The Minnesota Vikings are going younger this offseason in their attempt to catch up with the rest of their division. Some of their most experienced starters have contracts and ages that make them candidates for a pay cut – or for simply being cut altogether.
One of them is five-time first-team All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, who is scheduled to make $6.95 million in 2012, the final installment of a seven-year deal worth as much as $49 million. He is well aware of the way his salary sticks out.
"I know what the cap situation is and all that, but it's out of my control,'' said Hutchinson, who recently turned 35.
He said he wouldn't be surprised if the team asks him to redo his deal to stay this season. He also acknowledged he has considered the possibility of being let go before the new league year begins and free agency opens next month.
"Any player has to worry about that in the NFL,'' Hutchinson said in a phone interview Monday with The Associated Press.
Last year, the Vikings jettisoned left tackle Bryant McKinnie and wide receiver Bernard Berrian well ahead of the expiration of their contracts. Right guard Anthony Herrera, due to draw $2.65 million this season, is another candidate for the same fate, though cornerback Cedric Griffin, with three more years on his current deal at more than $14 million combined, is the most glaring contender after a down season and a public expression of frustration with being benched.
Hutchinson, the mainstay of the offensive line who started 131 consecutive games including the playoffs until a broken right thumb sidelined him at the end of 2010, has the most complicated and highest-profile case. His last of seven Pro Bowl selections came two years ago, and his durability and dominant blocking isn't what it was. But the Vikings would surely miss him if he goes.
They averaged 144.9 yards rushing per game last season, fourth-most in the NFL, despite a new left tackle and instability at right guard. There are enough positions in need of an upgrade that they can't address them all in one year. Plus, Hutchinson's experienced presence has certainly helped the others playing around him, particularly center John Sullivan, who parlayed a breakout season into a new contract.
General manager Rick Spielman said last week "sometimes you just have to make some tough business decisions'' regarding players on the roster with high salaries, but said he hadn't yet contacted the agents of anyone the Vikings will renegotiate with or release early.
When asked to assess his performance in 2011, Hutchinson said he played "great.'' After shoulder surgery in 2010 to repair an injury he played through in 2009, Hutchinson wasn't as strong that year as he wanted to be because of all the time spent on rehabilitation rather than training. With extra time to rest last summer during the lockout, he came back much healthier.
"It was the best shape I've been in in a number of years,'' Hutchinson said.
He missed the last two games with a concussion, just the third of his 11 pro seasons he didn't play in all 16 games. His helmet came off during a play against the New Orleans Saints, and he got kicked in the back of the head hard enough that his teeth cut his lip.
"I took quite the blow to the head. I was fortunate to not have any concussions before that. I passed the baseline test and remembered everything, but it was more of a balance issue I was dealing with, an equilibrium-type thing,'' Hutchinson said.
His 2011 season ended early, but that wasn't necessarily a negative. The Vikings finished 3-13, an embarrassing mark on everyone's resume.
"It was a rough year,'' Hutchinson said. "What could've gone wrong went wrong. I've been fortunate enough that it was the first time in my career I had a season like that. It's not fun. I hope to never have that happen again. Hopefully it was a one-year deal.''