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Wading into Vikings Free Agency

Carolina Panthers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Vikings once again have a lot to accomplish in free agency, including keeping under the salary cap limit - whatever that turns out to be - and looking to get the most bang for their buck with the moveable pieces they have to work with.

So let’s get right into it.

Salary Cap Limit

The Vikings are currently pegged at about $14.6 million over the 2021 salary cap limit, assuming that limit is $175 million, according to Spotrac. But there is reason to doubt that $175 million will be the limit- that’s currently the worst case scenario according to an earlier agreement between the NFL and NFLPA. It could be that the team salary cap limit remains around $195 - $200 million (it was $198.2 last season), but that’s if a 17th game is added to the regular season. Otherwise, rumor is that NFL owners are looking to make up for the 2020 season losses as soon as possible, which would mean a salary cap closer to $175 million. If that happens, expect a wave of contract restructurings and plenty of prudence, rather than the usual exuberance, when it comes to free agency. There will also likely be more than the usual number of salary cap casualties, creating some potential bargains for the relatively few teams with money to spend.

For the Vikings, with a $175 million salary cap, they’d basically need to cut Riley Reiff, for example, to get under the salary cap with the players currently under contract. After that, it becomes a pay-as-you-go situation: if they take on salary cap somewhere, they’ll need to cut it elsewhere.

Getting the Most Bang for the Buck

Getting the most bang for the Vikings’ salary cap buck means evaluating players and position groups. Is there a player with a relatively high salary cap that could be replaced with another guy on the roster with a lower cap hit - without much of a drop in performance? That’s not always immediately clear, particularly evaluating backups that haven’t played much - but may or may not be ready to step up.

Kyle Rudolph

One position group that may be a bit easier to evaluate for the Vikings, however, is tight end. Kyle Rudolph is the 4th highest paid TE in the league, at a little over $10 million average annual value on his remaining contract. And while he’s a different type of player than Irv Smith Jr. behind him, it looks like Smith is ready to step up and Rudolph could be released or traded to create some salary cap space. Tyler Conklin behind him as well. Additionally, at age 32, Rudolph is no longer ascending in his career as a tight end. But he is still a reliable and savvy pass-catcher, and a positive veteran presence that another team may be willing to trade for. Indeed, he’s drawn trade interest in the recent past that suggests he could be traded this off-season.

Trading Rudolph with a post-June 1st designation would net the Vikings $8 million in cap space this year. with $3.350 million in combined dead cap over 2021 and 2022. That’s valuable cap space the Vikings could use to build at another, more needy position group.

Riley Reiff

Reiff is coming off a pretty solid season for the Vikings at left tackle, and offensive line remains a relatively weak position group overall, so parting ways with Reiff doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense from that perspective. But Reiff is also a $16 million salary cap hit for the Vikings in 2021, and between Ezra Cleveland, Oli Udoh, or Rashod Hill, there may be another guy ready to step up and replace his production and allow the Vikings to move on from Reiff’s cap hit, either by trading or releasing him. Doing so would save the Vikings nearly $14 million in salary cap space, which would allow the Vikings to add another quality player at a position of need - perhaps even at guard. The question is whether the Vikings feel another player can fill Reiff’s tackle spot without a drop in performance- which would allow them the opportunity to upgrade elsewhere.

Shamar Stephen

Stephen is a $5 million cap hit in 2021, the last year of his contract at age 30, and could be released or traded for roughly $4 million in net cap savings. He could also be asked to restructure his deal, as he’s underperformed his salary cap this past season, and may be more of a rotational player this coming season if he’s retained. In any case, with Michael Pierce taking over the nose tackle spot, and Armon Watts basically providing replacement level performance with more upside and less of a cap hit, the need for Stephen at his current price is not compelling. Yes, the Vikings need depth along the interior line, but $5 million for a guy of Stephen’s performance level is a bit steep. Asking him to restructure to $3 million makes some sense for the Vikings, and would save another $2 million in cap space.

Anthony Barr

Barr is a big salary cap hit for a 4-3 outside linebacker. He was injured most of this season, but even before that it’s difficult to see his impact warranting $15.5 million this year and next, before an $18 million hit the final year of his contract. My guess is that the Vikings could find a cheaper replacement for Barr, either a guy on the roster or a free agent or draft pick, without a big drop in performance. Putting Barr’s salary cap into the defensive line seems like it could have more impact than a strong side linebacker in today’s NFL, and particularly given the Vikings need for another top quality edge rusher. Trading Barr post June 1st could save the Vikings $13 million in cap space this year.

Kirk Cousins

Cousins’ contract has an important milestone coming up in about six weeks, as his 2022 base salary of $35 million becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. Along with a $10 million signing bonus, that makes his 2022 cap hit $45 million. The Vikings back-loaded his two-year contract extension a year ago to help them out this coming year with their salary cap situation, and most likely they’ll look to do another extension to kick more of his cap hit down the road a little further. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings may address Cousins’ contract, and how any negotiations pan out. It would seem Cousins is more comfortable with his situation in Minnesota and support from the franchise, so hopefully that may translate into more flexibility in negotiating another extension. But from a 2021 salary cap standpoint, a Cousins extension and signing bonus could free up to around $10 million more in salary cap space if need be. Of course that puts more into future years, but it may be an additional way to manage a lower salary cap limit this year.

Building a Better Roster

Looking at the weak position groups on the Vikings roster, and need for an immediate talent infusion, both offensive and defensive lines need more talent.

Offensive Line

Along the offensive line, there may be a couple guys that will be ready to step-up and compete this coming year. Oli Udoh, Rashod Hill, and possibly even Kyle Hinton, given he was put on the active roster at the end of the season. Brett Jones is also easily capable of starting at any of the interior line positions, and would be an upgrade over Dakota Dozier at least.

Setting aside Riley Reiff for the moment, as a potential cap casualty or trade candidate, that leaves Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, and Brian O’Neill as returning starters. It’s conceivable, if between Oli Udoh and Rashod Hill, Brett Jones and Kyle Hinton, a quality starting tackle and guard, and a backup for each, could be in place. We don’t know too much about Udoh’s and Hinton’s development this year, as they didn’t play. But it’s possible either they or Hill and Jones could be ready for starting jobs next season. Both Hill and Jones have done well in limited action this past season, but hopefully the younger guys could be even better, which would be ideal.

However, especially if the Vikings jettison Reiff, it may be worthwhile taking on a free agent like a Joe Thuney or Brandon Scherff, if possible, to provide some quality veteran experience and bolster the interior line, which has been the weak link for the Vikings offense up-front. That would have a $14-$15 million/year price tag, which would basically cancel the savings from parting ways with Reiff, but given the relative talent by position the Vikings have on their offensive line roster, the Vikings may be better off spending for a guard than a tackle.

Defensive Line

This is the position group that really needs the most influx of new talent. Certainly getting Danielle Hunter back, along with the delayed arrival of Michael Pierce, will go about halfway toward getting the defensive line right again, but there simply needs to be more top-end talent brought into the mix. Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Jalyn Holmes, Hercules Mata’afa, Ifeadi Odenigbo - these are all backup caliber (at best) talents. I doubt the Vikings will re-sign Johnson, and while Odenigbo is an RFA, bringing him back for $3.4 million 2nd round tender seems like an expensive place-holder deal. It makes more sense to invest the snaps in Wonnum, and see what he can do. I imagine Wonnum will be back stronger, and hopefully will have a chance to expand his toolkit this off-season. But Wonnum is still more of a rotational/development player, along with Armon Watts, rather than someone who should be starting next season.

So the Vikings still need a quality, starting defensive tackle (3-tech) and defensive end, and at least one backup, developmental nose tackle to bolster the talent inside.

In the free agent marketplace, there are at least a few veterans that could prove to be upgrades at 3-tech and DE that wouldn’t break the bank. A few names:

  • Mario Edwards Jr. Edwards played with the Bears at 3-tech last season on a one-year deal, and had the best season of his career, with a 90.1 overall PFF grade. He’s been suspended for the first two games of 2021, but he could prove to be a nice upgrade at 3-tech for the Vikings. He’s still just 28, and was a early 2nd round pick (#35 overall) back in 2015.
  • Dalvin Tomlinson. He’s coming off his rookie contract with the Giants, who may focus their efforts on extending Leonard Williams. He’s more of a Shamar Stephen type defensive tackle, only more effective. Probably a bit more expensive than Stephen too, but a needed and proven upgrade.
  • Leonard Williams. If Williams decides New York isn’t the place for him, or the Giants focus on retaining Tomlinson instead, perhaps the Vikings could work a deal to bring Williams to Minnesota. Williams would be a great fit with the Vikings because he can play both defensive end and 3-tech. He’s 6’5”, 305 lbs., with 34 5/8” arms, and will be just 27 later this year. Williams would be expensive - he reportedly wants top DE money - but with a tight salary cap this season, it’s not as likely he’ll get it. Williams would be something of a chess piece for Andre Patterson to move around, and to a large degree be killing two birds with one stone. Williams could play DE in running situations, with Armon Watts at 3T, and 3T on passing downs with Wonnum (potentially) at DE on passing downs. If the Vikings parted ways with both Shamar Stephen and Kyle Rudolph, that could give them just about enough cap space to sign Williams.
  • Jadeveon Clowney. Perhaps more of a backup plan than primary target, but Clowney could be had for less money given his low impact and knee injury this past season. Clowney could provide a solid bookend to Danielle Hunter, and be disruptive in both the pass and run game.
  • Shelby Harris. He’s getting up there - will turn 30 later this year - but he’s been productive as a 3T the past few years - 88.3 overall PFF grade this past season. He brings more of a pass rush ability while also being solid as a run defender.
  • Romeo Okwara. He’s got some holes in his game as a DE, but is coming off his best season, particularly as a pass rusher, with Detroit and at 25 could still improve his game with some solid coaching from Andre Patterson.

Just what the Vikings are able to do in free agency regarding the defensive line would likely impact their approach to the draft, and bringing in another high-priced free agent would load up the salary cap for the position group, but given the back-end is no longer a big salary cap hit, the Vikings may find that development of their young DBs will go a lot smoother with a defensive line that can consistently pressure the QB with only four. Getting the defensive line to that level should be priority number one for the Vikings this off-season, one way or another.

Extending Vikings Veterans

Of course the Vikings also have a number of players whose contract has expired, and several of those most likely they’d like to extend. A few names:

  • C/G Brett Jones
  • T Rashod Hill
  • G Kyle Hinton
  • WR Chad Beebe
  • LB Todd Davis
  • LB Eric Wilson
  • S Anthony Harris
  • CB Chris Jones
  • RB Mike Boone
  • RB Ameer Abdullah
  • QB Sean Mannion

The most difficult situation is Anthony Harris, who is probably still the top free agent safety in the league, despite having an off year last season. Safety is also not a deep position group for the Vikings, so losing Harris creates an immediate hole in the starting lineup, and there really isn’t much behind Harrison Smith and Harris either. One option, if Harris proves to be too expensive, is to move one of the Vikings CBs to a safety spot. Kris Boyd or Harrison Hand are potential candidates.

Another tougher guy for the Vikings to extend is Eric Wilson. He may be both too expensive for the Vikings, who already have a lot tied-up at the LB position, and may simply want to go elsewhere for a chance to be a starter. Wilson has been good in coverage at times, and as a pass rusher on occasion, but really struggles in run defense and to a lesser degree tackling. The Vikings also have a few guys behind him that could/should take his place. Troy Dye and Cameron Smith are two mid-round picks that so far haven’t shown much, but haven’t had much coaching or playing time either. Todd Davis is another free agent the Vikings could extend for a reasonable price, and could do well as a base linebacker.

Still another question is at running back, and particularly how much do the Vikings want to spend at that position? Obviously Dalvin Cook is the big ticket, but C.J. Ham at $3 million is an expensive fullback too. Mike Boone is a RFA, so he could easily be extended, but a 2nd round tender is $3.4 million, which is pretty steep for a backup RB that doesn’t see the field much. Ameer Abdullah would be cheaper to extend- he’s been playing at basically the veteran minimum around $1 million, but at this point he’s not particularly explosive, nor really much of a threat between the tackles. The Vikings could elect not to tender Boone, and try to pick him up afterward on a more reasonable deal, but who knows if that would work out. Boone may want a shot with another team to be more than 3rd on the depth chart.

At offensive line, Hinton is a ERFA, so he’ll be extended without problem. Hopefully Rashod Hill and Brett Jones can be extended for around $1 million each without problem either, although nothing is guaranteed.

I imagine the Vikings will want to extend Chad Beebe, who is an RFA, for $3.4 million, which again seems like a lot for a guy that isn’t likely to see the field much, but there it is. CB Chris Jones is another RFA that $3.4 million for a 2nd round tender seems way too much. Original round tenders, which for undrafted guys is nothing, amounts to $2.2 million. But if the guy isn’t worth $2.2 million, there’s no reason to do it - the Vikings would get no compensation if another team made a better offer.

I imagine the Vikings would be happy to keep Sean Mannion another year at veteran minimum- $1 million, which is fine, I guess. But even assuming Wilson and Harris are not extended, that’s still around $10 million in salary cap the Vikings would need to extend the other guys. $10 million that will have to come from cuts elsewhere in all likelihood.

Bottom Line

The Vikings could free up around $33 million in salary cap space if they parted ways with Rudolph, Reiff, Stephen, and Barr, while extending Cousins with a signing bonus for another potential $10 million savings - $43 million total. With a $175 million salary cap (worst case scenario) that would leave the Vikings with around $28 million to work with in free agency, $18 million after extending veterans on the list above except Wilson and Harris. That may be enough for two quality free agent signings if they use a signing bonus to push some salary cap into future years. If they kept Reiff or Barr, they’d be lucky to get one quality free agent. But given they usually keep around $5 million or so in cap space for emergencies, they wouldn’t even be able to do that.

Things look a bit better if the salary cap comes in around $195 - $200 million, as that would give them $20-$25 million more to work with, and the possibility of bringing on at least a couple quality free agents, maybe more if they didn’t keep Reiff and Barr.

Either way, it’s going to be another tough year for Rob Brzezinski and Rick Spielman to augment their roster in free agency, given salary cap constraints. The Vikings are far from alone in this predicament, as roughly half the league is currently over the $175 million cap. Several other teams seemingly have more cap space, but also some pricey veteran free agents they’d like to extend. Given that, there’s really less than ten teams with more than about $10 million in cap space available.

Any which way you slice it, if the salary cap goes from $198.2 million in 2020 to $175 million in 2021, that’s $742.4 million less that teams have to spend. And on average, teams have already spent $170 million of that $175 million, which after allowing a little cushion for various reasons, leaves nothing left.

And that means GMs will be scrutinizing every contract, evaluating every player, to see who’s not earning their salary cap, and make cuts accordingly, as they are able given the terms of the contract. The Vikings should be no different.

Poll

Which of the following players is the most important for the Vikings to keep this coming season?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Kyle Rudolph
    (35 votes)
  • 41%
    Riley Reiff
    (848 votes)
  • 16%
    Anthony Barr
    (347 votes)
  • 11%
    Anthony Harris
    (241 votes)
  • 28%
    None of the above
    (592 votes)
2063 votes total Vote Now