The Vikings have several key decisions to make in the offseason, including who they will sign during free agency, what current free agents of their own they will re-sign, which current Vikings the team will allow to hit the free agent market and how they will address need in April's draft.
But perhaps no decision will be more critical than what the team plans to do with offensive tackle Phil Loadholt. A four-year starter at right tackle since joining the league, Loadholt fits into the Vikings' organizational mindset of free agent signings – a young player who has his best football in front of him, not an aging veteran looking for a final contract to close out his career.
For his part, Loadholt said he wants to remain a Viking and continue the progression the team made in 2012.
"If I have my way, I'm back here next year," Loadholt said. "I've been here for four years and this feels like home. Hopefully we will get something done, but you never know until it gets done. This is a business."
When Loadholt came to the Vikings as a second-round draft pick, he was a left tackle at Oklahoma. But, because of his limited mobility, he had to make the switch to right tackle in the NFL. It was a process Loadholt knew was coming, but one that took time to adjust to.
"A lot of the things you do on the right side translate on the left side, it's just that everything is kind of reversed," Loadholt said. "It isn't just moving to the other side and it's the same. It took a little time to pick up on the little things you need to learn to play on the right side, but I think I improved a little bit every year and I feel really comfortable there."
Loadholt was the young blood on the offensive line when he became a starter as a rookie in 2009. He was playing alongside veterans like Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera. Being the new kid on the line was a learning experience, but being around veterans like those made his transition to the NFL much easier than if he had been thrown into a new offensive line with younger players.
"They weren't playing my position, but all of them were helpful in bringing me along," Loadholt said. "You learn a lot just by watching them and the technique they used. I learned a lot from all three of those guys. They were all open to answering questions I had and were good at showing me the little things I needed to do to improve my leverage and refine my technique. I owe those guys a lot because they took me under their wing and brought me along."
Loadholt has witnessed the ups and downs of the NFL like few others. As a rookie, the Vikings came within an eyelash of the Super Bowl. Just two years later, he witnessed the worst season in franchise history in a 3-13 debacle of a season. He has seen the heights and the depths of the franchise, but, with the team on the upswing, he is hoping that his agent and the Vikings can land a deal that will keep him in purple for the next several years.
"You could say that I've seen a lot in just four years," Loadholt said. "My rookie year was great because there was so much excitement around us when we got on a run. Last year (2011) was pretty much the opposite of that. But both of them taught me a lot about doing my job to the best of my ability to help the team. We made a lot of improvement this season and have some young guys on the (offensive) line that will be part of the Vikings for a long time. I'm excited about being a part of that. I would love to be a part of it because I think we have a team that can do some big things. Hopefully the guys upstairs (at Winter Park) feel the same way and we can get a deal done."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.