One of the most difficult jobs for a general manager is deciding when it’s time to move on from a player. Particularly one that’s been a core member of the team, a fan favorite, a team captain, and who’s enjoyed a long, productive career with the team.
It’s also one that can be difficult for a general manager to make because position coaches often prefer more proven veterans to young players who need more coaching- they make their job easier. Coordinators and head coaches too can often lean toward keeping a veteran presence who is an asset in the locker room even if their performance is declining on the field. Player evaluations can reflect that as well.
And so it can fall to the general manager to take the business view and determine that a player is no longer earning their salary cap or is no longer the best option on the field at a reduced salary cap, and other factors like how cutting that player may be viewed in the locker room and how it could affect team chemistry.
Unfortunately for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, he’s got several players on his roster that it’s time to farewell- long time core players, team captains, fan favorites - and a few of those are within the offensive skill position groups.
But part of building a championship roster is knowing when to move on veterans on the downside of their career, making the best use of limited salary cap space, and taking a chance that a young player can step up and replace a veteran that’s earned a lot of accolades over the years.
With that intro, let’s look at the offensive skill positions and what can be done to better the Vikings roster in this area.
Justin Jefferson is the best player on the team, the face of the franchise, OPOY, best receiver in the league, and still just 23 years old. He is championship caliber with extended prime years ahead of him. It’s a no-brainer to extend him. A five-year extension makes sense- locking him in to age 29. But the tricky part is how to do that in as team friendly a way as possible- knowing that he commands a $30 million AAV market value. With a $35-$40 million AAV quarterback on the roster as well, that’s 30% of the current salary cap tied up in two players. Jefferson doesn’t seem too concerned about money, and is all about winning, so perhaps he could go the Tom Brady route to contract negotiations- or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. The Vikings are right to involve Jefferson, as a franchise player, in team decision-making. That can also lead to some buy-in and perhaps a bit of a team-friendly deal. It probably also makes sense to backload Jefferson’s contact with a big signing bonus, and even add a couple void years to make his annual cap hit more palatable. Perhaps a $28 million AAV deal, with some incentives that could reach $30 million, with $15 million in void year money to shave $3 million off the AAV in the non-void years, is a rough idea of what a Justin Jefferson extension would look like. This would be added to the just under $20 million he’s set to make in 2024.
Adam Thielen is well past his prime yet is a nearly $20 million salary cap hit in 2023. It’s time to say farewell. Even if Thielen was to agree to a restructured deal that paid him $5 million this year, which is unlikely, he’s not the best option for a WR2 at that price. Thielen just isn’t able to get separation anymore, and that really hurt the Vikings offense when Jefferson was double covered. Thielen isn’t fast enough to draw a safety over the top, and he’s also lost his burst at the break to get separation that way too. He has savvy in the end zone, but that’s not enough for a WR2 or WR3 role. Tough to take a $13.5 million dead cap hit by cutting Thielen, saving just under $6.5 million in cap space, but it’s time to move on and upgrade the WR2 position. The Vikings have announced they’re parting ways with Thielen.
KJ Osborn is a bit of a placeholder at WR3. On the positive side, he’s reliable, doesn’t drop a lot of balls, can make a play here and there, is a hard worker, solid-character guy. He had 670 receiving yards last season, which isn’t terrible for a WR3. On the negative side, he’s not the most dynamic receiver, and can disappear for large parts of games. His 1.08 yards per route run isn’t great, but maybe that’s okay for a WR3 with Justin Jefferson at WR1. The main issue, like Thielen this year, is Osborn didn’t do much to pick up the slack when JJ was double-covered, and he also isn’t much of an over-the-top threat- which the Vikings need to complement JJ. Osborn is a $2.8 million cap hit this season- his last under his rookie contract- and it makes sense to keep him on and compete for the WR3 job.
Jalen Reagor & Jalen Nailor are the best hopes, currently on the roster, for the Vikings to upgrade their WR2 and/or WR3 spot.
Jalen Reagor was a disappointment last season, largely due to mental issues- not running the right routes, not finishing routes, not getting up to speed on the playbook, etc. Reagor has the physical skill set to be a WR2 or WR3, but so far doesn’t appear to have the mental ability to earn either position, and hasn’t shown the competitive drive you want at that position either. We’ll see what an off-season with the Vikings can do- and how he chooses to use it. Reagor was also the punt returner for the Vikings last season but had several drops he was fortunate didn’t turn into costly fumbles. This could be a sink or swim off-season for Reagor’s career, either he gets it mentally as well as physically, or he doesn’t. There is no financial incentive for the Vikings to release Reagor, as his dead cap is the same as his salary cap, but they could still release him to free up a roster spot if he’s not providing value.
Jalen Nailor has a big opportunity to step up this off-season. He had only limited snaps offensively but made the most of them. Most of his receiving yards came in garbage time in the Packers away game, but still he made the most of the reps he got last season. He had a total of 9 receptions on 12 targets on 31 routes run, for 179 yards (19.9 yards/reception), 1 TD, no drops, and 5.77 yards/route run. Small sample size, but making the most of limited reps is how you earn more reps. Vikings WR coach Keenan McCardell reportedly ‘pounded the table’ for Nailor pre-draft, and the sixth-round pick hasn’t let him down so far. I suspect Nailor will be given the opportunity to move up the depth chart this off-season and training camp- we’ll just have to see how far he can go. He looks to be a deep threat compliment to Jefferson that has the ability to separate and make defenses pay for doubling Jefferson- which is exactly what the Vikings need- along with a small price tag.
New Acquisitions. With the Vikings parting ways with Adam Thielen as expected, I would imagine they’d bring in a veteran receiver to compete for a starting job and may also use another Day 3 pick on a wide receiver to build depth.
Overall, in addition to locking up Jefferson long-term on as favorable a deal as possible, the Vikings need to improve WR2 and WR3 to be viable targets for Cousins when Jefferson is drawing double coverage. They also need more viable options should Jefferson get banged up on miss any time. But as long as Justin Jefferson is on the roster, there isn’t going to be a lot of money available for other receivers in this position group. The Vikings need to maintain a solid pipeline of receivers on rookie contracts to fill out this position group.
Dalvin Cook is past his prime. It happens fast for most running backs. For other positions 30 is the number not to be on the wrong side of, but its more like 28 for running backs. It’s a position that takes a lot of wear and tear, a lot of hits, and Dalvin Cook has had his share over the years. He’s valued as a team captain, fan favorite, and as a multiple Pro-Bowler. But his last couple years have seen declining production, while his salary cap hit has jumped. That’s not a good combination.
But even more than that, it's becoming increasingly common for teams to find decent running backs on Day Three of the draft, which makes giving a second contract to a running back with an age 28 expiration date not a wise use of salary cap space. Dalvin Cook has the 5th highest salary cap hit among running backs in the league this year but was average at best by most key production metrics for running backs.
All that makes the case for Dalvin Cook to be released, saving nearly $8 million in cap space while incurring a $6 million dead cap hit. It’s not just about the salary cap hit, it’s also about getting a younger, more dynamic backs that can bring the burst and speed of a younger Dalvin Cook. The Vikings have those guys on the roster in Kene Nwangwu and Ty Chandler. Chandler in particular should be given the chance to move up the roster and compete for a starting job, given his speed (4.38”) and versatility as a receiver. Chandler has more experience in college as a running back than Nwangwu had, but both could compete for a greater role at running back. There is talk that the Vikings are interested in extending Alexander Mattison, which would be okay in a RB-by-committee situation, so long as it’s a low-end deal. Mattison is a bit tougher between the tackles than Chandler or Nwangwu, but doesn’t have as much speed.
But going forward, running back should be a low salary cap position group, especially with premium contracts at QB, WR, RT, and LT in a couple years.
And then there is fullback CJ Ham. Team captain, Minnesota native, positive role model and voice in the locker room, core special teamer. He turns 30 this year and is set to be a $3.8 million salary cap hit. He was a $3.45 million cap hit last year. He played only 182 snaps on offense last season- less than half the previous season. He had his worst PFF grade as a run blocker, and his on-field performance overall was entirely replaceable. Schematically, there isn’t much need for a fullback anymore. Johnny Mundt or another blocking tight end can perform the same function for $1 million. Paying Ham nearly 4x doesn’t make sense. Paying a fullback much more than $1 million AAV is a misallocation of resources in building a championship roster in today’s NFL. For those reasons, CJ Ham should be released.
TJ Hockenson may have been the best acquisition to the Vikings last season, and he may well be a long-term fixture at tight end for the Vikings as he turns just 26 this year. Hockenson is in his 5th-year option as a first-round pick this season, which makes him a $9.4 million salary cap hit this coming season. Like Justin Jefferson, the Vikings will likely look to extend Hockenson longer-term. He has a $14.4 million/year market value according to Spotrac. A four-year extension for Hockenson with that amount as an AAV makes sense and would allow the Vikings to push more salary cap this year into the future with a signing bonus.
Johnny Mundt makes sense as an inexpensive, serviceable blocking tight end who knows the system, but competition is warranted here too. The Vikings will need more than Mundt and Nick Muse on the roster at tight end, so adding another tight end to compete makes sense. That could be Irv Smith Jr. at the right price, or someone else. But like the wide receiver position group, having a premium salary at TE1 means there isn’t much for the rest of the position group, so Irv Smith Jr. or whomever else the Vikings may want to add at the position group will have to come near the veteran minimum or on a rookie contract.
Bottom Line for a Championship Roster
The Vikings have successfully done the most difficult part of building a championship roster in these areas- getting championship caliber players at WR1 and TE1 under contract. Having a top-tier RB1 isn’t essential to a championship roster, as the last couple decades of Super Bowl winning teams confirm. Having a decent or top-half RB1 is fine.
The one thing the Vikings will need to consider this off-season as they face a lot of tough decisions on team captains and long-time core players, is the effect of releasing a lot of them on the locker room. Already two former team captains in Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks have been released. Parting ways with Dalvin Cook, CJ Ham, and Harrison Smith- which are all distinct possibilities as the Vikings are still over the salary cap, will really turnover the leadership within the Vikings locker room. What effect will that have? Who steps up? The Vikings will need to manage that aspect of off-season changes as well.
Who should the Vikings release/trade?
This poll is closed
Both Dalvin Cook and CJ Ham