Pelissero: Sidney Rice will get paid, but don't bank on big guarantee
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This is where the emotional meets the intellectual for NFL scouts, personnel men and general managers.
Look at Sidney Rice's 2009 tape, and there is every reason to believe he's a star in the making at the tender age of 24.
Look at Rice's body of work -- not to mention his body -- in his other three NFL seasons, and there are plenty of reasons to question whether he's about to get a top-shelf payday.
"I don't think so," an NFC decision-maker said this spring, "do you?"
Well, that depends in which Rice you choose to believe.
Is he the fully dimensional receiver who threatened defenses short, intermediate and long while racking up 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards for the Minnesota Vikings two years ago?
Or is he the soft-minded injury magnet with a possibly arthritic hip who has only 63 catches in his other 32 NFL games?
"His injuries obviously will be a concern for some teams," an AFC executive said this week. "They'd want some clarification on that. But if that proves healthy, I would safely assume a team that needs a receiver probably has him on their radar."
The going rate for top receivers was set when the Dallas Cowboys re-signed Miles Austin to a six-year, $54 million extension in September that included $18 million guaranteed.
Austin, 27, put up similar numbers (81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns) to Rice in 2009 and hadn't made any measurable impact in his other three NFL seasons.
But Austin never had missed more than three games (with a knee injury in 2008) and certainly never went through anything like Rice did last season, stunning the Vikings by undergoing surgery in August to repair a seventh-month-old hip injury amid speculation he was unhappy about his contract.
"Somebody's going to pay him, because he's proven that he can play," an AFC personnel director said. "He's also proven that injuries are an issue."
Would anyone give up $18 million guaranteed -- if not more -- for a player with that track record?
"I want to put him through a physical," the NFC decision-maker said. "I'd like to see where everything's at, because (expletive), I think the guy is really (talented)."
The Vikings have made clear they want to re-sign Rice and are sure to make a multiyear offer during the 72-hour "exclusive" window for teams to re-sign their own free agents, potentially starting as soon as Monday.
But Rice's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has made clear his client intends to test the free-agent market and the Vikings' offer, like many Rice is likely to receive, probably will be light on guarantees.
"I see somebody loading him up (with incentives)," the AFC personnel director said, "giving him enough money to make it interesting enough for him to come, but then also not tying their hands to a contract that says that they've got to give him a bunch of guaranteed money and then he ends up having another injury-plagued season."
That's the realm in which the Vikings may be willing to match another offer, if they're given the opportunity.
Rosenhaus also represents Bernard Berrian, who is due $4 million this season and has $1.425 million in likely to be earned incentives that push his cap number to $6,258,333 -- extremely steep for a vertical receiver who has lost a step with a Vikings team that reportedly is $5.1 million over the projected $120 million salary cap.
While the decision ultimately will be Rice's, there's no question engineering his exit could help Rosenhaus' bottom line, since Berrian almost surely would be cut if Rice re-signs and wouldn't get anything close to a comparable deal elsewhere.
"We'll just have to kind of wait and see what happens," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said regarding Rice last month. "Obviously, we'd love to have him back in Minnesota."
Frazier added that Rice was "enthusiastic" about the possibility in a conversation during the brief lifting of the NFL lockout in April, and the Vikings repeatedly have said they have no qualms about Rice's still-mysterious hip condition.
However, their reluctance to use the franchise tag on Rice or offer a multi-year deal before the lockout suggests less than full confidence he'll regain his 2009 form -- and sustain it for the life of a long-term deal.
The Vikings found out last season how difficult it is to replace a No. 1 receiver. That doesn't mean they -- or anyone else -- will overbuy on guarantees with Rice when the likes of Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Steve Smith, Mike Sims-Walker, Santana Moss, Lance Moore, Malcom Floyd, Steve Breaston and James Jones are available, too.
"I think some team could take a chance (on Rice), a wide receiver-needy team," the AFC executive said. "(But) if you look at that group now in UFA, that's a deep class at wide receiver -- both older, short-term veterans and then guys who are just hitting the class this year."
This is where the future spars with history, no matter what anyone wants you to believe.
Memories of the doomed contracts given in recent years to Javon Walker, Jerry Porter, Laveranues Coles, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Antonio Bryant and others take a backseat when the film comes on.
The newly established cash floor will force a handful of traditionally stingy franchises to spend big to reach the minimum, too.
"Yeah," a veteran NFC personnel man said when asked about Rice, "I could see him getting paid."
And if one person thinks that way and has access to a full bank account, chances are the Vikings will have to make themselves believe in someone else.