There are some Vikings fans that are concerned that the team has lost two free agents already and have little in the way of recourse to make up for the losses. But, the reality of the situation is a little different than the perception. The Vikings suffered a pair of losses, but the significance of their departure may not be measured in numbers.
Chester Taylor was a valued piece of the Vikings offense, but far from indispensable. He was a 30-year-old backup to Adrian Peterson who, barring injury, was never going to take over his position or even get to the point where he would be in a time share. In a way, one has to feel sorry for Taylor, whose career has never been able to pan out as hoped or anticipated. When he came to the NFL, he played for Baltimore, which had one of the game’s top backs at the time in Jamal Lewis. When push came to shove and both Taylor and Lewis were free agents, the Ravens front office opted to pay Lewis and let Taylor try the free-agent waters. He signed a four-year deal with the Vikings and, after five years of playing second fiddle in Baltimore, he was going to get a new lease on life with the Vikings.
That lasted all of one year. Despite setting a franchise record for rushing attempts in a season in 2006 with 303 and rushing for more than 1,200 yards, when the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson, it was obvious that Taylor’s days as the top dog in the Vikings backfield were not only numbered, but all but over. A.D. made an early impression and, after a month of splitting carries, Peterson took over the leading role in the backfield and never looked back. After carrying the ball 303 times in 2006, Taylor’s rushing attempts dropped in each of the next three seasons (157-101-94). Along the way, his average per carry also dropped in each of those years (5.4-4.0-3.6).
What made Taylor’s situation so sad in many respects was that he has the talent to be a lead back in the NFL – the only time he was given a chance in his career to be a starter, he proved worthy of the challenge. But he was facing an uphill battle in both situations – coming into Baltimore with an established star on board and being in Minnesota a year before the biggest impact running back in franchise history got drafted. But what made Taylor special in the minds of his teammates was how he handled his demotion from featured back to supporting player. He never demanded a trade. He never groused or complained about the situation. He was never a divisive influence in the locker room. He was team player who showed more class than most in his situation would have. He was a credit to his team, his family and young players who might want to emulate him.
In many ways, Artis Hicks followed much the same path. A two-year starter prior to being traded to the Vikings, Hicks started his first 18 games as a Viking at right guard. As the Vikings struggled on the O-line at the start of the 2007 season, Hicks was replaced by Anthony Herrera and never won that job back. While he would start six games in 2008 – four at left tackle and two at right tackle – and three games in 2009 – one at right tackle and two at right guard – he never got a chance to be a full-time starter with the Vikings again. In his first 18 games, he started them all. In his final 43 games, he made just 13 starts.
But, like Taylor, you never heard Hicks complain. He had as difficult a job as any player on the team, having to learn the varied blocking assignments and blitz pickups for four positions and be ready at a moment’s notice to step in at any of them. A lot of players that had been three-year starters wouldn’t have accepted such a demotion with either class or dignity. Hicks did both and never wallowed in the “what if?” type of scenario that often accompanies a starter being asked to take a reserve role. He was a leader in the locker room who led by example.
In the big picture of things, the Vikings didn’t lose a huge amount over the last two days. Neither Taylor nor Hicks were starters. Although valued role players, they were just that – role players that the team can hope to replace. But when Brad Childress took over as head coach, the Vikings were viewed as a punch line to a bad joke. In the aftermath of the “Love Boat” scandal, the Vikings were viewed as a team run amok and coach Mike Tice was seen as little more than a lenient Dean of Boys at Delta House. When he had the pencil taken away from behind his ear by Zygi Wilf, Childress was given the mission to clean up the Vikings and bring in players not only of talent, but of high character. Two of the first players he brought in to change the culture of the Vikings were Taylor and Hicks. In an “American Idol” type of purge, the “Taylor/Hicks” combo were plucked away in the span of a little more than 24 hours.
While the Vikings will find athletes to replace both of them, the loss the team will suffer will be in the locker room more than it was on the field. Both players were the type of guys that coaches loved, young players could turn to for advice and role models in every sense of the word. That kind of loss isn’t as easy to replace.
The Vikings are reportedly scheduling a visit with former Gophers kicker Rhys Lloyd this week. Lloyd, who spent the last three years with the Carolina Panthers, was a kickoff specialist for the Panthers. While he isn’t going to supplant Ryan Longwell, who is set to receive a $500,000 roster bonus that assures he will remain the Vikings field goal kicker, there is an outside chance the Vikings would consider bringing Lloyd on board in the same capacity he has had with the Panthers the last two seasons. In that time, he kicked off 160 times and had 51 touchbacks – approximately 30 percent of his kicks. In the same time frame, Longwell has kicked off 182 times and had 11 touchbacks – slightly over 6 percent of his kicks. That in itself could be rationale to use a roster spot on Lloyd.
A former Viking could end up holding the key to how the first round of the 2010 draft plays itself out. The dismal St. Louis Rams hold the first pick in next month’s draft and many draft analysts (including us) have been touting Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh as the No. 1 overall pick. However, there has been a groundswell of support heading the way of Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, who added 20 pounds of bulk between the start of the 2009 season and the Combine last week. That sentiment might get a lot more credence if the Rams finalize a deal with former Viking Fred Robbins, who has spent the last six years with the Giants, including two years with Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator. If the Rams sign Robbins, which St. Louis-area wags claim will happen as early as today, don’t be surprised if Bradford becomes the odds-on favorite to be the first pick when the Rams are on the clock in six weeks.
There have been some claiming that the Vikings might have an interest in Thomas Jones, who was officially released Friday by the Jets and already has a visit planned with Kansas City on Monday. That logic is flawed in two major respects. First, Jones wants to be a starter and has good reason for that way of thinking – he rushed for 1,400 yards last season. Second, the Vikings are bending over backwards to accommodate Brett Favre to convince him to return for another season. Jones was one of the Jets players that publicly bad-mouthed Favre following the 2008 season. It’s unlikely that No. 4 would be too thrilled about reuniting with a player who threw him under the bus for the Jets’ late-season collapse that resulted in head coach Eric Mangini being fired.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.