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Updated: March 6th, 2013 5:11pm
Zulgad: Vikings GM unlikely to be a big spender on the free-agent market

Zulgad: Vikings GM unlikely to be a big spender on the free-agent market

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Zygi Wilf was part of a group that purchased the Minnesota Vikings in the spring of 2005 for a reported $600 million from Red McCombs.

To describe McCombs as being frugal in his approach to running the franchise would have been an insult to the frugal. As McCombs' hopes of getting a stadium to replace the Metrodome vanished, so did his desire to spend money on players or improvements around Winter Park.

Wilf's arrival to the Twin Cities brought about a curiosity to see how he would run things. The new ownership arrived after many of the key personnel decisions for 2005 had been made.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper's one-day training camp holdout and subsequent threats that the rookie owners needed to redo his contract, forced Zygi to write a check before he intended. But overall, the approach from the new braintrust seemed to be that year one would be spent learning and observing.

That period ended on the final day of the 2005 season -- Jan. 1, 2006, to be exact -- when, shortly after the Vikings ended the regular season with a victory over the Chicago Bears, coach Mike Tice was terminated.

That move, although handled less than seamlessly, proved the Wilfs would not be afraid to act in quick fashion when they saw the need or were told it was in the Vikings' best interest.

This point was driven home again when free agency opened in 2006. With new coach Brad Childress having authority over the 53-man roster, the team made a major splash in the market.

Steve Hutchinson, a Pro Bowl guard from the Seattle Seahawks, was signed to a seven-year, $49 million contract. Chester Taylor, who had been a backup running back in Baltimore to Jamal Lewis, got $14.1 million over four years. Linebacker Ben Leber ($20 million, five years) and kicker Ryan Longwell ($10 million, five years) also were signed.

The spending spree put the Vikings on the map as a team that wasn't afraid to shell out big bucks for talent.

The Wilfs weren't as active in free agency in every subsequent offseason with Childress as the coach, but they weren't about shy about dipping into the market and attempting to acquire key parts. Some worked, such as tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and some were complete busts, such as wide receiver Bernard Berrian.

But the Vikings' plan for getting to the Super Bowl never did reach the ultimate goal with Childress making many of the key decisions. He got them to the 2009 NFC title game but was fired the following November after the wheels had fallen off.

The Vikings spent a season with vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier both having equal say over the roster. The results of this proved to be a disaster. The Vikings seemed to have little direction in 2011 and it showed as they finished 3-13.

Shortly after the season, Wilf and his brother, team president Mark Wilf, announced Spielman would take over as general manager and Frazier would concentrate on coaching. This made Spielman the clear caretaker of the roster and meant it was now his approach that would be used to build the team.

Spielman is meticulous in how he goes about his job, and there was little doubt he had sold the Wilfs on an approach that, in their mind, would guarantee the one thing they said they desired from the first day they took over: the ability for long-term success.

Using the same philosophy as general manager Ted Thompson has to build the Packers into yearly a contender, Spielman saw free agency as a way to supplement his roster but not build with it. The draft was where Spielman wanted to make his impact.

If a few free agents could help, that would be fine. But the days of throwing big money at guys such as Hutchinson, Taylor, Leber and Longwell, or even Berrian for that matter, were gone.

Spielman's first free-agent class as the Vikings' general manager last offseason included receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson. Neither made much of a contribution in 2012, but neither player the broke the bank either.

Simpson was given a low-risk, one-year contract with a maximum value of $2 million, and Carlson signed a five-year, $25 million deal that made him the marquee addition.

Carlson caught only eight passes for 43 yards, but the only remaining guarantee on his contract is a $1.2 million portion of 2013 base salary that isn't fully protected until the start of the league year next week.

Simpson likely won't return after catching only 26 passes for 274 yards and dealing with a back injury.

Fullback Jerome Felton, who received a one-year, $700,000 deal, might have been the team's best free-agent acquisition. He did not have a rushing attempt and caught only three passes for 35 yards but earned a trip to the Pro Bowl because of the outstanding job he did blocking for Adrian Peterson, who finished with the NFL's second-best rushing season of all-time (2,097 yards).

It should be noted the Vikings improved to 10-6 and qualified for the playoffs under the first year of Spielman's plan.

This year's free-agency period will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday, and the Vikings have a variety of areas at which they could use an upgrade. This includes wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker.

The Vikings also are getting set to play their final season in the Metrodome before construction on a new $975 million stadium begins.

This could result in the expectation that the team will dive headfirst into the bidding for a class of wide receivers that will include Greg Jennings of Green Bay and Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh. Don't count on that happening.

The Vikings did get involved on Pierre Garcon last winter but had little interest in competing with the $42.5 million, five-year ($21.5 million guarantee) that was offered to the receiver by Washington.

It's likely Jennings and Wallace will be too rich for the Vikings' blood, too.

In this case, however, don't blame Zygi and Mark for being too cheap to pull the trigger. The franchise began last season with the lowest payroll in the NFL after paying more than anybody from the day the Wilfs bought the team through the 2011 season.

The refusal to throw money around is a Spielman production, and has more to do with a philosophy on the Vikings' blueprint than it does with being unwilling to spend cash. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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