The NFL free agency period begins on March 12, and while it's highly unlikely that the Minnesota Vikings will spend lavishly to bring in big names to bolster their roster, the Vikings brass will have to open up their pocket books to keep several key players in the fold.
The Vikings held exit interviews for the 2012 season this week and then scattered to wherever they call home in the offseason. The Vikings have 16 players off of last year's roster who can become free agents.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's M.O. has always been to build the team through the draft and then to nurture those players in the Minnesota system. The Vikings will sign their share of free agents, but most of the main pieces on the roster are home grown.
The Vikings will have several tough decisions to make when it comes to which of their own players they want to keep and which players they will allow to walk.
We take a look at the seven most important players the Minnesota Vikings have to re-sign this offseason to continue to progress toward being legitimate contenders.
Percy Harvin is not a free agent, but he has just one year left on his rookie contract.
What the Vikings decide to do with Harvin will have a domino effect on the rest of their offseason moves.
Publicly the Vikings have stated that Harvin is in their plans moving forward, but it would surprise no one if Minnesota was trying to find a trade partner to send Harvin on his way.
Harvin is a dominant player when he's on the field, one of the biggest difference-makers in the entire league. He's an explosive kick returner and will enter 2013 as the most dangerous slot receiver in the NFL. He's strong, fast and tough and can make people miss, or he can just run right through them.
He's also a bit of an enigma off the field. He's missed more than his share of practice time, and he has virtually no filter when something's on his mind. He's just 24 years old, so he'll still mature a bit over the next couple of seasons, and most of his off-field shenanigans have been relatively minor.
He's had a couple of highly publicized shouting matches with Vikings coaches, and his disappearance from the team's Winter Park facilities after his Week 10 injury seemed a little strange.
All of this is to say that nothing that happens concerning Harvin will be a huge surprise.
If the Vikings decide to keep Harvin around, he's going to cost them a lot of money. You would certainly think that he'll command more than the 5-year, $55 million dollar deal that Vincent Jackson signed last offseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
You just can't replace a talent like Harvin. If the Vikings decide to trade him away, they may be saving some money, but they won't be making their team better.
After two consecutive lackluster seasons, offensive tackle Phil Loadholt was much better in 2012, giving the Vikings a solid season and earning himself a pay increase moving forward.
The last thing the Vikings want to do is dismantle an offensive line that helped Adrian Peterson rush for over 2,000 yards last season.
Now four years into his career, Loadholt had his best season last year, as he applied what he learned over his first three seasons to become a better player. Loadholt will never be a great pass-blocker, but he certainly improved in 2012, and he's become a better-than-average run-blocker.
There's always something to be said for continuity on any offensive line in the NFL, and in rejoining Matt Kalil and John Sullivan up front, Loadholt helps give that to the Vikings.
Considering that Loadholt made about half of what Joe Berger made in 2012, he deserves a substantial raise. He may cost the Vikings a little more than he's actually worth, but losing him would create too big of a hole in the offensive line.
Nobody expected 2012 to be a Pro Bowl season for fullback Jerome Felton, but then again, nobody expected Adrian Peterson to be the NFL MVP after tearing up his knee at the end of 2011 either.
Without getting into much detail about what Felton provides to the Vikings, the bottom line is that what he does works. You don't mess around with a combination that resulted in over 2,000 rushing yards.
Is Jerome Felton a good blocking back? Absolutely. Is he absolutely necessary for Peterson to have a similar season next year? Probably not, but why take the risk.
Peterson probably earned Felton a little more money than he's actually worth, but it will be a small price to pay to keep the train that is Adrian Peterson on track.
Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford will never blow anyone away with his stats, and he'll never be an upper-echelon NFL player.
Having said that, Sanford is one of the first free agents the Vikings front office will look to re-sign this offseason.
After losing the starting strong safety spot to Mistral Raymond in training camp, Sanford was a complete stud on special teams and then took over as a starter for 13 games after Raymond was injured. Sanford is one of the vocal leaders on the Vikings and is universally loved in the locker room.
He's a glue guy that makes showing up for work more enjoyable for everybody.
Sanford will probably battle Raymond again for the starting spot, but rest assured both players will be on the roster next season, one as the starter and the other as the next man in.
Kevin Williams wants to play two or three more seasons in the NFL, and he wants to remain on the Vikings.
The Vikings want to keep Williams, but they won't do it if he's not willing to restructure a deal that would pay him over $16 million over the next two seasons.
It's clear that Williams best days as a football player are behind him, but he still has enough left in the tank to contribute. The Vikings got decent years out of both Fred Evans and Christian Ballard, so even if Williams is re-signed, he probably won't take as many snaps next year as he has in the past.
Williams is also one of the Vikings' team leaders, and his experience and professionalism are worth having around, especially considering the team will probably use an early draft pick on a defensive tackle. Who better to help show a rookie the ropes?
The NFL is a business, but it would seem a shame if Williams and the Vikings parted ways. Hopefully the two sides can come to a mutual agreement that would keep Williams in purple for two more seasons.
Two of the Minnesota Vikings starting linebackers in 2012 are free agents, but neither one of them will make this list.
Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley both had up-and-down seasons, and neither one showed that they can be above-average linebackers in the NFL.
The Vikings will be looking to shore up their linebacking corps in the offseason, and it's likely that one of those two will be let go, if not both.
On the other hand, reserve linebacker and special teams ace Tyrone McKenzie should be re-signed for sure. For one thing, he won't cost the Vikings very much money and for another, McKenzie was perhaps the team's best special teams player not named Walsh.
Change is probably in order for the Vikings at linebacker and with that, they'll need to have a solid veteran backup who can contribute on special teams. The Vikings need to look no further than McKenzie.
Joe Berger isn't an NFL starter and probably never will be.
What he brings to the Vikings coaching staff is peace of mind. As a guy who can be a valuable backup at center and both guard positions, Berger saves the Vikings from worrying too much about an injury on the offensive line.
Berger is a veteran with plenty of experience, and he now knows the Vikings system inside and out. He's a hard worker and good team guy. He won't rock the boat about playing time, and he'll certainly be ready if needed.
Berger makes this list because he will probably come cheaper than tackle Geoff Schwartz, but the Vikings would do well to re-sign both players, as once again, continuity is one of the key ingredients to all good offensive lines.