It's been difficult to focus on any details of NFL free agency during the lockout; even with progress reported daily toward a new collective bargaining agreement, we still don't have a good sense for how player movement will be administered.
With that said, we do know a few things. One is that longtime NFC North place-kicker Ryan Longwell, who spent five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after a nine-year tenure with the Green Bay Packers, almost certainly will be an unrestricted free agent whenever the market opens. Longwell will be 37 in August, but his last two seasons were the most accurate of his career and it's a mystery (to me) why the Vikings didn't re-sign him before the lockout began.
Appearing Friday morning on ESPNMilwaukee.com, Longwell made clear he intends to play in 2011 and said he "wouldn't mind going back" to the Vikings. Asked if he would consider returning to Green Bay if Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby moves on in free agency, Longwell laughed and said: "You never say never. You just don't know."
It's much more likely that the Packers will re-sign Crosby, to whom they issued a restricted free-agent tender under the NFL's previous offseason rules. The Vikings, however, have yet to reveal their plan for filling Longwell's job if in fact they have decided to move on.
In theory, I can understand the thought of shopping for a kicker younger than 37. And there is no doubt that Longwell's kickoffs have been shorter than the NFL average in recent years.
But age is less relevant for kickers than any other position in football, and the league's decision to move kickoffs up five yards should mitigate any concerns about Longwell's kickoff distance. To me, it is so difficult to find a reliable place-kicker that it doesn't make sense to discard one until you've squeezed every last kick out of him.
Perhaps the Vikings will pursue Longwell once free agency begins. But no matter what condition your franchise is in, why not continue employing a kicker who drilled 43 of 46 attempts over the past two seasons?
"I still feel like I'm very strong and very accurate," Longwell said. "And I still feel like I'm a definite asset in the locker room after what we've been through in Minnesota the last few years."
It's well-known that Longwell was and remains close friends with quarterback Brett Favre. I hope Longwell doesn't fall victim to that connection. The Vikings' eagerness to move past the Favre/Brad Childress era shouldn't impact their decision on a place-kicker.
Longwell will be kicking somewhere in 2011. The Vikings would be hard-pressed to find a more accurate or reliable option.
"I'm not closing any doors to free agency," Longwell said, "because you just don't know who needs a veteran experienced kicker. We've had fun in Minnesota and certainly think there is legitimate chance to go back there and succeed."