INDIANAPOLIS — In the days following a playoff loss to the 49ers, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer gave his coaching staff some time off before diving into player evaluations.
The reason, Zimmer said, was to take a few days to decompress and not look at the roster with an emotional or irrational mind.
Fast-forward six weeks, and the NFL world is now fixated on the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. While the focus is on potential draft prospects, the underlying storyline is that free agency lurks around the corner.
The new NFL league year begins at 3 p.m. (CT) on March 18, a time when all teams must be under the salary cap. That could mean a handful of potential roster moves for Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who said Tuesday that he knows the spotlight will be on him in the ensuing weeks.
"That's always the toughest part of this position, because ultimately you have the final decision on who stays and who goes," Spielman said in a chat with beat reporters.
"Those decisions are extremely difficult, but in the end it's a business, and you have to make business decisions, and you have to remove yourself from the emotional side of it. But that's why I think Coach Zim' wanted everybody just to get away, because everybody's emotional after the San Francisco game. I know the coaches got away for a week," Spielman added. "Actually, we went right down to the Senior Bowl, I believe, that week and got started on that process and then when we got back from the Senior Bowl, the coaches, that's when we started on our meetings.
"But you don't want to make knee-jerk decisions just because you're mad after we didn't play very well against San Fran, so all of a sudden, no one on your 53 can play because you're so emotionally raw from that," Spielman continued. "So you want to just make sure you're away from it and then when you come back you've got a whole different perspective than if you're just trying to make knee-jerk decisions off of raw emotions."
Spielman has been in this position before, not that it makes it any easier. He mentioned having to move on from notable names such as Adrian Peterson and Brian Robison as the difficult parts of his job.
"I know if you do have the tendency to move on, there's a right way to do it, and hopefully you do it with dignity," Spielman said. "You know, one of the hardest ones was B-Rob's situation, when we had to let B-Rob go.
"That's a guy who was not only a great football player for us on the field, but a fan favorite, a super human being in the community and everything he's done," Spielman added.
Spielman was asked directly about cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has been up and down in recent years following an All-Pro season in 2017.
Spielman that that he's planning on meeting with numerous players' agents here in Indianapolis to try and sort through potential roster moves.
"I'm scheduled to sit down with his agent as well. Xavier has been a Pro Bowl corner, you know?" Spielman said. "He maybe had not as great of a year as he's had in the past, but he still helped us win games. So he's just one of them, just like every other player. We talk about the practice squad guys. And then you take each one of those individual players and then assess where they're at in their career and where they're at financially, and then you make decisions.
"I'm not going to say who is or who isn't part of the future yet. I don't know," Spielman added. "Until I get in front of and talk with these agents a little bit and then we get back and see where we're at, to put the whole piece together."
Rhodes has played 104 career games (with 97 starts) in Purple since being the 25th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. (Minnesota also currently holds the 25th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.)
While it remains to be seen what, if any, moves the Vikings make as far as letting potential veterans go, Minnesota will also have to navigate through free agency as well.
"I know we have a lot of tough roster decisions to make, with where our cap situation is right now," Spielman said. "As much as we'd like to keep everyone, I know that's not always going to be the case."
The Vikings secondary is in the spotlight, as safeties Anthony Harris, Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse are all scheduled to be free agents, as are cornerbacks Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Marcus Sherels.
That group appeared in 65 games for the Vikings in 2019, including 14 starts from Harris, who tied for the league lead with six interceptions.
When asked specifically about Harris, Spielman didn't speculate on how things would play out.
"Everybody is a priority for us this offseason," Spielman said. "Anthony is a perfect example of … again giving credit to the coaches … he had an [injured] shoulder when he came out [of Virginia] and didn't get drafted.
"Once Anthony got that opportunity to start, and even when he started last year at times, he's proven that he's a phenomenal [safety] and one of the best in the league right now," Spielman added.
The Vikings will be busy as usual at the combine with player evaluations in both in-person interviews and on-field workouts.
But they'll also be doing a juggling act with their current roster, as free agency — and some potential tough roster moves — loom in the very near future.
"We'd like to keep everyone. I know that's not always going to be the case," Spielman said. "But I do know with the strong coaching staff we have under Coach Zimmer and even some of the coaching staff changes that he made this year, that we have a lot of young guys in the pipeline, when their opportunities come up, they're able to step in and we don't lose a beat.
"What's different this year is that the league year doesn't start for two weeks after we get back," Spielman added. "Once we get back, we'll assess where we're at after we met with some of the agents down here and come up with our final plan."