MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have released 16-year veteran kicker Ryan Longwell, the latest and perhaps most dangerous turnover to date in their rebuilding project.
The surprising move was made Monday, a little more than a week after the team drafted Georgia kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round. Shortly after Longwell said goodbye to Vikings fans on Twitter -- he thanked them for their cheers and said they've "been awesome" to him and his family -- the team announced the decision in a brief news release.
"Ryan did a good job for us," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He is a great person and has been an outstanding player in our league for a long time. I wish him nothing but the best. He has been great for our organization."
Longwell had three seasons and $7 million left on a four-year contract he signed last summer that included a $3.5 million signing bonus. He was due to make $1.75 million salary this season, putting him in jeopardy to join left guard Steve Hutchinson, cornerback Cedric Griffin and right guard Anthony Herrera on the list of expensive veterans let go this year.
But few players can impact the outcome of a game like the kicker, and despite a down 2011 season during which he made 22 of 28 field-goal attempts Longwell was still one of the best in the game at age 37. Over just six years with the Vikings, Longwell recorded 633 points, third in franchise history behind kicker Fred Cox and wide receiver Cris Carter.
His 94.4 field-goal percentage over the 2009 and 2010 seasons -- 43 of 46 -- was the best in the NFL. Including nine years with the Green Bay Packers, Longwell is 13th in NFL history with 1,687 points and fourth on the active list. His career-long 55-yard field goal came on Oct. 14, 2007, to beat the Chicago Bears with no time left.
With punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler together with Longwell since he switched rival teams and first signed with Minnesota in 2006, the Vikings had the longest tenure of special-teams trios in the league. They were close friends, too.
"Sad to see Ryan go, both as a teammate and as a friend," Kluwe said on Twitter. "Unfortunately, that's the business of the NFL; we all get replaced eventually."
The Vikings have enjoyed a remarkable run of reliable kickers, with Longwell and Gary Anderson (1998-2002). Even short-term fill-ins like Paul Edinger (2005) and Morten Andersen (2004) fared well. The only real problem they had in recent history was in 2002, when Doug Brien struggled and was cut in favor of Anderson just three games into the season.
Walsh left college as the all-time leading scorer in Southeastern Conference history, but he slumped his senior year and made only 21 of 35 field goals.
"He was an outstanding kicker throughout his first three years at Georgia, and we want to see if we can get that form back. We feel like he can," Frazier said last weekend during the team's rookie minicamp.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press