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Vikings to look at some free agents

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For; the first time in three seasons, those in the Vikings' front office believe the roster needs only minimal tinkering as the date for signing free agents approaches. With plenty of room under the NFL's salary cap, the Vikings enjoy flexible finances going into coach Mike Tice's third year, a crucial one in his plan to return the Vikings to the playoffs.

The Vikings still must make the right offseason moves for their progress to continue. Many in the organization believe the major revamping done the past two years isn't needed now. Tice said the Vikings are just two impact players away from having a strong defense: a cornerback and pass-rushing right end.

When free agency opens Wednesday, the Vikings will be in the market for players at those positions. They also will be open to improving overall depth and to signing a receiver and a weak-side linebacker, with the idea of moving Chris Claiborne to the strong side.

The Vikings will have the means to fill all of their shopping needs and keep tight end Jim Kleinsasser, a top free-agent priority. They are $33.3 million under the salary cap, the most cap room of any team in the NFL.

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"We hope to use free agency as a tool to make us a better team,'' Tice said. "Getting better and becoming competitive is what this league is all about.''

When Tice was hired before the 2002 season, the Vikings began a three-year plan. Before the 2001 season, they had been forced by the salary cap to trim $19 million by releasing veteran players. In 2002, the front office carefully began to maneuver toward this season, and now the plan appears solid.

"In the recent past, we could throw darts at the free-agent board because we needed so much,'' said Paul Wiggin, director of pro scouting. "But we don't have to do that this year. It's a lot different.''

The Vikings likely will look first at cornerback. While several top cornerbacks were designated franchise players, some are available who would help. For competitive reasons, the Vikings won't acknowledge which free agents they're interested in, but they might pursue Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor of the Philadelphia Eagles, Antonio Winfield of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Ahmed Plummer of the San Francisco 49ers.

One top free agent is Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse, a pass-rushing star who would fit well with the Vikings. But the front office is concerned about foot injuries Kearse has suffered. If his asking price, including a signing bonus of more than $20 million, goes down, he could be a possibility. Miami defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who had 15 sacks last season, is another attractive player. But he is a restricted free agent and would cost first- and third-round draft choices, making it unlikely the Vikings would pursue him.

The Vikings want to improve at No. 2 receiver behind Randy Moss, where D'Wayne Bates is the incumbent. Seattle's Darrell Jackson and Chicago's Dez White are among the players they might pursue. Jackson would be a major improvement over Bates.

Signing Kleinsasser, a blocking tight end, is as high a priority as signing any other player, Tice said. But keeping Kleinsasser won't be easy. He could be on his way to visit the Washington Redskins as soon as free agency opens.

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