The Vikings will have at least one new starting safety in 2008.
The team made that a certainty this week when it released veteran free safety Dwight Smith after two seasons that were at times tumultuous.
Smith, 29, who signed with the Vikings in July 2006 after one season with the New Orleans Saints, had two highly publicized citations in downtown Minneapolis. He was charged with indecent conduct in August 2006 after police found him engaged in sex with a woman in a stairwell. That led to him being benched for the 2006 season opener. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
Last month, Smith pleaded guilty to obstructing traffic, a petty misdemeanor, and had charges of marijuana possession against him dismissed last month stemming from a December incident.
“I doubt if (the release) came because of anything that happened to me off the field, because it wasn’t that extreme,” said Smith, who had one year left on a three-year, $6.5 million contract. He was due to receive $2.5 million and a $500,000 roster bonus this year.
Asked about the move, coach Brad Childress said: “We’re just going in a different direction. I don’t want to cast any aspersions.”
Smith, a third-round choice of Tampa Bay in 2001, had eight interceptions in his two seasons with Minnesota playing opposite veteran Darren Sharper and recorded 155 tackles. He started 26 of 28 games in which he played, missing four this past season because of a hamstring injury.
The two games Smith did not start came because Childress benched him. Once he was late for a meeting and on another occasion he got into an argument with the coach.
Childress called the move “the right thing to do” heading into free agency, which starts Feb. 29. “It will give him and his agent an opportunity to explore his options,” Childress said
Said Smith: “(Childress) told me that and I definitely appreciate that because last time I was in this situation, (New Orleans) held on to me until July.”
Smith’s departure leaves the Vikings potentially in need of help at the safety spot. Veterans Mike Doss and Tank Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents on Feb. 29. Either could be a candidate to return and play opposite Sharper next season.
Since taking over as the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel in May 2006, Rick Spielman has made it clear that he wants to build through the draft and not rely on free agency.
As the Feb. 29 start of free agency nears, Spielman and coach Brad Childress again will look to add here and there but don’t expect the Vikings to go on a spending spree despite having around $30 million in salary-cap room.
Last year the Vikings signed receiver Bobby Wade (five years, $15 million); tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (five years, $18.2 million); linebacker and special teams ace Vinny Ciurciu (three years, $3 million); and safety Mike Doss (one year, $1 million) in March.
The Vikings also pursued receivers Kevin Curtis and Wes Welker but the former decided to sign with Philadelphia and the latter was dealt from Miami to New England. Welker was a restricted free agent.
Spielman said this free-agent class has a few more “blue chip” players than last year but pointed out that several top free agents have had the franchise tag placed on them.
Asked if he’s altered his approach to free agency at all, Spielman said: “I think the philosophy (has changed) a little bit just because (last year) was my first time around the circle (in Minnesota). Now, with the young guys playing well for us and we do have some older vets here, we have a little bit of a window here with some of our veterans. We may be more aggressive if we feel there is a blue-chip guy out there that we go out there and take a swing at him.
“We were pretty aggressive trying to go after some guys last year. But also I think there comes a point where you have to have enough ... a breaking point. Where this guy goes beyond that breaking point and you have to have enough discipline to say, ‘OK, he’s gone, what’s our next phase?’”
Spielman did say the team planned to meet with the agents for the Vikings’ group of free agents at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Vikings’ list of unrestricted free agents includes Doss, receiver Robert Ferguson, defensive tackle Spencer Johnson, running back Mewelde Moore, fullback Tony Richardson, defensive lineman Darrion Scott, linebacker Dontarrious Thomas; and safety Tank Williams.
Rick Spielman, the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel, declined to speculate on the future of receiver Troy Williamson. Williamson, the seventh-pick in the 2005 draft, has failed to live up to expectations. “We have no comment on where he’s going or what’s going to happen to him right now,” Spielman said. “There is a lot yet to be determined. I don’t think we line up and play until September.”
The Vikings again will bring in all 30 draft prospects allowed to visit the team on the same day. Spielman said the team will play host to the players in April.
The Vikings got a good start on the interviewing process at the Senior Bowl talking to more than 90 prospects in Mobile, Ala.
Spielman on reports the Vikings might be interested in veteran quarterback Trent Green: “I’d rather not say who we are intrigued by and who we are not intrigued by. I’d rather keep that in house.”
Spielman on if the Vikings might move up or down from the No. 17 spot in the first round of the draft: “You never know. We made a couple moves last year. If an opportunity presents itself you weigh that in with what’s on your board. If there’s a player up there we may go up and get that guy at 13 or 14. If we think that highly of him and he can be that big of difference maker. If we’re stuck at 17 we may try to bail out because I think that overall depth of this draft is pretty good. You’re going to get some quality players through the middle rounds. We were able to get some quality players last year through the middle rounds with some of our picks that ended up playing and contributing a lot. You can make some hay I think through the middle rounds with the depth of this draft. Especially at certain positions.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I think coach (Brad Childress) has addressed that and the privacy that KU wants. I just know that all the thoughts and prayers from everybody in the organization are with him. He is a fighter on the field and he’ll take that same approach as he fights this next battle in his life. Just leave it at that.” — Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman on defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.