Among Minnesota Vikings fans, Everson Griffen is quickly becoming one of the most polarizing players on the roster. A starter for the past five seasons, he rose from being a productive special teams player who could come in and make an impact as a rotational defensive lineman, to a three-time Pro Bowl starter, amassing 66.5 sacks and 152 QB hits in his career. While he’s certainly an immensely popular player with fans, his contract, his age - he’ll turn 32 in December - and seeming decline in production (no doubt due, at least in part to his off-field mental health struggles) suddenly find him in a strange place among the Purple fanbase.
PART ONE: THE FACTS
Contractually, Griffen has certainly earned his keep. In 2014, when he was an Unrestricted Free Agent, the Vikings recognized his role on the team and signed him to a a five-year $42.5 Million contract. In July of 2017, he and the team worked out a renegotiated extension to that deal. The 4-year, 58 Million dollar contract was deemed at the time a very team-friendly deal, and taking a closer look at the details bears that out. The guaranteed money was listed at $18 Million. And, according to his contract notes listed on Over the Cap dot com,
“The guarantee is made up of a $2 million signing bonus and his 2017 and 2018 salaries.”
So, basically, his contract has been paid, and at this point, the team truly can move on with little repercussion. In fact, the team cap savings from releasing Griffen are pretty significant. For the 2019-22 seasons, the team would have a cap savings of $11.3M, $13.5M, $14M, and $15.5M per year, respectively. Realistically, Griffen had no shot at being paid in 2021, and even less at being paid in 2022. The fact the team has already paid out the guaranteed portion of the contract is very telling, and makes it even more likely that he could become a cap casualty.
As a 31 year-old Defensive End coming off the most tumultuous season of his career, Everson Griffen will be paid roughly the same amount as Danielle Hunter, who is seven years younger. That’s not to say that DE’s in their ‘30’s can’t be productive - in fact, the Vikings have a long, long history with that sort of player, dating back to the Purple People Eaters days. Griffen’s is a fairly unique case, however. The current crop of free agent Defensive Ends - or better, possible free agent DE’s - shows us two groups. The rookie contract guys (Clowney, Lawrence, Flowers, etc.), and the aging vets (Graham, Ansah, Curry, etc.). The first group are about to sign deals like the one that Griffen signed in 2014 - their “BIG” payday. The second group is coming off of their “BIG” payday contracts. Brandon Graham, Ziggy Ansah, and Vinny Curry are all in their early 30’s and looking for perhaps one more big payday.
Griffen, however, doesn’t fit in either group as of now. He’s already in the middle of his “One More” contract. He’s much more of a fit in the Calais Campbell/Michael Bennett group. Like Griffen, Campbell and Bennett are both in the middle years of the deals they signed two or three seasons ago. And, similarly, all three players “dead money” shrinks significantly after June 1.
*Note that I’m putting this in the “Facts” section, but please realize that anything I or anybody else here at the DN writes about Griffen’s health is purely speculative.
Here’s where it gets tricky for me, and I will try to walk this line carefully. While Everson Griffen is certainly still physically in his prime, mentally/emotionally there are still some very valid concerns.
I have seen the struggle with behavioral health up close and personal, and I was both horrified and elated to see him back on the field this past season. As much as I wanted “Sack Daddy” back on the field, I wanted “Everson Griffen” to be well. On one hand, it seemed as if the intensity just wasn’t there after he returned. On the other, if I took five weeks off from my job to deal with what he dealt with, I’d probably lose a little intensity as well. Again, this is a very touchy subject, and only Griffen and - to a certain extent the team - knows if he is all the way “back”.
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
The problem with simply saying “They should cut Griffen because of salary cap reasons” is that the Defensive End position group gets awful thin in a hurry. Yes, Danielle Hunter has continued to evolve as a player. After seeing a significant dropoff in his sack and QB Hit totals in 2017, he rebounded well in 2018 despite five games without Everson Griffen anchoring the opposite side of the line. And he collected 6 of his 14.5 sacks in the games Griffen missed. But who does the team have beyond that? Stephen Weatherly, who won’t turn 25 until later this month, put together a couple of strong performances in Griffen’s absence, gathering a sack and forcing a fumble versus Philadelphia. After that? Tashawn Bower. Ifeadi Odenigbo. Ade Aruna? Contemplate this: If, God-forbid, something happens to Danielle Hunter, that is your defensive end rotation.
PART TWO: THE OPTIONS
OPTION ONE: KEEP EVERSON GRIFFEN AROUND
Really, if Everson Griffen had enjoyed his “usual” season in 2018, we wouldn’t probably even be discussing this. Simply extrapolating his shortened-season stats out over sixteen games shows that Griffen was on an 8-sack pace. Not his best season, but not his worst, either. Griffen’s absence - especially in that first game versus Buffalo - was certainly felt throughout the defense. Using just the eye test, the team plays better as a whole with him on the field. Call it what you will, but emotional leadership is real, and Griffen’s on-field leadership would be missed.
And, his salary really isn’t out of line with what a productive player at his position commands. Again, his 2019 contract calls for him to make $11.7M. Salary-wise, that puts him in the neighborhood of Robert Quinn (6.5 sacks, 38 tackles), Mario Addison (9, 35), Jerry Hughes (7, 37), Carlos Dunlap (8, 47), and Tyrone Crawford (5.5, 34). Griffen’s performance (5.5, 33) puts him right in that group, and doing it in just eleven games makes it even more impressive.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE SALARY CAP?
Well, keeping Everson Griffen in purple means the Vikings salary cap is exactly where we think it is - roughly $5.3M at the moment (again, according to the folks over at OTC). First, it’s a relative certainty that if Griff stays around, Anthony Barr, Sheldon Richardson, and perhaps other players will not be on the roster in 2019. Honestly, re-signing Anthony Barr might be cost-prohibitive even if the team were to part ways with Griffen. The market at OLB this offseason is fairly thin, and Barr’s performance has earned him the right to be paid like a top OLB. KJ Wright is the biggest name on the market, but he’s coming off a knee injury at 30 years old. Thomas Davis is long in the tooth, Dee Ford has already been Franchise Tagged by the Chiefs, and the rest of the lot are players who really haven’t proven much, yet. One thing going for the Purple is that Barr is neither a tackling machine nor a sack monster, which may keep his price tag in a more reasonable range.
As for Sheldon Richardson, he’s certainly a good player, and with more time in the system, he may prove to be a diamond in the rough type of find for Rick Spielman. And he seems to like playing for Mike Zimmer, George Edwards, and Andre Patterson. Unfortunately for Richardson, he’s part of a saturated market for defensive tackles in Free Agency 2019 - not to mention, the strength of the draft is said to be interior defensive linemen. So, the amount he signs for could also be quite a bit less than what he might be expecting. In the case of both Anthony Barr and Sheldon Richardson, however, remaining in Purple seems nearly impossible with Everson Griffen on the roster.
If Everson Griffen returns to the form he showed before 2018, he’s a disruptive, dangerous force on the edge, and he’s worth every penny and should remain on the roster. If not…
OPTION TWO: CUT EVERSON GRIFFEN
For those of you old enough, do you remember what happens to the dog in Old Yeller? For those too young, here’s a hint: It doesn’t end well. Even Jared Allen had to play for the Bears and Panthers. John Randle was a Seahawk. So was Kevin Williams. Cris Carter went to Miami for five games. Adrian Peterson has made a couple of stops, and may make more! Brett Favre had to play for the Packers for sixteen years. Sixteen! Randy Moss was a freaking Tennessee Titan, for God’s sake! Nearly every Vikings legend ended his career with another team. It’s the nature of professional football. We don’t remember any of them as anything other than Vikings. Letting a player go before it’s too late isn’t just a good way of doing things, it’s a winning way of doing things (see: Belichick, B.). Everson Griffen
can’t won’t shouldn’t remain a Viking until the day he retires - unless that day comes before the start of the 2019 season. His 5.5 sacks came against non-playoff teams from Detroit, Miami, Green Bay and San Francisco. Not exactly top competition. He registered just seventeen total tackles versus teams that made the playoffs. He was largely a non-factor outside of U.S. Bank Stadium, pulling down just 1.5 sacks and 14 tackles.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE SALARY CAP?
Well, the immediate result would be a large ($11M+) expansion in cap space. That, combined with a couple other possible moves, would put the Vikings in a position to re-sign both Barr and Richardson. The strength of the defensive side of the ball in the Mike Zimmer era has been the defensive line. More specifically, finding and developing talented players. The team really hasn’t had many clunkers during that time (Mr. Crichton, please pick up the white courtesy phone). Obviously, the jury is still out on Weatherly. And Odenigbo, Bower, and Aruna, are complete unknowns. The weakest point in the defense has been the Linebacking corps, getting rid of the best part of the weakest link sounds a bit counterproductive.
It also allows the Vikings to be ahead of the curve next year with the salary cap, as well. Imagine if Griffen stays in Purple and has, say, 9.5 sacks this season. Not a bad season at all, but his cap number jumps yet again. And once again, fans are stuck asking if he should still be on the roster.
Keeping Everson Griffen on the roster means losing a talented (even if underperforming) player like Anthony Barr in a season where not only are there very few good Free Agent replacements, but the team also MUST use draft capital to address other positions.
What say you, DN Faithful?
The Vikings Could Save Over $11 Million in Cap Space by Releasing Fan-Favorite Everson Griffen. Should They?
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