Here's an outline of how I think the Vikings will approach the offseason.
I'm more interested in predicting what the team will do than making the decisions myself. The predictions are just guesses, but they're based on some analysis of where the team's at, and what they're trying to do.
Later parts will include some mock free agent signings and mock draft picks, but don't take the specifics too seriously there -- I have a better sense of the Vikings roster than players on other NFL teams, and hardly any idea about college players at all. The point of the exercise will be to discuss what types of players I think they'll target, not exactly who.
I'll structure it chronologically.
Before free agency
The Vikings are currently $15.8M over their adjusted cap, using the top-51 cutoff, with 54 players under contract.
First stage is to get under the cap before the start of the league year, on March 15th.
Here's what I think they'll do:
1. Release Eric Kendricks (done)
This was an obvious move, but one that I predicted last year when they didn't restructure his contract, even though they could've opened $4M in much needed 2022 cap space by doing so.
Releasing Kendricks saved $9.5M on the cap this year. There is no obvious replacement on the roster: Troy Dye is the backup MLB but he's not good enough to be a starter.
2. Trade Dalvin Cook (saves $7.8M), or release him (saves $5.8M, or maybe $7.8M) -- might not happen until April
Cook's contract was also noticeably untouched in 2022. As with Kendricks, I think this means the team has been planning to release him this year.
That decision was complicated by Cook's recent shoulder surgery. $2M of his salary this year is guaranteed at the beginning of the league year for injury, and would count against the cap this year if he doesn't pass a physical at the time of release, reducing the cap space created from $7.8M to $5.8M.
Darren Wolfson reported that the Vikings have been offered a trade for Cook, presumably something like a 5th round pick. As far as I know, Cook would have to pass a physical to be traded, so the recent surgery is a factor here too. The Vikings could wait and make the trade later in April, just around the draft, by which point Cook would more likely pass a physical (and open more cap space, the guaranteed salary would move to his new team), but then the cap space wouldn't help with the beginning of the league year and the start of free agency.
If I have to guess, I predict they'll pull the trigger on a trade, either this week or just before the draft.
I don't expect Mattison to be extended, so Ty Chandler will be next in line at RB pending further additions. I think Chandler will be good, but they probably want a RB by committee, including Nwangwu and 1-2 more options.
3. Release Jordan Hicks (saves $5M)
Hicks was a placeholder for Brian Asamoah at WLB. Asamoah played more as the season went on and looked like he belongs. He should be a good fit for Flores as a fast, aggressive LB.
Hicks could be kept as a veteran ILB to play next to Asamoah -- he's good in the box and coming downhill, even if he's a liability in coverage -- but I think they'll move on given the significant cap savings with a small ($1.5M) cap hit.
4. Offer Adam Thielen a pay cut (saves $5-6M), but release him if he refuses (saves $6.4M, or $13.4M if designated post-June 1st)
I included a sketch of how the pay cut could work in comments on my last fanpost. It's basically a short-term WR3 contract, comparable to Zay Jones's deal last year. Thielen would get ~$9M up front, a substantial pay cut from the $13.4M he's due this year, as part of a 2-year deal with a void year. He'd make $16M/2 if he was still on the roster in 2024, though he'd likely be released next year, or retire.
I think the team will want Thielen back -- he's declining, but at this point he's still a reliable WR2/WR3 who knows the scheme and is on the same page as his QB. They need quality depth in the WR group beyond JJ and KJO. The cap hit on this pay cut would be basically the same as releasing him up front. I think it's an easy decision to keep a pretty good player with zero cap impact in year one (as with Dalvin Tomlinson, see below).
However, I think Thielen will refuse a significant pay cut, citing his targets and production (all solidly in WR2 territory) and arguing that he would've produced even more last year if not for Jefferson always being fed the ball. At least half the league will be looking to sign a starting caliber WR this year, and Thielen would have an argument as one of the top 4-5 options on the market. He might get new guarantees well over $10M (Zay Jones got $14M), which would make the Vikings offer look weak by comparison.
The Vikings have done well for Thielen over the years. I've been hopeful he'll reward that support by accepting a pay cut, but if the difference between the money up front is significant (and it could easily be $5M or more), I think he'll be released.
If released, I expect Thielen will be designated a post-June 1st cut, which will open $13.4M in the summer. The Vikings can use some additional cap space at that point, for extensions and signing the rookie class.
5. Offer Harrison Smith a pay cut (saves ~$8M) but release him if he refuses (saves $7.4M, or $15.2M if designated post-June 1st)
I went over a potential pay cut for Smith in detail in my last fanpost:
In my version, Smith would get $11M up front, a substantial pay cut from the $15.2M he's due to make this year, as part of a 3-year contract that would effectively play out as $19M/2 for 2023-24. The team would save more cap space this year with the pay cut than from releasing Smith with an immediate designation.
I think Smith can still be effective as a box SS, lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. I think he's more likely to accept this pay cut than Thielen (he's unlikely to get a much bigger offer on the open market), so I expect him to stick with the team.
6. Restructure / extend Za'Darius Smith (saves ~$5-6M)
ZDS is effectively on a $12.5M/1 contract right now (since the 2024 year of his current deal will never happen as written), with only $5.05M guaranteed after the start of the new league year.
He played well last year and should be an excellent fit in the Flores scheme, especially as an interior pass rusher from a 2-point stance in flex / psycho fronts.
His contract can be extended / restructured to give more guarantees and possibly another year of likely-to-be-earned salary. I sketched out a $45M/3 contract in this comment, with a $9.2M cap hit this year, saving a little over $6M. The future cap implications would be manageable, and come off the books before Hunter's cap hits get too big.
I think Kwesi will get that done -- the team has no realistic options for a 2nd OLB of similar quality this year, and the move can open significant cap space.
7. Restructure / extend CJ Ham and/or Chris Reed (saves ~$1M)
Ham and Reed are both local guys who want to stay in Minnesota, and they're useful depth / role players.
Reed could be in line for a bigger role in 2023 if Cleveland or Ingram miss time with injuries, or if he gets used as a stopgap C while a rookie gets up to speed. I think his contract will be untouched at this point of the season, though he'd remain at risk of getting in training camp.
Ham's role in the offense is smaller than it was under the Kubiaks, so he'll need to take a pay cut from the $3M he's due to make this year. Something like $2M would make sense, and save $1M this year. That might be structured as part of a short-term extension, with a similarly lower 2023 cap hit.
8. Restructure Brian O'Neill (saves $10M)
The news was good today on O'Neill's injury -- he's out of the walking boot, rehabbing at TCO, and expected to be good to go in training camp.
So there's no reason not to max restructure most of his $14.4M salary, which will open about $10M of cap space while increasing further cap hits by about $3.3M per year.
9. Restructure Kirk Cousins' roster bonus (saves $13.3M)
I expect Cousins to sign a multiyear extension, structured so that the first 1-2 years are effectively guaranteed and the remaining years are unlikely to be earned as written (and so function more or less as void years). The contract value would be something like $160M/4, but only the first $75M/2 would likely be paid out. The team would commit to him through 2024 and possibly 2025.
A contract like that could take some time to negotiate -- a lot will depend on the timing of when certain amounts become guaranteed -- and may not be ready to announce until summer.
In the meantime, the Vikings can (and I think will) restructure his $20M roster bonus before the new league year, spreading it out over the void years of his current deal to open up cap space.
10. Extend Dalvin Tomlinson (costs $2M)
The void years from Tomlinson's previous Covid-era contract cost $7.5M dead cap this year if he leaves in free agency. Extending him for 3+ years will spread that out, saving $5M this year (aside from the cost of the new contract itself)
Tomlinson's a good player and a scheme fit for Flores' tite and bear fronts -- an Alabama DL for a Saban/Belichick coach. There's evidently mutual interest in working out a contract extension, as both sides agreed to push back the date of his previous contract voiding.
His market value is probably about $12M AAV. I sketched out a contract in this comment that would have a 2023 cap hit of $9.5M.
I think Kwesi will get a deal done with Tomlinson.
11. Other in-house extensions
The Vikings may be be interested in keeping a couple of their pending free agents, but most players will want to wait and see what offers they get, at least in the tampering period, before asking the Vikings to match or beat that offer.
The most likely long-term extension would be Garrett Bradbury, but I don't expect that to happen at all, let alone before free agency starts. Bradbury's skills as an outside zone run blocking C are significantly less important for O'Connell than the Kubiaks (it was Gary Kubiak who loved Bradbury as a prospect), and while his pass blocking improved last year it's still a relative weakness. Draft status can have a long reach in the NFL so I think Bradbury will have a reasonably strong market as a former 1st round pick who might still seem to have some unreached potential (elite athlete, coming off his best season, good at the little things for centers like calling protections). I doubt Kwesi will pay up to keep him.
Duke Shelley would be the top in-house free agent on my list after Tomlinson, though I think he'll sign only a short-term contract, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere, given his limited track record at his age. But I wonder if Flores will want to bring in some of his guys instead of re-signing last year's DBs, even though Shelley played well last year, and seems to be worth keeping.
There was a report that the team is interested in keeping Peterson, but I wonder if that comes from Peterson himself (a good salesman and fully plugged in to the media). It's hard to see him as a fit in a man coverage scheme, so I'd be very reluctant to sign him to anything with significant guarantees.
Summary of pre-free agency predictions:
Released: Kendricks, Hicks, Thielen (post June 1st)
Traded: Cook (or maybe released)
Restructured: O'Neill, Cousins, Smith (pay cut), Ham (pay cut), ZDS (more guarantees)
That addresses every veteran cap hit on the team of more than $2M, except Hunter who'd be extended this summer.
The team's only cap hits over $5M would be:
- Cousins $23M (likely doesn't change much with an extension)
- Hunter $13M (increases by a few million with an extension)
- Smith $10.9M
- ZDS $10M
- O'Neill $9.7M
- Tomlinson $9.5M
- Hockenson $9.3M (likely decreases by a few million with an extension)
- Phillips $6.8M
- (next biggest cap hit is Jefferson at $4.2M, which would increase with an extension)
Immediate total cap savings would be about $40M. Cousins, O'Neill, ZDS, Smith and Hicks would save $41.3M in cap space (a little over $50M including Kendricks), while the Tomlinson extension would only cost an additional $2M on the 2023 cap.
On top of that, trading Cook would open $7.8M either immediately or around the draft. Failing that, they would get $5.8M from releasing him.
And on top of that, designating Thielen as a post-June 1st release would add $13.4M in cap space in the summer. That would be enough to absorb the additional cap hits from summer extensions (Jefferson, mainly) and signing the rookie class.
Given an initial cap overage of $15.8M, the immediate cap savings of ~$40M would put the Vikings ~$25M under the cap before trading or releasing Cook, and $30-32M under the cap afterward, with $13.4M in additional cap space still to come in June from releasing Thielen.
$30M of cap space heading into free agency would more than enough to sign a few starters, including at least one expensive contract, and multiple backups.
I'll write another post next week covering what I think they might do in free agency and in the draft.