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Vikings Off-Season Could Bring Massive Changes - Part III

A look at potential roster changes for the Vikings this off-season

Los Angeles Rams v Minnesota Vikings

As is the case every off-season, roster changes will happen. And so will be the case with the Vikings this off-season, but it also seems like on the defensive side, it could be another off-season with a lot of turnover, particularly if a new head coach is named, and a new scheme is put in place defensively- not to mention several defensive players will be free agents.

Offensively, while just about every key starter is under contract next season, that doesn’t mean they will be. The same is true for defensive players under contract as well. The prospect of a new coaching staff means a likely new scheme, new evaluations, and a new perspective on which players fit, and which players don’t. And so that could lead to some players being released or traded.

The Vikings are currently projected at about $11 million over the 2022 salary cap estimate of $208 million, including 2022 dead cap.

Let’s look at some of the potential roster moves that could be coming this off-season.

Kirk Cousins

Cousins will be in the last year of his contract next season, which includes a $35 million base salary, which is fully guaranteed, and a $10 million signing bonus, which equals a $45 million cap hit.

With a strong likelihood of a new head coach, and perhaps even a new GM, what to do with Cousins’ contract will be something the Vikings will need to figure out early in the off-season as that will be a key factor for any new coach or GM. Cousins has been one of the best performing QBs in franchise history, and statistically has been a top ten quarterback while with the Vikings, while also being remarkably durable. Those are stats any head coach would be happy with at any position, and particularly so at the most important position on the team- quarterback. It’s no secret that a head coach’s fate can be tied to his quarterback, and it’s difficult to be a consistent post-season presence without a top quarterback under center.

All that would suggest that Cousins is extended rather than traded, but both remain a possibility. It’s also a possibility that Cousins simply plays out the last season of his contract without any changes, deferring a decision until after next season. Cousins said today that he’d like to finish his career as a Viking, which isn’t surprising for a player under contract, but coming to terms in a contract extension could potentially be an issue.

For the Vikings, a contract extension would make sense for a couple reasons. First, it would secure a top QB for the next few years, something a new head coach may like to see. Secondly, it would allow the Vikings to clear more cap space in 2022. Extending Cousins could easily including converting $30 million of his base salary in 2022 into a signing bonus, which would spread that amount over the future years of the extension. That could clear $20 million of cap space in 2022.

But a trade also remains a possibility. There are at least four teams that may have an interest in acquiring Cousins: Denver, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. New Orleans could also be a possibility, although their salary cap situation is an issue. Rumor is that Russell Wilson may want out of Seattle this off-season, and DeShaun Watson is available, although there are legal issues there. I doubt Aaron Rodgers will hit the market, however. I suspect, despite the pre-season drama, he’ll either remain with the Packers or retire.

Additionally, 2022 is an exceptionally poor draft class for quarterbacks. Some are speculating that this may be the first draft in some time where a quarterback is not taken in the first ten picks. That suggests quarterback needy teams may look first to acquire a veteran, rather than pick from a poor QB draft class. The trials and tribulations of this past QB draft class, which was supposed to be a good one, doesn’t really encourage that either.

And so the Vikings could have a buyer, even more than one, willing to bid for Cousins’ services. I suspect a team acquiring Cousins may want to secure an extension as part of the deal, which seems doable, if more complicated. But whatever trade deal is potentially secured, the Vikings would likely eat at least $10 million in dead cap, and potentially more if necessary to make a deal happen.

But trading Cousins would leave a vacancy at the most important position on the team, and who fills that position may be more important than who becomes head coach. And that leads to the key question: who would replace Cousins?

In terms of getting like performance in a replacement, there are only two or three potential options, and all of them would be about as expensive as Cousins. Those options are DeShaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and maybe Derek Carr. Watson’s contract average annual value (AAV) is $39 million and goes through 2025. Wilson’s AAV is $35 million through 2023 but might end up less if Seattle ate the $26 million in signing bonuses. Derek Carr is a $20 million cap hit in 2022, but that’s the last year of his deal, and a new deal could be around the $30 million AAV range. Spotrac estimates his market value at $31.4 AAV.

It’s worth noting that Wilson’s performance dropped noticeably this season, and that Carr’s has, if anything, been worse than Cousins.’ That leaves DeShaun Watson, who is both younger and more dynamic at quarterback, but who also has a legal and reputational cloud over him and didn’t play this season. He’d also be more expensive. Watson also has a no-trade clause that he’d have to waive for the Vikings to acquire him. And if Watson can settle his legal issues, he’ll likely have multiple teams willing to bid for his services, with the bidding starting at 3 first-round draft picks plus other young players or draft picks.

The rest of the available options would mean a downgrade at the most critical position on the team, which could also mean a less productive offense, a less productive Justin Jefferson, and so on.

We can all imagine that the Vikings somehow draft another Patrick Mahomes in a poor 2022 draft class, or that Kellen Mond suddenly becomes a top quarterback, or maybe a Case Keenum is acquired and reprises his 2017 performance, but the much, much more likely reality is that none of the above performs better than Cousins has over the past few years.

Bottom line here is it makes more sense to extend Cousins than trading him with a poor QB draft class in 2022, and no replacement with a credible chance of equaling his performance, except DeShaun Watson, who would be more expensive in salary cap and massive draft pick/lost player costs.

Danielle Hunter

Hunter has been injured and out of the Vikings lineup most of the last two seasons. He was also reportedly disgruntled with his contract, which was reworked over the off-season, and now includes a $26 million salary cap hit in 2022. $18.5 million of that is a roster bonus which takes effect on the 5th day of the new season. Hunter has one additional year on his reworked contract, with a more modest $8.6 million cap hit, which leaves him under contract until age 29. He has two more voided years on his deal.

If the Vikings so choose, they could convert Hunter’s $18.5 million roster bonus into a signing bonus, which would free up nearly $14 million in cap space for 2022 but push more cap into future years.

But in addition to being injured the past two seasons, which impacted the Vikings' defense more than any other loss, Hunter has also been discontented with his situation with the Vikings, presumably because his contract AAV is well below his market value. The Vikings restructuring his contract, bringing forward salary from future years, was meant to satisfy Hunter without breaking the unwritten rule of not increasing a player’s contract more than two years prior to its end.

But Hunter’s injuries, contract, and the prospect of a new defensive coaching staff create some uncertainty about his status going forward. Clearly some of Hunter’s market value has been negatively impacted by his injuries, but he would still likely command nearly double his current contract AAV in any extension, assuming he remains healthy going forward.

Hunter has enough versatility where he could work in any defensive front a new defensive coordinator has in mind, 4-3 or 3-4, and his production up-front is needed for the Vikings’ defense to improve. But Hunter, based on his production and contract, could fetch a lot in trade as well - perhaps a first-round pick. And so there will be some decisions to made about Hunter and his contract early in the off-season. Trade, extend, or simply let his contract play out?

Tough call here on Hunter, but trading Hunter may make the most sense if the Vikings aren’t prepared to extend him at $20 million/year, which is what he would command if he has a healthy season in 2022.

Adam Thielen

Thielen has also missed time the past couple seasons, and at age 32, his salary cap in 2022 jumps from $6 million to $17 million. He hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiving season since 2018. His performance, while still good, doesn’t justify a $17 million cap hit at his age, especially with the injury history he’s had the last few years.

This creates a tough situation for both sides. Cutting or trading Thielen still results in an $11 million dead cap hit, saving only $6 million in 2022 cap space. But it also clearly over $17 million in cap space in the following two years, which could provide the cap space to acquire a younger, more productive free agent going forward like Allen Robinson or Chris Godwin.

There is value in Thielen’s production when healthy, and he has good chemistry with Kirk Cousins, but the reality is that his salary cap in 2022 is more than his market value. That could lead to the Vikings having to approach one of their most popular players over the years to take a pay cut or be released. I doubt Thielen would bring much in trade with his overvalued contract. If the Vikings could bring in Robinson or Godwin in free agency, they may simply be forced to cut Thielen and move on.

Anthony Barr

Barr is a free agent, but there could be a scenario where the Vikings extend him. Barr had his best PFF-graded season since 2018, but that wasn’t a spectacular one, and at age 30, there is a ceiling on what salary he’ll command in free agency, which isn’t much more than the $6 million he earned this season.

A new coaching staff will bring a new scheme and new perspective on personnel needs, but Barr has enough versatility where he could be an inexpensive veteran presence that could plug into a lot of schemes.

Michael Pierce

Pierce has missed all but eight games over his first two seasons with the Vikings. He’ll turn 30 in 2022, when his cap hit goes up to $10.5 million. The Vikings have seen Armon Watts improve to the point where he could be a good starter for the Vikings at NT.

Pierce has done a good job when healthy or not opting out, but the Vikings look fairly strong along the defensive interior, and so the Vikings could look to trade Pierce for a more durable alternative. But a new coaching staff may also like the depth they inherit at defensive tackle and may focus on building around that rather than replacing it. $10.5 million isn’t excessive for Pierce if he can stay healthy, and having a solid rotation at defensive tackle will be desired by any new coaching staff. And if that new coaching staff opts to go with a 3-4 front or hybrid, having three big defensive tackles will be even more important.

Bottom line, while Pierce has missed a lot of time, and could bring something in trade, he’s not a priority trade candidate. Most likely he stays put with the new regime.

Dalvin Cook

Cook had a down season this year and didn’t show the explosion he’s had in previous years. He turns 27 in 2022, and his salary cap number increases to $12 million, and continues at that level and a bit higher the following two years. At the same time, Cook is needing to split more snaps with Alexander Mattison to keep him fresh, and he’s still missed two games this year as well. All that argues that Cook’s contract overvalues him, despite his being a team captain and leader on offense.

But Cook’s contract also means the Vikings would probably not get much for him in trade, and trading him or releasing him would only save about $2.6 million in salary cap in 2022. That fact suggests the Vikings keep Cook for another season, but 2022 may be his last with the Vikings if he continues as he did this season, and if the Vikings offensive scheme changes where a RB like Cook is more of a luxury than a necessity.

Garrett Bradbury / Mason Cole

Bradbury was benched in favor of Mason Cole during the season but came back later and was improved. Mason Cole did even better, however, and while he’s a free agent, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s a top target for an extension.

Bradbury has been sub-par his entire career to date, particularly for a first-round draft pick, and there is virtually no chance the Vikings execute his 5th year contract option. He’s a $4.1 million cap hit in 2022 and could be traded and save $2.2 million. That’s not a big incentive to trade him, but a consideration depending on the compensation.

I suspect the Vikings may be content to let Bradbury play out his contract with the Vikings, while also looking to extend Cole, who may become the starting center.

The Vikings could look to bring in a free agent at right guard- perhaps targeting Brandon Scherff, who Cousins played with in Washington and OL coach Phil Rauscher coached. Of course there’s no guarantee Rauscher will still be OL coach next season, but in any case Scherff would be a good fit at right guard in pretty much any scheme. The Vikings could also target center Bradley Bozeman who is coming off his rookie deal in Baltimore.

Extending Cousins, trading Hunter, and cutting Thielen would free up as much as $44 million in cap space. Spending some of that on an free agent offensive lineman or two would make some sense.

A starting offensive line of Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Bradley Bozeman, Brandon Scherff, and Brian O’Neill could prove a formidable unit that allows the Vikings offense to be more productive in every facet.

Tight End / Tyler Conklin

Irv Smith Jr. will return to the Vikings line-up next season at TE, and most say Tyler Conklin did a decent job in replacement, who is a free agent. But the Vikings will have options to upgrade tight end in free agency if they choose. One intriguing candidate is David Njoku, who’s a free agent formerly with the Browns. Njoku had one of the better receiving grades among tight ends this season, despite having Baker Mayfield at quarterback. He’s also a better blocker- run and pass - than Conklin.

Having a good blocking and receiving tight end is a missing piece for the Vikings offense, and a new coaching staff could take a more aggressive approach toward getting that piece.

Patrick Peterson / Xavier Woods

Both Peterson and Woods performed reasonably well, although Woods had his struggles in pass coverage. Both are free agents. But Woods was only a $1.7 million cap hit for the Vikings, and Peterson $8 million. I doubt either’s market value increased much over the season, and so extending both at roughly the same salary cap would make some sense to provide some decent performers going into next season.

The Vikings will also need a slot corner, and guys like Bryce Callahan and Chris Harris Jr. are free agents. MacKensie Alexander, who is also a free agent, was the worst performing cornerback in the league this season, so even though he came cheap, I suspect a new coaching staff will look for alternative options.

I would also expect the Vikings to use yet another top draft pick on a cornerback.

Other Changes

Of course a new coaching staff, and potentially new GM too, could look to make additional changes among lower profile players which could have an impact. And there are a number of additional free agents, which include the following:

  • Anthony Barr
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Sheldon Richardson
  • Rashod Hill
  • Xavier Woods
  • Nick Vigil
  • MacKensie Alexander
  • Dede Westbrook
  • Everson Griffen
  • Jordan Berry
  • Sean Mannion
  • Wayne Galman
  • Chad Beebe
  • Mason Cole
  • Chris Herndon
  • Greg Joseph
  • Tyler Conklin
  • Eddie Yarborough

I would expect the Vikings to try to extend Greg Joseph and Jordan Berry, both of whom did well overall for the Vikings this year, although Younghoe Koo, kicker for the Falcons, missed only 2 FGs all season, was perfect inside 40 yards, and made all his extra point attempts could be targeted.

Bottom Line

The new Vikings regime will need to make a number of key decisions in the coming months that could impact the Vikings franchise for years to come. Chief among them are decisions on Kirk Cousins, Danielle Hunter, and Adam Thielen. But a new coaching staff could look to implement a number of other roster changes as they evaluate the current roster and look for the best fits for their new schemes.

Poll

The Vikings best option with Kirk Cousins is to...

  • 46%
    Extend Him
    (1384 votes)
  • 34%
    Trade Him
    (1025 votes)
  • 18%
    Let Him Play Out His Contract
    (545 votes)
2954 votes total Vote Now

Poll

The Vikings Best Option with Danielle Hunter is to...

  • 24%
    Extend Him
    (633 votes)
  • 57%
    Trade Him
    (1508 votes)
  • 18%
    Let Him Play Out His Contract
    (470 votes)
2611 votes total Vote Now

Poll

The Vikings Best Option with Adam Thielen is to...

  • 75%
    Restructure Him
    (1981 votes)
  • 10%
    Release Him
    (287 votes)
  • 14%
    Let Him Play Out His Contract
    (373 votes)
2641 votes total Vote Now