (plus a one-year, $3 million credit), by $5.148 million. So, this also is the time -- if not sooner -- the Vikings could consider releasing or renegotiating overpaid veterans such as safety Madieu Williams ($5.5 million in 2011 salary and bonuses) and receiver Bernard Berrian ($4 million).

They also could clean up their cap by moving quickly on long-term extensions for linebacker Chad Greenway (franchise tag worth around $11 million) and halfback Adrian Peterson ($10.72 million base salary, $12.775 million against cap) or renegotiating a veteran such as left guard Steve Hutchinson, who is in decline and set to be wildly overpaid at $6.73 million.

Plus, it's hard to imagine Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, not threatening a holdout if his client doesn't get a new deal.

4. Unrestricted free-agent signing period (11:01 p.m. Wednesday, July 27)

Rice is highest-profile name among the 19 unsigned players who finished last season on the Vikings' 53-man roster or injured reserve. He's also a player the Vikings want badly to retain, and the team will be closely monitoring his situation -- as well as movement within what's considered a fairly deep group of receivers -- in the early hours and days after free agency begins.

End Ray Edwards is sure to draw significant interest, too, and most likely will sign elsewhere. The Vikings would like to retain place-kicker Ryan Longwell. They've expressed interest in retaining Leber. And coach Leslie Frazier has said he'd like to bring back Williams, who like Longwell will be looking to cash in on what could be his final contract.

The Vikings tendered two third-year players, safety Husain Abdullah and Erin Henderson, whose offers should hold up under the new CBA. They didn't tender halfback Albert Young, who will become a street free agent and won't be back.

Other unrestricted free agents from last year's team include: receiver Hank Baskett, offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive tackle Fred Evans, quarterback Brett Favre (retired), safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, receiver Greg Lewis, cornerback Lito Sheppard, fullback Naufahu Tahi, cornerback Frank Walker and quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Of that group, only Cook, Frampton and maybe Tahi and Walker appear to have any chance for returning.

Then there is that talented and unprecedented crop of 400-plus free agents from other teams who will hit the market at the same time. If Rice departs, the Vikings would badly need outside receiver help. They're almost sure to bring in a veteran quarterback -- perhaps more likely a journeyman than an established starter -- to compete with and mentor Ponder. And they're likely to target some level of veteran depth in the secondary, as well as along the defensive line.

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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