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Updated: October 11th, 2012 10:38pm
Pelissero: With $8M under cap, Vikings talk deal with Phil Loadholt

Pelissero: With $8M under cap, Vikings talk deal with Phil Loadholt

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- General manager Rick Spielman has spoken often about rebuilding the Minnesota Vikings around a young core on offense, and a logical next step in that process could come in the next couple of months.

The Vikings have opened talks about a multiyear contract extension with the agent for right tackle Phil Loadholt, the most established among 10 players on the 53-man roster who could become unrestricted free agents in March.

"They're talking and I'll just leave it at that," Loadholt said this week. "I kind of just let them take care of that whole situation. I don't want really want to get too much into it. Just try to play my hardest and let everything else take care of itself."

The Vikings have always been proactive about re-signing players with proven track records to second contracts before their rookie deals expire, and they have room to maneuver, with $8.546 million in space under their adjusted 2012 cap as of Thursday.

It was around this time last year the Vikings reached agreement on a three-year, $4.25 million extension with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and made an initial offer to center John Sullivan, who ended up signing a five-year, $25.1 million deal in December.

Still only 26, Loadholt fits the mold, having started all but one game since the Vikings selected him in the second round (54th overall) out of Oklahoma in 2009. He's blessed with rare size (6-foot-8, 343 pounds), is known as a hard worker and has shown more consistency with his pass sets, punch and knee bend in his fourth NFL season.

"He's had a higher level of production this year so far," offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said, "and he's a professional about it, because he's out here working on it again today and making sure that he doesn't get turned and all the same things that have been an issue in the past for him."

The Vikings have at least two key contractual issues to deal with after the season --negotiating a long-term deal with receiver Percy Harvin, who expects the last year of his rookie deal to be ripped up, and possibly restructuring end Jared Allen, who is scheduled to count more than $16.8 million against the 2013 cap in the last year of his deal.

Among the other nine players eligible for unrestricted free agency are four starters: middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, weakside linebacker Erin Henderson, fullback Jerome Felton and receiver Jerome Simpson. But those players have fewer starts combined (29) for the Vikings than Loadholt's 54 and thus are more likely to merit further evaluation.

Special-teams ace Jamarca Sanford also is on the list, along with backup receiver Devin Aromashodu, offensive linemen Joe Berger and Geoff Schwartz and linebacker Marvin Mitchell. Two other reserves, cornerback A.J. Jefferson and safety Andrew Sendejo, can become restricted free agents.

"I haven't really thought about it," Loadholt said of his contract status. "I kind of just take the approach that I know this is a place I want, so as long as I'm playing well, hopefully, that can just be the place I'll be."

Like Sullivan, Loadholt has benefited from the highly regarded tutelage of Davidson, a former NFL guard who replaced Pat Morris after the 2010 season. Unlike Sullivan, Loadholt doesn't appear to be ascending among the NFL's best at his position.

But with second-year quarterback Christian Ponder coming into his own, the Vikings surely have no interest in breaking up a recently remodeled line on which 28-year-old left guard Charlie Johnson is the oldest member after the releases of Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera the past 14 months.

Loadholt's strength remains the run game, where his power has shown up more as this season has gone on. He still has issues in pass protection, particularly against movement-type rushers who can expose him with speed, but his play has improved markedly since he surrendered eight pressures in the Vikings' lone loss on Sept. 16 at Indianapolis.

"We kind of game plan the type of player he's going to have," Davidson said. "Thus far, it's worked out OK and we'll continue to do that.

"I think it's important to him. He continues to work at it. That's not to say that he won't have issues, because all players do. The biggest thing is we don't want repeat issues."

At this point, the question probably is not whether the Vikings want to get a deal done with Loadholt before the season ends, but whether his veteran agent, Gary Uberstine, and Vikings vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski can come up with a contract that makes sense for both sides.

It took about three months of negotiations for Sullivan's deal to get done, because he kept playing well and the price kept going up. Conversely, the Vikings also made a contract offer last October to safety Husain Abdullah, who turned it down and subsequently suffered two concussions that left his NFL future in doubt.

That's the type of risk players can avoid by taking the money when it's on the table, but some, such as Abdullah, want to avoid the distraction during the season and others simply are willing to take a chance they'll keep producing and the offer will increase.

Generally speaking, the market for right tackles is less lucrative than for left tackles, who must have the feet and athleticism to compete with the quicker, more explosive pass rushers so many teams have at left end.

"In a perfect world, you have two of those guys," said a high-ranking personnel man for an AFC team. "But when it comes to paying the premium, you're going to do it far more on the left than you are on the right. You're going to value it more because it's the blindside protection, and moreso than not, those players are put on an island in pass-protection schemes."

According to sources with access to NFL salary data, only four of the NFL's 20 highest-paid tackles in terms of average per year currently are playing the right side: Dallas' Doug Free ($8 million APY), Tennessee's David Stewart ($6,147,167), Philadelphia's Todd Herremans ($6 million) and Kansas City's Eric Winston ($5.5 million).

Only six other right tackles -- Cincinnati's Andre Smith, San Diego's Jeromey Clary, Tampa Bay's Jeremy Trueblood (who lost his job in camp), San Francisco's Anthony Davis, Buffalo's Erik Pears and Seattle's Breno Giacomini -- have deals that average even $3 million a year.

That means more than two-thirds of the league is playing with players making less. Whatever the Vikings would give Loadholt -- whose four-year, $4 million rookie deal included a $1.2 million signing bonus -- it shouldn't be the type of deal that precludes them from addressing other contracts as well.

"I would say (Loadholt)'s average, the middle of the pack," the personnel man said. "He is what he is at this stage. I don't think there's any more ascending potential. Resourceful player you can compete with as a starter. We know what his strengths and his weaknesses are.

"I think you can play with him as a starter, but I don't think you could play with five Phil Loadholts across the board and expect to be highly productive on the offensive line, because he does have some physical limitations."

Rather than working out in California as he has in the past, Loadholt returned to Oklahoma this past offseason to be closer to his elder son, 2-year-old Cameron. (His other son, Phil III, lives in the Twin Cities.)

That allowed Loadholt to work out at his alma mater with the Sooners' current offensive linemen five days a week, pushing his conditioning alongside younger players at a time one of his goals is to finish plays and be technique-sound even when he's tired.

"They're looking at me to see how it's done, and I'm looking at them to try to keep up," Loadholt said. "It was a give and take, and it worked out for me."

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier went out of his way this week to compliment Loadholt's play, which has created "more confidence along the line with other players, knowing that he's going to be consistently good as opposed to being good for two plays and not where you want him to be another couple plays. Then that raises everybody else's confidence along the line that, 'Hey, you know what? Phil is on top of it.'"

In his fourth season, Loadholt has seen most of the ends he's facing, or at least someone like them. He knows there are no excuses now for his play to waver week to week or quarter to quarter.

His future is in his own hands, and he says he wants to continue it in Minnesota. The better he plays, the better the chances he'll get the deal he wants before testing the open market -- but he says he's doing what he can to keep that out of mind.

"We've got a long season still to go," Loadholt said. "If I can take the attitude of just trying to get better wherever I'm at right now, I'll be all right."

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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