Ever since the beginning of the league year last week, every team in the NFL must be under the salary cap- including the Vikings. You may have read some reports that the Vikings were over the salary cap, but this is not allowed by the NFL, which maintains a hard ceiling in enforcing the salary cap limit. Any contract that would put a team over the salary cap would not get the required approval by the league office. So, when a team like the Vikings is reportedly over the salary cap, it’s because some detail(s) of contracts have not yet been made public, allowing beat reporters and salary cap websites to update their numbers.
So, while the Vikings are under the salary cap, and eventually we’ll learn the missing details, there likely isn’t much room to spare at the moment- probably less than $1 million.
Still Lots of Roster and Salary Cap Work to Do
But while the Vikings have managed to make several additions to the roster, parted ways with a couple long-time core players, and negotiated salary reductions for a couple other players, there is still a lot of work to do.
For one thing, the Vikings will need to make room for their upcoming draft picks, which Spotrac estimates at a $4.6 million salary cap hit to the Top 51 contracts which constitute the salary cap limit. Contracts outside the top 51 (in salary cap dollars) on the team’s roster don’t count toward the salary cap limit.
In addition to the Vikings’ current five draft picks, the Vikings will also need to add twenty more players to get to the 90-man roster limit. Most of these will likely be undrafted free agents acquired after the draft and won’t be among the top 51 contracts or affect the salary cap, but a few acquisitions may do so. And at this point, for every addition to the Vikings’ salary cap, a deduction needs to come from somewhere else among the Top 51 contracts.
The Vikings also have some question marks along their interior offensive line, at wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive secondary that could prompt a free agent acquisition. And any such acquisition would need to be paid for with a cut elsewhere.
Options, Rumors, Questions, Concerns
Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski have done a number of things to create salary cap space so far this off-season. They’ve cut Eric Kendricks, Cameron Dantzler, and Adam Thielen; they’ve negotiated salary reductions for Jordan Hicks, Ross Blacklock, and Harrison Smith; they re-structured Kirk Cousins’ contract. And every major contract they’ve added (Josh Oliver, Byron Murphy, Marcus Davenport) have included multiple void years to reduce the current year salary cap impact.
But there are practical and feasibility limits to how far Adofo-Mensah and Brzezinski can go in restructuring contracts and adding void years to every deal. Still, the Vikings have some options to create more salary cap space for future acquisitions.
The Vikings could trade Dalvin Cook, which would free-up $7.9 million or $11 million in salary cap space this year, depending on if it was a pre- or post-June 1st trade. Cook would seem superfluous at this point, given the Alexander Mattison extension. Mattison was said to be looking for a starting job, in addition to a new contract, so it would seem less likely that he’d agree to an extension with the Vikings to keep the same role as last year- when he had a career low in carries.
There have been reports that teams have been interested in trading a late (6th or 7th) round draft pick for Cook, but the obstacle is that Cook had shoulder surgery not long ago and may not be in good enough shape yet to pass a physical. Unclear how soon that might be, but with nearly $24 million in salary cap space allocated in the running back room, there is plenty of reason to believe the Vikings will part ways with Cook in the not-too-distant future.
The acquisition of blocking TE Josh Oliver in a premium contract for that role would seem to put CJ Ham’s role at fullback into question. Ham had only half the number of offensive snaps (182) last year as the season before, which brings into question what his scheme fit is going forward under Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips. Ham is a $3.8 million salary cap hit for the Vikings this season, with a $750,000 deadcap hit, so releasing him would free-up $3.05 million in salary cap space. There is no salary cap advantage to waiting until after June 1st to trade or release Ham. Alternatively, if the Vikings wanted to keep Ham, they could negotiate a salary reduction. But keeping Ham in the same role as last season for $3.8 million doesn’t make a lot of sense- especially for a team that is very salary cap conscious and doing void years with every major new contract.
Smith reportedly has said goodbye to Minnesota on his Instagram, put his house up for sale, and requested out of his contract earlier this month. The Vikings are not going to simply let Smith out of his contract, but they may be looking to trade Smith if they feel he’s unaffordable or need to spend that salary cap elsewhere. The Vikings signed Marcus Davenport to fill Smith’s edge rusher position, but in theory they could have both players on the field in obvious passing situations as Smith often moves inside in those situations. Last season DJ Wonnum played edge rusher for the Vikings when Smith moved inside. Still, a $15.5 million cap hit for a designated pass rusher is a luxury the Vikings probably can’t afford.
Danielle Hunter is reportedly not content to play for the $5.5 million in new money his contract provides for this season- which is his last under contract. So, the Vikings may need to allocate more cap space to this position group to keep Hunter happy and potentially extend him a couple more years. Hunter is reportedly drawing some trade interest, but the Vikings aren’t interested in trading him according to local beat reporter Darren Wolfson.
Trading Smith would clear $12.1 million in cap space while creating $3.3 million in deadcap.
Kirk Cousins Extension Talks
Star Tribune beat writer for the Vikings Ben Goessling provided some detail on the status of extension talks with Kirk Cousins today. Apparently the sticking point in those talks was that the Vikings were unwilling to guarantee Cousins’ 2025 salary. Cousins’ side were willing to accept an average salary under $40 million/year but were surprised by the Vikings’ unwillingness to guarantee his 2025 salary. And so the talks are stalled for now.
The Vikings decided to restructure Cousins’ deal to create salary cap space for immediate needs in the first week of free agency and could continue extension talks in the future. But if the Vikings are looking to cash in on Cousins’ trade value, rather than simply letting him go at the end of the season for (presumably) a future late 3rd round compensatory pick in 2025, the window to do so is closing. Cousins would have to approve any trade. The Vikings could also choose to exclusive franchise tag Cousins for next season, but that would bring Cousins’ salary to around $46 million and his cap hit even higher. A non-exclusive tag would still cost around $42 million (again with a significantly higher cap hit) and would require a team to part with two first-round draft picks to acquire Cousins, which is unlikely at best for a quarterback in his mid-30s. Trading Cousins would result in a $38.75 million deadcap hit pre-June 1st (an $18.75 million additional current year cap hit) while a post-June 1st designated trade would result in a $10 million current year cap savings, but also incurring a $10.25 million deadcap hit in 2023 and a $28.5 million deadcap hit in 2024.
Lamar Jackson Rumors Continue
While I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings have explored what it may take to land Lamar Jackson, which is not an easy task, there has been no confirmed interest by the Vikings in acquiring Jackson. What is known is that having Lamar Jackson in limbo on a non-exclusive franchise tag is forestalling any significant moves by the Ravens in free agency. The Ravens don’t have a ton of cap space and maintaining upwards of $10 million in cap space (in addition to Jackson’s $32.5 million salary under the non-exclusive franchise tag) to match any offers has kept them on the sidelines of free agency. They have a number of needs to fill, and fewer draft picks next month, and division competitors have been active in improving their rosters in free agency so far.
Meanwhile there are reports that an un-certified representative of Jackson’s is contacting teams and telling them Jackson is ready to move on from Baltimore and is not looking for a fully guaranteed contract. Between that and the Ravens’ forestalled free agency, the Ravens could decide that it’s not going to work with Jackson and it’s best to move on. We’ll see. A trade for Cousins would be the Ravens’ best option if they decided to move on from Jackson and wanted to be competitive.
Have not heard real. But interesting timing on your tweet to me. Just got a very interesting text from a semi-reliable source about needing to look into the Vikings creating more cap space for some future move. I am following up on that now.— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) March 21, 2023
Vikings Still Looking to Clear Cap Space for a Potential Move
Whether or not the Vikings are looking into Lamar Jackson, they are reportedly (see tweet above) looking to clear more cap space for a future move. Just what that move is remains to be seen, but the Vikings are clearly still active in free agency and building their 2023 roster.
Brian O’Neill Contract
One somewhat surprising thing the Vikings haven’t done to create more salary cap space is restructure Brian O’Neill’s contract. O’Neill’s contract is an obvious target because it is one of the largest on the Vikings’ books. It also has a $14.4 million base salary this year that could be converted to a signing bonus to kick more salary cap burden down the road.
Not restructuring O’Neill’s contract give the Vikings more flexibility down the road. One can speculate as to why they’d want it, but the prospect of Christian Darrisaw eventually being a big salary cap hit may be a reason. They may not want to have that much salary cap tied up along the offensive line, with both Darrisaw and O’Neill on big contracts, and may want to maintain salary cap flexibility in pursuing other options.
There’s still a lot of Vikings roster news ahead. Stay tuned.
Should the Vikings trade Kirk Cousins, extend him, or let him simply play out his contract and move on from him?
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Let Kirk play out his contract and move on