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Making Sense of the Vikings Off-Season So Far

NFL: FEB 25 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Going into this off-season, it was certain there would be more roster changes because of the Vikings’ salary cap situation and the number of free agents that would command big money in free agency.

Four of the Vikings’ starting five defensive backs were free agents, along with DE Everson Griffen. Offensively, Kirk Cousins was heading into the final year of his contract, and so was Dalvin Cook. And the offensive line still needed to be upgraded.

And the Vikings were about $11 million or so over the salary cap limit.

So what to do?

The following players were free agents:

  • DE Everson Griffen , CB Trae Waynes, S Anthony Harris, T Rashod Hill , S Andrew Sendejo , CB MacKensie Alexander, K Dan Bailey , P/H Britton Colquitt , QB Sean Mannion , G/T Dakota Dozier , RB/KR Ameer Abdullah , C/G Brett Jones , WR Laquon Treadwell , CJ Ham (RFA) , LB Kentrell Brothers , S Jayron Kearse , DE Stephen Weatherly
  • LB Eric Wilson (RFA) , CB/PR Marcus Sherels

Some of those free agents were more important to extend than others, obviously. Beyond that, the Vikings also had some guys that weren’t playing up to their salary cap, so getting the most player for every salary cap dollar was a key exercise and evaluation for the Vikings coaching staff and front office - this year more so than in more recent years.

The Vikings also had key players like Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook on the last year of their contracts.

Setting Priorities - Getting Salary Cap Value

The first major roster moves the Vikings made were to release Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph, along with David Morgan, which collectively saved them about $19 million in salary cap space. Neither move was much of a surprise. Neither player had been performing to their salary cap, were getting older, and equal or better performing replacements could be had for less money, either internally or via free agency or the perhaps in the draft.

Next on the list was to extend Kirk Cousins, which was helpful for two reasons: first it extends the Vikings’ franchise quarterback, and secondly the extension could be structured to free up more salary cap space this year - $10 million to be exact as it turned out.

Anthony Harris seemed a priority to retain at safety, having been basically the best performing safety according to PFF the past two seasons. So it was a bit of a surprise when Mike Zimmer seemed a little resigned toward not being able to re-sign Harris in his comments during the Combine. That in turn made the Vikings placing the franchise tag on Harris also somewhat surprising. But with the franchise tag at $11.4 million, and with Harris’ market value at $14 million, it makes sense. Extending the best safety in the league, or one of them, at that price represents good value. Letting go Rhodes and Joseph, while extending Cousins, allowed the Vikings enough salary cap space to tag Harris. It also gave them enough cash to extend punter/holder Britton Colquitt for 3 years, fullback CJ Ham for four years, and LB Eric Wilson for one year.

But then the biggest surprise of the off-season came: the Vikings dealing Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. Despite the rumors and Diggs’ social media hints/teasing, it seemed unlikely Diggs would be traded because it would be a big dead cap hit, and he’s a top wide receiver. But the Bills were willing to part with a first (#22), fourth, fifth, and sixth-round pick for Diggs and a 7th, the fourth rounder being a 2021 pick and the rest in this year’s draft. Trading Diggs leaves the Vikings with a $9 million dead cap hit this year, while saving $2.5 million overall in cap space this year, and clearing $12 million in each of the next three years.

Now the Vikings suddenly have salary cap space to work with to extend more core players - or sign free agents - and now have a massive stockpile of drafts picks: 2 first-round picks, a 2nd round pick, 2 third-rounders, a 4th, a 5th, 2 6th rounders, and 3 seventh-rounders. That’s 12 picks overall - and an additional 4th rounder next year. This year's draft is reportedly one of the deepest at the WR position.

That stockpile will allow Trader Rick Spielman to move around as he pleases in this year’s draft, and is sure to make this year’s draft an exciting one for Vikings fans.

The problem that remains for the Vikings is, after accounting for draft picks, they still only have around $6 million in salary cap space to work with. I would imagine they would like to extend kicker Dan Bailey, perhaps one of their free agent CBs, and a few other minor players too, so I expect more transactions to come. Riley Reiff could also be let go ($13.2 million cap hit this year, $14 million next year), with a $4.4 million dead cap hit, saving about $9 million in cap space. Anthony Harris could also be traded, which would free up $11.4 million in cap space, in exchange for another player or draft pick(s). Vikings could extend Andrew Sendejo for another year, and perhaps draft a safety too. Jayron Kearse remains an option too.

Super Bowl Window Still Open - But Draft And Development Is Still Key

With so many former core players no longer with the Vikings - guys like Xavier Rhodes, Stefon Diggs, Linval Joseph, and Trae Waynes, it seems like things are headed in the wrong direction for the Vikings this off-season. But apart from Diggs, the other core player losses were guys on the downslide, and didn’t really contribute much to the Vikings success last season.

What is also lost in off-season discussion, which is an important consideration for the coaching staff in making roster decisions, is the progress of backup guys.

It’s hard to get too excited right now about guys like Armon Watts, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Oli Udoh, Bisi Johnson, Holton Hill or Mike Hughes, but these are guys that could step up for the Vikings next season and have an impact. They didn’t get a lot of playing time last season, and none of them were elite graded, but they showed the potential for improvement that can occur over another off-season of development - and now with some real NFL experience under their belt.

Nobody was all that excited about Adam Thielen his first couple years with the Vikings. Or Everson Griffen. Or Xavier Rhodes. Or Anthony Harris. And nobody thought much about Stefon Diggs when he was drafted. Or Brian O’Neill. Even Danielle Hunter. All of those guys were either not well known/hyped in the draft, and/or took a couple years to develop into quality starters.

And so it could be with some of the Vikings current backups.

Beyond that, there are the 12 picks (currently), including 5 in the first 3 rounds, the Vikings have in the draft.

It’s too early to know how this year’s draft class will turn out, and even speculation on who’s high on the Vikings draft board is just that at this point. But with that many picks, it’s not outlandish to think a few may end up quality starters. Even as rookies.

We’ll see.

But from what we’ve seen so far this off-season, the Vikings front office and coaching staff are being pretty aggressive in getting the most value for their salary cap this off-season, and even the Stefon Diggs trade.

The Vikings got a 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th round pick for Stefon Diggs. The Texans got a 2nd round pick and a 28-year-old mid-tier running back for DeAndre Hopkins. Huge difference.

But that fact remains that the Vikings, with basically no salary cap to work with except what they off-load, are doing what they need to at this point in time: focus on getting good salary cap value for those on the roster, unloading those that aren’t providing that, while stockpiling draft picks - and future starters on cheap rookie deals - to fill holes as needed.

That’s the circle of life for a good NFL franchise. The bad ones tend to have a ton of salary cap space they can’t seem to fill, or fill wisely, and poor draft picks that never seem to work out.

It’s sad to see Stefon Diggs, catcher of the Minneapolis Miracle, go. But the Vikings could do a lot with the draft picks they received for Diggs, and having $12 million less on their salary cap in future years gives them more options too. The Bills’ compensation made that trade the right thing for the Vikings to do at this point in time.

And for longtime core players like Linval Joseph and Xavier Rhodes, who played well in their prime, it’s sad that the prime of an NFL career can be pretty short for most players.

But the best thing a good franchise can do is face that reality and move on. It’s a team game, and the best thing a front office and coaching staff can do is put the team’s interest first.

And that is the story of the Vikings off-season moves so far.


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