MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Chester Taylor joined one of Minnesota's division rivals Friday, leaving the Vikings to find a replacement for their valuable, versatile backup running back.
It was an unquestionable, though unsurprising, loss on the first day of the NFL's open market for the two-time defending NFC North champions.
Taylor and the Chicago Bears agreed Friday to a four-year contract worth $12.5 million with $7 million guaranteed Chicago, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity before the deal was announced.
Minnesota's strategy for avenging the NFC championship loss to the New Orleans Saints now must include a replacement for Taylor, who led all NFL running backs in third-down receptions each of the last two seasons. The Vikings did gain some leverage, however, from Taylor's departure.
Because of rules governing the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, the four teams that advanced to the conference championship games were prohibited from signing a free agent unless one of theirs signed with another club first — in addition to facing salary parameters on those signings.
The Vikings weren't going to be very active in free agency this year, anyway. Since coach Brad Childress and vice president for player personnel Rick Spielman were hired in 2006, they've been remarkably productive, signing several starters and some Pro Bowlers. With so many top players already under long-term contracts, the Vikings don't have glaring holes to fill.
"Chester was a very productive member of our 2006 free agency class," Childress said in a statement posted on the team's Web site. "We're appreciative of his contributions on the field. He played a number of different important roles as a starter, backup and third-down specialist. Chester is a great competitor, teammate and professional. I'm happy for him and wish him all the best."
Quarterback, of course, is still an unsettled position in light of Brett Favre's insistence on Thursday's "Tonight Show" that he won't announce his status for the 2010 season any time soon. The Vikings are willing to wait, though, and have maintained confidence in Tarvaris Jackson and/or Sage Rosenfels as a backup plan. An addition would likely come from the April draft.
Taylor, Sapp, backup offensive lineman Artis Hicks, backup defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy and backup wide receiver Greg Lewis were this year's unrestricted free agents. The Vikings said they'd try to bring all of them back, but Taylor got a deal that was too good for them to match.
"He knows how we feel about him, but I'm never going to begrudge anybody an opportunity to make money," Childress said last week at the NFL scouting combine.
Taylor had 42 catches for 389 yards and 94 carries for 338 yards as a valuable third-down player for the Vikings. He rushed for 1,214 yards in 14 games in 2006, before Adrian Peterson arrived and took on the bulk of the work in the backfield.
"Chester will be missed. Great part of the team," wide receiver Bernard Berrian said on Twitter, adding that he is happy for Taylor because "he's where he wants to be."
Taylor left the Baltimore Ravens four years ago to sign a $14.1 million contract with the Vikings that included $5.6 million in guaranteed money.
His departure could prompt the Vikings to pursue a discarded veteran like LaDainian Tomlinson or Brian Westbrook. Former standouts Larry Johnson and Willie Parker are among the notable names on the unrestricted free agent list. Albert Young is an internal option, behind the All-Pro Peterson.
"We stick to the same philosophy we've always have, and regardless of position if there's a guy out there that can help us then we do it," Spielman said at the combine last week. "If we can fill from within than we do that as well."
The Vikings also had seven restricted free agents.
They decided not to tender a qualifying offer to backup cornerback Karl Paymah. They gave fullback Naufahu Tahi the lowest possible tender, put a fifth-round tender on backup safety Eric Frampton, a third-round tender on Jackson, a third-round tender on backup offensive lineman Ryan Cook, a second-round tender on backup defensive tackle Fred Evans, and a first-round tender on defensive end Ray Edwards that will pay him $2.521 million.
For about $600,000 more, the Vikings could have put the highest (first and third round) tender on Edwards, who could entice another team to sign him to an offer sheet that Minnesota would then have the right to match. If he leaves, the Vikings would get a first-round draft pick as compensation, which could scare suitors off.
"I imagine there will be some interest in a 25-year-old dominant pass rusher just entering his prime," said Doug Hendrickson, Edwards's agent. "If you're a team looking for a defensive end, would you take a chance in the draft or look at proven player?"