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Vikings have tough decisions looming

The roster is aging and expensive, and the Vikings are five million dollars over the cap.

Arizona Cardinals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With the off-season underway for the Minnesota Vikings, the upheaval on the coaching staff has already begun. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is off to be the head coach of Cleveland, DC George Edwards isn’t returning and is rumored to be maybe joining Stefanski, and the search is on for their replacements. Or, if their replacements are already on the current staff, new positional coaches will need to be hired to backfill those positions the current coaches on the staff occupy.

And for all the changes we’re seeing on the coaching staff, it might pale in comparison to some changes we’re going to see on the roster. The Vikings are sitting about $5 million OVER the 2020 salary cap, which is projected to be right at $200 million.

There’s a couple things to consider before we start looking at ways to improve the Vikings cap situation and roster, though. The Vikings are one of the best in the business at minimizing ‘dead’ money, or money that counts against the cap to a player that’s no longer on the team. Currently, their dead money amounts to around $700,000, a remarkable number, as only six teams have less than $10 million in dead money on the books, and Denver, for example, has over $30 million in dead money.

They don’t like cutting players and absorbing big dead cap numbers that can come with that, and would prefer to restructure. The result of that is less immediate cap savings, but it also means less dead money in out years, minimizing dollars that can kill the cap while giving the team more flexibility down the road.

Let’s look at last year, just as an example.

DE Everson Griffen was due $11 million, but the Vikings didn’t have a lot of money. If they had cut him, they would have freed up $9 million in cap space but would have incurred $2 million in dead money. Instead, they signed him to a new deal that freed up $4 million but only had $800,000 in dead money.

TE Kyle Rudolph was the other big name that got a new deal done. He was slated to make $7.6 million last year, but the Vikings and Rudolph hammered out a new contract that lowered his cap number for this past season by $4 million. However, his new deal gave him more guaranteed money spread out over the life of the deal, which means he has a bigger dead money number in 2020. That essentially puts more dead money against the cap than cutting him would save against it, which would be a dumb thing to do.

In the charts below, I’ve included all the players currently under contract for 2020. For players that could give the Vikings a savings of $1 million or more, I put their projected 2020 cap savings (NOT projected salary) below their name, and then below that I added in what their dead cap number is if the Vikings were to release said player. So, let’s take a look at the offense and defense/special teams:

*Any player with an (F) next to their name means they have been signed to a Futures/Reserve contract.

Let’s look at some players on offense first.

Kirk Cousins, QB: I didn’t include his salary, because he’s slated to make $31 million guaranteed, which would all count against the cap in dead money if he’s released. He isn’t getting cut and he has a no trade clause, and just so we’re clear, I’m not advocating for either. The Vikings have two options with Cousins, either extend him to try and lower his cap number, or let him play out 2020 and part ways. I wish I had an answer on what the Vikings will or should do, to be honest. If they extend him, I would hope it’s not another fully guaranteed deal, but since that was the standard the Vikings set with his deal last year, I can see where Cousins would want another deal that’s fully guaranteed. As to what an extension would look like, just take a look around at some of the deals starting quarterbacks are getting. When Cousins signed his deal, he was the highest paid QB in NFL history. Since then five veteran QB’s signed deals that exceeded his yearly take home, and all five are over $30 million, with Russell Wilson checking in at $35 mil/yr.

If you’re looking for significant cap relief here, I don’t know that it’s coming from a new Cousins deal, at least not in 2020. When you add in the uncertainty of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer having contracts that also expire at the end of 2020, I’m just not seeing an extension decision until we’re well into the 2020 season and we know what kind of team the Vikings have...and whether or not those three will be back after 2020.

Kyle Rudolph, TE: Rudolph is another guy I don’t see the Vikings looking at for cap relief. Like we mentioned earlier, his new deal last year precludes any sort of re-structure this off-season. And they aren’t cutting him, since the dead money added would be more than the money they’d save in cutting him. Same for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs...neither of whom should even be in the discussion about getting cut or having deals re-done, at least in my opinion. Cutting anyone that adds more dead money to the cap than saves money essentially puts the cap underwater down the line, and it’s not how the Vikings do business.

Riley Reiff, LT: If there’s a target on offense most fans are looking at to cut or re-structure, Reiff is the primary guy. He’s slated to make $13.2 million. If the Vikings cut him, they’d save $9 million on the cap, but incur $4.4 million in dead money. I am 99% certain that if Reiff plays for the Vikings in 2020, it won’t be for $13.2 million. But with the Vikings reluctant to take on that kind of dead money and no clear option to replace him currently on the roster, I could buy a re-structure. If you look at the Griffen deal last year and compare it to Reiff’s salary and the importance of the position, I can see the Vikings offering something really similar to what they offered Griffen last year. Let’s say the Vikes dangle $8 million in front of him and he accepts it. That frees up $5 million in cap space, and essentially gets the Vikings in the green, with probably a million dollar dead cap number.

Pat Elflein, LG: Cutting Elflein would give the Vikings an extra million to play with and incur only $200,000 in dead money, which looks attractive on paper, but I think he plays out the final year of his rookie deal next year. Even if the Vikings go in another direction at LG, and they really need tio bring in competition for the position, he’s still an attractive backup lineman at a reasonable price. With only three guards on the roster, the position will have to be addressed in the off-season regardless, making an Elflein cut seemingly remote.

Let’s move to the defense, a unit I think will see some significant changes by the time training camp rolls around.

Linval Joseph, DT: Joseph is on the books for $12.8 million, and like the rent, that’s just too damn high. Joseph has been bothered by nagging injuries the last couple years, and his play has slipped a bit. Releasing him frees up $10.5 million, with a dead cap hit of $2.6 million. Assuming he’s gone and Reiff is re-structured, the Vikes now have about $10 million in cap space. If both Reiff and Joseph are cut, the Vikes are up to $14 million.

Everson Griffen, DE: Griffen had a really good bounce back season in 2019, and was once again the emotional leader of this team. But last year’s re-structure seemed to only delay the inevitable, as a Griffen release only produces $800,000 in dead cap money while giving the Vikings a whopping $13 million in cap relief. Even though he had a good bounce back season while registering eight sacks, this sadly feels like Griff is getting to the end of the road in Minnesota. Assuming that happens, the Vikes now have anywhere from $23-27 million in cap room.

Xavier Rhodes, CB: Rhodes became the guy everyone liked to dislike this season, and he’s had two disappointing seasons in a row. He’s got a $12.9 million cap number in 2020, and that’s going to change. The only question is whether or not he’ll accept a new deal or not. Releasing him gives the Vikings just over $8 million in cap room, but they’ll incur nearly $5 million in dead cap space. That last number is pretty high, so a re-structure could be a real possibility here. Let’s say they cut his cap number almost in half, giving the Vikings $5 million in cap relief with around a million bucks in dead money, depending on how things are structured. That gives them $28 million in cap space, with a top end of $35 million if all these guys are cut.

Harrison Smith, S: You guys probably think I’m nuts for putting him in here, but consider: he has a cap number of $10.7 million, and they can realize $8 million in cap savings if they release him...or trade him. I don’t think they would, because that would be monumentally stupid, but don’t be surprised if the Vikings approach the Hitman about re-doing his deal to give the Vikes some cap room, especially if Minnesota opts to re-structure more than two of these guys.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that Minnesota needs to adjust contracts and cut players to get to a decent cap number, and what your definition of ‘decent’ is can vary. If they were to cut everyone we talked about, save Rudolph and Smith, the Vikings will free up $41.7 million in cap space, giving them around $36 million available. But if you do that, now you need a starting LT, two starting defensive linemen, and a starting CB. Assuming that Trae Waynes leaves, that’s five starters, six if you count Anthony Harris, who they should 100% try to re-sign.

If you believe Spotrac, the market value for Harris will be right around $14 million. If the Vikings are able to get him back, and it’s at that number, you’re down to right around $20 million, give or take, to address everything else.

That’s a lot of experience to lose on one side of the ball, and not a lot of money to go around to replace that many guys or that much talent those guys have brought to the table. Flat out schwacking Reiff, Elflein, Joseph, Griffen, and Rhodes racks up over $12 million in dead money, something the Vikings have been historically reluctant to do, so I think at least a couple of those guys get deals re-done, and Minnesota will accept a lower cap number to keep a couple of these guys in the fold. When the smoke clears, I’m guessing they have somewhere between $25-30 million in cap relief and about $6-7 in dead cap money.

These are all ballpark numbers, and mileage may vary a bit on some of these actual contract numbers. But the bottom line in all of this is that Minnesota is going to lose several longtime fan favorites, and won’t have a lot of money to address everything they need to address, especially on defense.

This looks to be the most challenging off-season yet, so stay tuned.