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Vikings’ Salary Cap Priorities

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NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game-Minnesota Vikings vs Pittsburgh Steelers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Now that free agency is nearing, and the Vikings have a number of needs and player decisions to make this off-season, it seems a good time to spend a little time playing armchair GM. It’s not an easy task to put together the best roster salary cap can buy, but I think Rick Spielman has done well abiding by the principals of a) re-signing your own players- at least those you want to keep; b) approaching free agency with caution- many of the players are free-agents for a reason; and c) building through the draft.

Beyond that, there is the question of a player’s value vs. salary cap, managing the salary cap so you don’t end up in salary cap hell- losing players you want to keep, not being able to offer enough to those you’d like to acquire, and/or getting stuck with white elephants and bloated contracts you can’t get rid of without a big dead cap hit (see: Romo, Tony).

Current Salary Cap Situation

Sportrac estimates the Vikings’ current salary cap space at roughly $23 million, which looks to include the Fusco and Harris releases. However, the Vikings also have 22 free agents, some of whom are worth re-signing. The list includes:

Rashod Hill (ERFA)

CJ Ham (EFRA)

Terence Newman

Shaun Hill

Chad Greenway

Jake Long

Captain Munnerlyn

Andre Smith

Justin Trattou

Matt Asiata

Matt Kalil

Rhett Ellison

Audie Cole

Cordarrelle Patterson

Jeff Locke

Charles Johnson (RFA)

Zack Line

Adam Thielen (RFA)

Zac Kerin (ERFA)

Jeremiah Sirles (RFA)

Toby Johnson (ERFA)

Willie Beavers (ERFA)

Just to clarify, RFA means restricted free agent, which essentially means the Vikings can match any competing offers, if the player signs with another team, that team has to pay the Vikings a draft pick as compensation, determined by the Vikings “tender” or qualifying offer- a one-year deal. The Vikings could also simply come to terms on a long-term deal with the RFA as well. Bottom line, RFAs are very hard to sign away if the Vikings want to keep them.

ERFAs, or exclusive rights free agents, basically have to accept a $600k one-year offer from the Vikings and don’t have any options. Or the Vikings can sign them to a longer term deal if they agree to do so. Again, bottom line, ERFAs are not going anywhere unless the Vikings want them to.

Free Agents to Re-Sign

Before considering the players to re-sign, let’s look at players the Vikings should not re-sign. Looking down the list of Vikings free-agents, I would not pursue any of these players:

1. Matt Kalil

2. Andre Smith

3. Shaun Hill

4. Jake Long

5. Chad Greenway (who may retire anyway)

The issue with these players are age, injuries and/or performance. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Greenway played another year at league minimum, but at this point it’s a valuable roster spot that the Vikings would be better off giving to a younger player with more upside. The same goes for Hill- I would much rather have a younger QB with better skills and upside than the experienced Hill, who would also be more expensive. As for Kalil, Smith and Long, these guys all have too many injuries, let alone performance issues, to consider them for a roster spot.

Of the remaining Vikings free agents, I see the following as priorities to re-sign:

  1. Terence Newman (if he doesn’t retire). He had a great year last year, age be damned, and there is no reason to think he can’t play at a high level for another year- and for a reasonable price. It would be nice if Waynes earned the starting CB spot opposite Rhodes, but even if he did, having Newman there as a very reliable back-up (and potential slot CB) is important. I believe Newman had a $3 million salary last year- I’d be happy if the Vikings were able to sign him for that again this year.
  2. Captain Munnerlyn. It would be nice if MacKensie Alexander was able to step into the starting nickel CB spot, but I don’t see that happening this year. In any case, Munnerlyn has played well since moving exclusively to the slot. He’ll be 29 in April, so he has a few good years left, I think. Signing him to a 3-year deal at @ $4 million/year seems a reasonable deal for both sides, with the ability to get out after 2 years without a lot of dead cap if need be.
  3. Cordarrelle Patterson. I didn’t expect to be writing this a year ago, or even six months ago, but I think Patterson has shown he can be a threat as a receiver, although admittedly on only a relatively few plays- in addition to being the best kick returner in the league. But what intrigues me with Patterson now is how he may work in Pat Shurmur’s offense. Shurmur had him running a number of crossing routes- in addition to the usual bubble screens and sweeps- and also late in the year had him run a couple downfield go routes on the outside. He made a nice leaping, high-point catch, using his bigger body to block out the defender as well. It was just one catch- but I’d never seen him do that before, despite his having all the measurables to have been able to do it for years. The other thing about Patterson is the possibility of having him play RB- which had been discussed late last year. Patterson has developed the body to play the position on occasion, and that position flexibility could lead to some good match-ups out of the backfield, for example. Lining him up in the slot against a typically smaller CB could create a favorable match-up as well. The difficult thing with Patterson is how much to pay him. There is not a lot of film on him for other teams to get excited about- except as a kick returner- and I’m not sure teams are willing to pay much for a kick returner these days when most kick-offs are touchbacks. But a team may look at his potential and see the few games last year where he did some damage as a receiver and make a speculative offer on his potential. I imagine there are teams that might pay Patterson $4 million/year on a 4-year deal in hope of unlocking his potential as a receiver, but not much guaranteed. The Vikings need to make that offer too, with some incentives based on number of receptions. Anything much more than that is too much, but I think the Vikings could keep him for that deal.
  4. Adam Thielen. Hopefully the Vikings’ can sign Thielen to a longer-term deal, rather than a one-year RFA offer. It’s taken some time, but Thielen had a break-out year last year, and is worth locking-up for a few more years. Despite a near 1,000 yard receiving year, Thielen is not a true #1 WR and won’t command that type of salary. Giving him around $4 million/year on a 4 year deal also seems about right, but perhaps a little more guaranteed than Patterson.

Beyond these priority re-signings, there are others that are worthy of smaller deals to fill out the roster and add depth at $1 million or less per year:

Jeff Locke - he did alright this year, but struggled a lot prior, so re-signing is fine, but competition in camp is fine too.

Rashod Hill - he did alright against a Bears team mailing it in the last game of the year, and perhaps he can be a decent backup at LT or swing tackle.

CJ Ham - not a big deal either way. Hoping RB depth is such that he doesn’t make the team at the end of training camp.

Justin Trattou - again, not a big deal either way, but he can be adequate at times taking a few reps at DE.

Audie Cole - can compete for MLB spot as a two-down thumper and special teams guy, but hopefully a guy like Kentrell Brothers can step up in that role and offer a little more, or a draft pick.

Charles Johnson - still hasn’t shown anything as a WR, and hasn’t done much as a special teamer either, but still has some potential worth under $1 million/year to see if he can harness.

Zack Line - line is a good, not great, FB, but may not be as useful in Shurmur’s scheme. We’ll see. Has some special teams value too.

Zac Kerin - may as well give him another year at $600k to see if he can develop as a backup. Not a big deal if he doesn’t make the team either.

Willie Beavers - ditto Kerin.

Toby Johnson - ditto as well.

Rhett Ellison - Good blocking TE, with flexibility to play FB as well. $1 million/year on a 2-3 year deal with not much guaranteed.

Jeremiah Sirles - Sirles could be the starting RT, but could also wind-up as a backup. Same deal as Ellison.

Overall, I’d estimate signing all these players at $22 million this year, give or take, which pretty much shoots the Vikings’ salary cap wad.

Making Salary Cap Room

Of course re-signing the above players, along with (hopefully) signing a couple first-tier free-agent offensive linemen, and perhaps extending some other players entering contract years, will require jettisoning and/or restructuring other salaries to make room. The Vikings have already started that process by releasing Fusco, but more will be needed. Here are some likely candidates:

Adrian Peterson. Obviously his $18 million salary is neither smart nor justified, and needs to either be reduced massively, or simply jettisoned by releasing him, which would not incur any dead cap penalty. While the potential to re-structure Peterson’s contract and then trade him for a draft pick is theoretically possible, I doubt he’d agree to that. And re-structuring at even $5 million/year seems like too much for Peterson at this point in his career. He just isn’t a good fit anymore. Releasing him and saving $18 million in salary cap is the most likely solution, and not a bad one either.

Brian Robison. During his year-end interview, Robison admitted Danielle Hunter had earned his starting spot, and basically he may have to consider a restructuring. And so he should, as Hunter should start in his DE spot this year. Robison has some value as a backup that can play inside too if need be, but for $2.6 million this year, not $6.6 million. That $4 million in salary cap savings is smart and appropriate given Robison’s downgraded status. Robison has a $1 million dead cap hit if he doesn’t restructure, but I think he will.

Shariff Floyd. His $6.757 million salary this year is not justified, and I’m not sure what his future holds at this point. Being out all year last year on what seemed a minor knee issue raises questions, as does Mike Zimmer’s comments about him. The problem is that makes him hard to deal. I’m not sure re-structuring is an option, given this is his first-round option year, unless he was also extended, which doesn’t seem likely right now. It would be great if he could be traded for a draft pick, but that salary is pretty high for a DT that hasn’t been a top performer and has an injury history. Releasing Floyd, and either acquiring a cheaper and/or better replacement, or drafting one, seems a better option than hanging on to Floyd if he can’t be dealt.

Jarius Wright. Wright is a better receiver than he’s given credit for in my view, and he has some tape and a reasonable salary that could make him trade-worthy. It may be only for a 5th round pick, but something is better than nothing. His $3.16 million salary this year is manageable, but if he’s not getting playing time then it doesn’t make sense to keep him at that price. Rumor was last year that the Vikings were attempting to trade him, but no takers. The timing was not right, however, and now the timing is better. Wright could be a nice addition for a team that needs a slot receiver, so hopefully the Vikings will be able to deal him. He still has a $1.68 million dead cap hit, so it really doesn’t make sense to release him for that amount, given his salary cap hit is only $3.16 million.

Jettisoning and restructuring these contracts would give the Vikings an additional $33 million in salary cap to work with - no small potatoes by any measure.

But, there is the high-priority need to acquire top-tier free agents along the offensive line. That could eat up the better part of $20 million. Setting aside $7 million for draft pick contracts, which I don’t believe Sportrac has done at this point, and that leaves only $6m left. Assuming for a moment the Vikings draft a DT to replace Floyd and take some reps from Tom Johnson, that leaves the matter of extending some key players in their contract year.

Chief among those is Sam Bradford, but Xavier Rhodes is also a high priority. Extending Bradford is a touchy subject, as it would necessitate jettisoning Teddy Bridgewater, one way or another, at some point. Still, if Bradford is the man, it makes sense to lock him up. I would hope the Vikings could do so for $18 million/year, but who knows. I would hope Bradford likes his situation here, and after all the moving around would welcome a longer-term deal, even if not among the top-tier for QBs these days. Paying in the low- to mid- $20 millions for Bradford is way too much in my view- $18 million seems more than plenty given his abilities- but I wouldn’t be surprised if some desperate QB needy team would pay him more.

Rhodes will also command around $12 million/year - maybe more. If one or both Rhodes and Bradford are extended, but particularly Rhodes, I could see some amount of this year’s salary cap used toward a signing bonus - maybe $2 million.

Overall, that leaves $4 million left in salary cap space - assuming all goes to plan. But of course that may not happen. Not dealing Wright, for example, would pretty much wipe out the salary cap for the year, given all the other transactions.

So, when it comes to non-Viking free agent acquisitions, the Vikings have about $20 million to spend, which could give them two top-tier offensive linemen, but not much else.

Summary

Given the failures in developing offensive linemen- and bad luck with injuries- the Vikings need to spend on free agents- but there are limits to big contracts and the Vikings will have pretty much reached them under this scenario. The need to draft well and develop even better will continue to be important, or otherwise the Vikings will struggle to retain their best players.

But for now, the Vikings should be able to extend the players they want, and make a couple top-tier acquisitions in the free agent market. Next year that will no longer be true, and they will depend on developing draft picks. Hopefully they will be fully loaded at that point, but nothing lasts forever either.