EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Anyone could see the trade of Percy Harvin coming. The Minnesota Vikings parting with Antoine Winfield was the surprise as free agency began Tuesday.
The Vikings terminated the 35-year-old Winfield's contract to clear more space under the salary cap right before the NFL marketplace opened. Then they finalized their deal with the Seahawks to send Harvin to Seattle for three draft picks and re-signed right tackle Phil Loadholt to a multi-year contract, keeping a durable anchor of their offensive line off-limits to the rest of the league.
General manager Rick Spielman said he had a "very good conversation" with Winfield about the decision, which he described as "very tough" to make.
"Antoine is a great football player for us. He's another one that's a tremendous leader and great what he does in this community," Spielman said. "We definitely want to keep the door open on his possible return, but at this time we had to release him in order to get him out in free agency."
Loadholt has been a starter his whole career, missing only one game in four seasons. The Vikings had nine other unrestricted free agents: wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, offensive lineman Joe Berger, linebacker Jasper Brinkley, fullback Jerome Felton, linebacker Erin Henderson, linebacker Marvin Mitchell, safety Jamarca Sanford, offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz and wide receiver Jerome Simpson.
Felton, Henderson, Sanford and Simpson all said on Twitter on Tuesday they've agreed to return with the Vikings, but Spielman declined to comment on any of the contracts that weren't yet signed. Cornerback and kick returner Marcus Sherels is an exclusive rights free agent who is also expected to be back.
But Harvin, of course, will not.
"Percy is a great player, and we saw what we did when he was playing in the first half of last season," quarterback Christian Ponder said in a phone interview. "Obviously things just didn't work out. ... We'll just have to find some guys to step in, and I think we all trust Rick in what he's doing. I don't know if we're going to get guys in free agency, but we're going to find some guys who want to be a Viking."
The Seahawks are sending their first-round and seventh-round draft picks this year, plus their third-round selection in 2014 to Minnesota. Spielman said repeatedly how eager the Vikings are to use their menu of selections in what's considered a deep pool, particularly at their position of greatest need, wide receiver.
Spielman said the Vikings weren't "out there actively shopping Percy" and that the Seahawks approached them about the trade.
"We just felt it was too good to pass up for us to move forward as an organization and continue to build this organization to have long-term success for years to come," Spielman said. "It was an opportunity that came really quick."
Ponder said he thought his relationship with Harvin was fine.
"I never whiffed of anything that wasn't good," the quarterback said.
Spielman laughed nervously when asked if off-the-field issues made the Vikings more willing to trade Harvin, who was leading the NFL in total yards at the time he was hurt last Nov. 4, his final game for the Vikings.
"We just made the best decision that we felt was right for us as we moved forward," Spielman said.
Star running back Adrian Peterson wasn't happy about the trade, but Spielman said he and coach Leslie Frazier each spoke with the league MVP about his concern. As for their ability to contend again for the playoffs in 2013?
"We think we're going to compete next year. There's no doubt about that," Spielman said.
Winfield was due a $7.25 million salary in 2013, so if he's willing to return he'd have to take a pay cut. One of the most popular players in the locker room, Winfield had a hard-hitting style, extensive experience and exceptional tackling ability that made him the soul of the defence for the last nine seasons.
Winfield's playing time was reduced in 2012 to preserve his health, but he had one of the most productive seasons of his career with 11 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 13 passes defended.
"He probably is one of those players that defied odds for his age on what he did for our football team last year," Spielman said. "There's no question about what Antoine Winfield does for our football team on the field, and off the field as well."
Less than one hour into this year's frenzy, the natural highs and lows of the annual process were evident for the Vikings. They have one of the youngest rosters in the league coming off a 10-6 finish and a spot in the playoffs, but have unproven areas at quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback.
The Vikings issued a contract tender to cornerback A.J. Jefferson, a restricted free agent. So he'll almost surely be back, along with Chris Cook and Josh Robinson, but the position is sparse beyond them, and they're all young.
"One minute you're elated because you got Phil Loadholt done. And the next minute you don't feel as good because you had to do something with Winfield," Spielman said. "Which makes this job extremely, extremely difficult. But we're very excited about the progress of getting our own guys back, potentially getting some guys back and maybe adding something in free agency."