Antoine Winfield era ends a year early

The Minnesota Vikings planned to use veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield in a part-time role last season and were admittedly surprised that he made it through all 16 games as a full-time starter. As Winfield approached his 36th birthday, however, the Vikings clearly weren't counting on another such surprise.

The Vikings were poised to release Winfield on Tuesday after he refused a pay cut commensurate with the part-time role they once again had planned for him. (Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has more.) He was set to earn $7.25 million in 2013 and count the same amount against the salary cap, which is decent money for a No. 1 corner. The move was surprising but, in retrospect, perhaps we should have expected it. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said last month at the NFL scouting combine that playing full-time in 2013 "is not good for him [and] I don't think it's the best thing for our team." NFL teams rarely pay players higher salaries than their projected role calls for, making Winfield a primary candidate for a pay cut.

But it's also easy to understand why Winfield would balk after tallying a career-high 101 tackles and breaking up 12 passes in his remarkable renaissance season. Winfield's surprising play was one of several reasons the Vikings outpaced all projections and won 10 games last season. Regardless of the salary he might fetch in a market glutted with veteran defensive backs, Winfield might not have appreciated the gesture.

So comes to an end a remarkable tenure in which Winfield earned distinction as arguably the NFL's toughest pound-for-pound player. Since the moment the Vikings signed him in 2004, Winfield was a tackling technician, rarely out of position and almost never allowing someone to escape his grasp, and his coverage was good enough to be a three-time Pro Bowl player.

His departure leaves the Vikings with two unproven young players atop their depth chart at cornerback: Chris Cook, a second-round draft choice in 2010 who has never played in more than 10 games in a season; and Josh Robinson, a third-round draft pick last year who served as the Vikings' nickelback for part of his rookie year.

My guess is the Vikings' master plan included one more year with Winfield before his contract expired after the season. Cook and Robinson were going to ascend at some point. Now, it appears that economics and pride have made that time now.