As the Vikings 2022-23 season comes to a sudden end, the off-season begins. And with it, a lot of tough decisions for Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, and ultimately Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as they conduct their off-season evaluations and begin preparing for free agency, the draft, and ultimately the best way to a better roster for the 2023-24 season.
Let’s begin by looking at the current roster, including Vikings free agents.
Vikings Free Agents
Now that the season is over, the Vikings have a number of free agents set to hit the open market. These include:
- Patrick Peterson
- Garrett Bradbury
- Duke Shelley
- Dalvin Tomlinson
- Greg Joseph
- Nick Mullens
- Chandon Sullivan
- Irv Smith
- Jonathan Bullard
- Austin Schlottmann
- Andrew DePaola
- Alexander Mattison
- Khyiris Tonga
- Blake Brandel
- Ben Ellefson
- Oli Udoh
- Kris Boyd
- Olabisi Johnson
Looking at that list, there are a number of players the Vikings may look to retain and extend. Patrick Peterson, Duke Shelley, and Garrett Bradbury are probably the highest priority free agents to extend, but I’d say everyone else on this list are worthy of retaining, at least until the end of training camp. None of them are likely to have big market values, and hopefully the Vikings will be able to extend all or most of them.
That’s not to say there won’t or shouldn’t be competition for these players, but there is value in retaining these players as a base for competition during the off-season and training camp. Khyiris Tonga and Blake Brandel are Exclusive Rights Free Agents, which pretty much guarantees the Vikings will be able to extend them for minimal salary if the want. Ben Ellefson is a Restricted Free Agent and unlikely to be a problem extending if the Vikings want him.
Managing Salary Cap Space
The Vikings are currently about $10 million over the estimated 2023 salary cap of $220 million, with 46 players under contract for 2023. That means they need to free up some salary cap space if they are to extend any of the above players, and to acquire any other players. And therein lies the difficult decisions for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Kevin O’Connell and their staffs.
The Vikings have a number of aging players that have declined in performance this season, but also with big salary cap numbers in 2023. Most of these players have been long-time core players, fan favorites and team captains. But it’s the job of an NFL general manager, with evaluations from the coaching staff and input from his own staff, to make the tough decisions when it comes to aligning salary cap and performance. It’s not a job for the sentimental. It may be helpful in that regard that Kwesi and KOC have only been around for one season, and probably have their own ideas on roster improvement going forward.
That said, here are some of the players with the biggest salary cap hits that are older, with declining in performance that should be the subject of contract management of some type:
WR Adam Thielen
Thielen had his least productive season since 2019, with fewer yards in 17 games than he had in 13 games a season ago. He turns 33 next season and has clearly lost a couple steps from his prime. He’s also a $20 million salary cap hit in 2023, and $21,665,000 in 2024.
Clearly Thielen’s market value at this stage in his career is not even remotely that high. Ideally, Thielen isn’t more than a WR3 going forward, given the need for younger, more productive receivers to complement Justin Jefferson.
The dead cap hit to release Thielen (he’s impossible to trade with his current contract) is $6.550 million in 2023 and $7 million in 2024. That should be the maximum offer given to Thielen this off-season to remain on the roster. I suspect Thielen knows that his role is an ancillary one going forward and his market value is nowhere near his salary cap in 2023. He seems unlikely to balk at a contract restructuring, knowing he’d not make as much if he finished his career elsewhere. I doubt he’d want to finish his career elsewhere either. If Thielen did decline a contract restructuring, sadly it would be best to release him post-June 1st and move on.
But assuming he accepts a restructure for the same salary cap hit as the Vikings would have in a dead cap hit to release him, that would save the Vikings $13 million in 2023 and $14.665 million in 2024. That would give the Vikings $3 million in salary cap space for 2023.
LB Eric Kendricks
Kendricks’ performance declined noticeably this season, as he has lost a couple steps from his prime and really declined to be a liability in coverage- his best area in the past. He also seemed quieter this season and was overshadowed by more recent acquisitions in leadership it seemed. I suspect he knows his career is well into the back-nine and losing Anthony Barr this season probably didn’t help either.
In any case, Kendricks is an $11.43 million salary cap hit in 2023, with a $1.93 dead cap hit. Jordan Hicks, who is a comparable for Kendricks, signed a 2-year, $10 million contract last season. That should be the maximum offer presented to Kendricks in a contract restructuring, with release as the alternative. That would save the Vikings an additional $6.4 million in salary cap space in 2023. There is also an argument for simply releasing Kendricks and saving $9.5 million in cap space. For now, let’s assume that Kendricks agrees to a restructuring which saves $6.4 million in cap space this season. That would give the Vikings a total of $9.4 million in cap space to work with this off-season.
S Harrison Smith
Harrison Smith will be 34 next week. And while he had five interceptions (tying his single-season high) and also had ten passes defensed and a forced fumble, he also has lost a couple steps from his prime and had his lowest overall PFF grade in the last ten seasons.
At the same time, he’s a $19.215 million salary cap hit in 2023, and a $22 million cap hit in 2024. Clearly his market value is nowhere near those numbers. His post June 1st dead cap numbers if he was released are $3.9 million and $7.8 million in 2024. I think that’s where you begin restructuring talks. Smith is probably getting to where retirement is a real consideration too, so that may impact things as well. But assuming he doesn’t retire, restructuring Smith to save $12 million in cap space in 2023 should be the goal. That would give the Vikings a cumulative total of $21.4 million in cap space to work with.
RB Dalvin Cook
Dalvin will turn 28 this year and has been on the decline for the past couple seasons. Running backs have relatively short primes compared to other skill positions and Dalvin is past his now, sadly. And second tier running backs, which Dalvin has become, are easily replaceable. At the same time, he’s a $14.1 million salary cap hit in 2023, with a $6.2 million dead cap hit.
Designating Cook as a post June 1st release would save the Vikings $11 million in cap space this season, which should be a consideration. Alternatively, looking at a contract restructuring that brings him down to a $6 million cap hit this season could make some sense too, depending on how the staff feel about the rest of the RB room (including extending Alexander Mattison) or the market/draft for RBs that could replace Cook. But for the moment assuming the Vikings manage to make Cook at $6 million cap hit in 2023, that would push the Vikings’ cumulative salary cap savings to $29.4 million.
FB CJ Ham
CJ Ham is a $3.8 million salary cap hit in 2023, with a $750k dead cap. He’s a special team captain but played only about 14% of snaps this season offensively. His performance as a blocker has declined from last season, and his offensive production is easily replaceable. It’s also a question if the Vikings will want a fullback for next season.
In any case, $3.8 million is simply more than Ham’s value to the team in these roles. He is hailed as a positive leader and locker room presence, which definitely add value, but again $3.8 million is simply too much for this role. Ham also turns 30 this year.
Approaching Ham with a contract restructuring that paid him $1.8 million this season would bring him more in-line from a value and salary cap standpoint. Alternatively, if the Vikings decide a fullback is not part of their plans going forward, they could choose to release Ham and save $3 million in cap space. But for now, I’ll assume Ham restructures to save $2 million in cap space, bringing the Vikings cumulative available cap space in 2023 to $31.4 million.
C/G Chris Reed
Reed filled in fine at center the last couple weeks, but he’s also a $2.75 million cap hit in 2023 with $250k in dead cap. That’s too much for a backup of his caliber. He also turns 31 this year. The Vikings could likely bring in a similar player for less and depending on how they feel about Austin Schlottmann and Josh Sokol, may not need to bring in another backup center. Alternatively, Reed could be approached with a restructured offer of $1.5 million to be a backup center/guard, which has been Reed’s a little above his average salary the past few years. Either way, managing Reed’s contract for 2023 should save $1 million in salary cap, bringing the cumulative available space to just over $32 million.
QB Kirk Cousins
The above are all contract restructurings, but Kirk Cousins will be entering the final year of his latest contract and should be extended- which could also free up some salary cap space. Adding a year or two to Cousins’ contract at a similar AAV- $36 million let’s say- would take care of that and save maybe $5 million in cap space in 2023, depending on the contract structure.
Kirk turns 35 this year, but hasn’t shown any signs of reduced physical skills, while also being remarkably durable and having improved as a leader and field general this season. He could see continued growth in his second season in Kevin O’Connell’s offense.
But for now, let’s simply assume that a Cousins extension gives the Vikings an additional $5 million in cap space, giving them a cumulative total of $37 million to work with in 2023.
TE TJ Hockenson
Hockenson is also in the last year of his rookie contract, age 25, and really in his prime as a tight end that could last into his early 30s. Offering him a 5-year, $75 million extension ($15 million AAV) would give the Vikings a top TE for the rest of Cousins’ career and combined with Justin Jefferson, give the Vikings’ offense a top one-two punch for the rest of the decade. Hockenson has a $14.4 million market value according to Spotrac.
The Vikings could push at least another $5 million into future years as part of an extension for Hockenson, which would give the Vikings $42 million in cumulative cap space for 2023.
EDGE Danielle Hunter
Hunter will also be in his last contract year, with a couple void years afterward at present. He’s 28 and a $13.1 million salary cap hit in 2023. He was the highest graded defender for the Vikings this season at 86.1 overall PFF grade, despite transitioning to the OLB role. I’m not sure what his market value is- more than $13.1 million for sure- but adding a couple years to his deal makes some sense at this point as the Vikings aren’t likely to develop or acquire another edge rusher of his caliber soon without breaking the bank. I don’t think extending Hunter would result in much of a cap savings in 2023, but an extension now that he’s had a healthy season and put some injury concerns in the rear-view mirror makes some sense.
Retaining Free Agents
Getting back to the free agent list above, let’s take a look at market values for some of the key Vikings free agents and what it may take to extend them.
CB Patrick Peterson
Peterson has a market value of $6.4 million, and giving him a 2-year, $13 million extension would give the Vikings some competent cornerback play, leadership and mentorship to help develop the younger guys on the roster. $6 million this year, $7 million next year, let’s say. That takes the Vikings available salary cap down to $36 million assuming all the other deals above. Peterson could be a consideration for free safety as well, should the Vikings develop the other CBs on the roster into starters.
CB Duke Shelley
Shelley has been making league minimum salary, but he’s 26 and just turned in a great season after being waived by the Bears at the end of training camp. Perhaps a three-year, $18 million deal structured at $4 million in 2023, $6 million in 2024, and $8 million in 2025 which could be exited without a big cap hit in the second year? That would give the Vikings minimal exposure if Shelley isn’t able to continue his 2022 performance, but also offers a decent incentive for Shelley should he continue that performance. $3 million base in 2023 plus a $3 million signing bonus? That deal would bring the Vikings cap space down to $32 million, assuming all of the above deals.
C Garrett Bradbury
Bradbury has an $11.9 million market value according to Spotrac. Offering Bradbury a 3-year, $36 million deal with a $12 million signing bonus and base salaries of $4 million, $8 million, and $8 million would give the Vikings an $8 million cap hit in 2023, reducing available cap space down to $24 million.
K Greg Joseph
Joseph did a reasonably good job at kicker for the Vikings. He had a rough patch with some missed 50+ field goals, but he was 22/23 inside 50 yards but did have 6 missed extra points. He was good generating touchbacks on kickoffs as well. Perhaps a 2-year, $6 million deal? That would take cap space down to $21 million.
Other Smaller Extensions
- QB Nick Mullens, $2 million
- CB Chandon Sullivan, $1.5 million
- OL Oli Udoh, $2 million
- LS Andrew DePaola, $1 million
- DT Khyiris Tonga (ERFA), $1 million
- RB Alexander Mattison, $2 million (if no Cook)
- OL Blake Brandel (ERFA), $1 million
- TE Ben Ellefson (RFA), $1 million
- DT Jonathon Bullard, $1 million
That totals $12.5 million altogether, leaving $8.5 million leftover. Of course I could be off on what it takes to get all these deals done, but hopefully most of these are realistic estimates that are also doable for both sides.
I think there is a good possibility of simply moving on from Eric Kendricks, which would add another $3 million in cap space, and promoting Brian Asamoah to replace him. Releasing or retiring Harrison Smith and promoting Josh Metellus to replace him would save another $3 million in cap space as well. Moving on from CJ Ham would save another $1 million. The way I did Cook and Thielen, it wouldn’t make any salary cap difference in 2023 if they restructured them or released them.
But extending all these existing Vikings leaves no room for any free agent acquisitions, unless the Vikings part ways with Kendricks and/or Harrison Smith and/or CJ Ham, all of which are distinct possibilities. Even then, that would generate only $7 million in extra cap space. Maybe enough for one top-tier free agent at a non-premium position, or two mid-tier free agents. But the Vikings will also need some cap space to sign their draft picks (they have a first, third, fourth, and fifth round pick with the possibility of two late round compensatory picks) which will take maybe $5 million or so in cap space, so that would cut back on what they could do in free agency.
Perhaps Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and his staff can work some more magic and bring in a couple more free agents like Khyiris Tonga and Duke Shelley for next to nothing that turn into significant upgrades/contributors.
Don’t Forget About Promising Talent Already on the Roster
All of the above moves doesn’t really amount to any upgrades in the roster, except what happens organically with existing player improvement. But there are several players that could prove to be upgrades in 2023. Here are a few names to keep an eye on:
WR Jalen Nailor
Nailor had some snaps on offense late in the season and did well with them. He has the upside to be a WR2 alongside Jefferson, and has the speed and athleticism to be an upgrade over Thielen. He actually finished as the highest graded wide receiver for the Vikings this season (ahead of Jefferson) albeit on very limited (59) snaps. But another off-season of development could see him earn a starting job in the wide receiver group.
RBs Ty Chandler, Kene Nwangwu
These are two speedsters that could see increased roles if the Vikings move on from Dalvin Cook, or even if they keep him but don’t extend Alexander Mattison. Ty Chandler was injured and missed a lot of the season but didn’t figure to get many snaps anyway. Still, the talent is there as both a runner and receiver. He may not be as talented as Cook in his prime, but Cook is no longer in his prime and younger guys like Chandler and Nwangwu could prove to be more productive than Cook has been in recent years.
ILB Brian Asamoah
Asamoah looks to be an ascending talent at inside linebacker who has the speed and athleticism to be a good coverage linebacker and the length to shed blocks and be better than his size would indicate as a run stopper.
CB Andrew Booth Jr.
Booth has battled injuries since he was drafted and didn’t seem to rise to the top of the CB room as many expected. But a full off-season of development could put him on a path to be a starter. The Vikings need an upgrade at slot corner, and perhaps Booth could fill this role. He has the athleticism to do so. His injury history and not making more progress his rookie year are a bit concerning though.
CB Akayleb Evans
Evans had a rough first couple games, but showed improvement before getting injured, and was good in run defense. Another off-season of development could see him as a viable competitor for a starting job, or at least a capable backup in rotation.
S Lewis Cine
We’ll have to wait and see how well Cine recovers from his compound ankle fracture, but assuming he makes a full recovery, he has the talent to be an upgrade at safety. He was also a bit slower than expected in developing his rookie year before his injury- mainly the mental aspects I believe- but more time on task could help him overtake Cam Bynum at free safety.
DT Esezi Otomewo
Otomewo showed some improvement over the course of the season in limited snaps, but could take the next step this off-season to earn a spot in the regular rotation in the defensive interior. He could be more of a passing down option with James Lynch while Harrison Phillips and Khyiris Tonga work more on running downs.
S Josh Metellus
Metellus was the second highest graded defender for the Vikings this season, albeit on just 259 snaps, with a 85.1 overall PFF grade including a 80.7 coverage grade. If the Vikings decide to move on from Harrison Smith, or he retires, Metellus would be first in line to replace him. He could also take on a third safety role on passing downs, replacing a linebacker.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has some tough decisions to make on long-time core veterans, team captains, and fan favorites. But it won’t help the team or himself to be too sentimental when it comes to moving on from players that no longer earn their salary cap. Cycling through players and turning over the roster as veteran age and younger players emerge is a big part of the job of general manager. Many teams keep older vets a year or two too long, to the detriment of the team. Adofo-Mensah will need to handle these moves with care, but also with purpose. The team needs to improve to reach its goals, especially on defense, and the only way to get there is to make room for upgrades, whether existing players on the roster or signing/extending new talent.
The Vikings will need every penny they can save in cap space, while also getting the most from younger, cheaper talent as well. Getting the most from the draft will, as always, be important as well.
The Vikings face the toughest decision regarding which player?
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