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The Method to the Vikings’ Madness

Kwesi & Company are completing the expected off-season moves as part of their on-going competitive rebuild

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings John Autey / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images

From the beginning of this off-season, the expectation was that despite a 13-4 season, the Vikings would be moving on from a number of core, marquee players based on a combination of age, salary cap hit, and declining production. Players like Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, and Harrison Smith headlined that list of players.

And with the news of Dalvin Cook’s pending release on Friday (they’re still trying to trade him last minute), the Vikings have moved on from all but Harrison Smith, who accepted a substantial pay cut to remain with the Vikings.

But news yesterday that the Vikings are fielding calls to trade Danielle Hunter caught some by surprise, especially after trading Za’Darius Smith, while the only significant extension the Vikings have completed this off-season is with Alexander Mattison and (to a lesser extent) fullback CJ Ham. Danielle Hunter, Justin Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, Ezra Cleveland, and Kirk Cousins are either in the last year of their contract or in Jefferson’s case eligible for an extension, but so far no deals have been done with any of them.

So what is the deal? What is Kwesi doing? What’s the plan? And why aren’t the Vikings getting anything in trade for all these players?

Getting Value for Salary Cap Dollars

With the Vikings parting ways with so many core players, and now fielding calls for trading Danielle Hunter, while not really extending any key players, it may seem that the Vikings and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have turned from competitive rebuild to just plain rebuild. Some have speculated that they’re gearing up for a major rebuild in 2024, trying to free up as much cap space as possible, while adding as much draft capital as they can as well. Some were also surprised that the new regime didn’t do a tear-down last year, opting instead for what Adofo-Mensah termed a ‘competitive rebuild.’

Disabusing Binary Off-Season Notions

But the truth is that the Vikings aren’t in a rebuild any more than they’re simply running it back or are all-in on 2023. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah himself pushed back on on the notion of a binary choice of either being all-in or rebuilding earlier this year:

“I think when people look at teams they sometimes do it in a very binary way. And they ask, ‘Are you either all-in or tearing down and rebuilding?’ And I don’t really look at the world that way. The way we look at it is we’re trying to navigate both worlds, we’re trying to live in today and tomorrow, or the competitive rebuild, however you want to phrase it or market it, and so I think that’s kind of how we’ve approached this offseason and our time horizons going forward.”

“You try to be solutions-oriented with everything you have,” Adofo-Mensah said. “You have challenges from all sides. Players have needs, we have needs, just trying to do the best you can for all parties involved. Sometimes that involves doing nothing, staying in the same place, coming back and [saying] ‘Let’s be great together’ and we’ll figure out things after that. It’s just being really smart and empirical and probabilistic about what the outcome will be, what will the needs be and when will it come. This exercise, it’s not perfect. It’s part art and part science. But we’re just intentional about what we do and we’re open to the fact that things we do are uncertain.”

The truth is that regardless of if the Vikings went further in the postseason or didn’t make it at all last season, they’d still be faced with the same set of circumstances and probably would’ve made the same decisions they’re making now. And those all have to do with getting the most from the salary cap as you can.

Individual Evaluations, Individual Decisions

Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, and to a lesser extent Harrison Smith are all older players at their position that have seen their performance decline, while also being large salary cap hits this season. Whether the Vikings won the Super Bowl last season, went 0-17, or anything in-between, it doesn’t change the evaluation of those players. It also doesn’t change that fact that Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith were unhappy about their contract situations either.

And so one player at a time Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell and their staff evaluates each player:

  • Adam Thielen turns 33 this year, was a $20 million salary cap hit, and among wide receivers with at least 90 targets last season, he was ranked 40th of 41 receivers in receiving grade according to PFF. The Vikings chose to release Thielen not just to save salary cap space, but also because they were looking to upgrade the WR2 position.
  • Eric Kendricks, 31, has seen his overall PFF grade decline from 90 and 82 in 2019 and 2020 respectively, to around 60 the last two seasons. His coverage grade has gone from 90 in 2020 to 45 last season. Kendricks’ salary cap hit was over $10 million this season and the Vikings see Brian Asamoah as ready to step up into a starting position. Releasing Kendricks made immediate sense.
  • Harrison Smith, 34, has also seen his performance decline, albeit not as much as Kendricks. He had a 68.1 overall PFF grade last season, which is above average, about ten points lower than the previous season. He was set to be a nearly $19 million salary cap this season, however. He was asked to take a pay cut, which he did, reducing his cap hit to just under $12 million. The Vikings have Josh Mettelus on the roster, who did well replacing Smith last season when he was injured, but with Lewis Cine’s recovery status and readiness still a question mark (at the time), the Vikings weren’t quite ready to move on from Smith at a reduced rate more commensurate with his recent performance. Smith had other offers he said but chose to stay with the Vikings. The deal makes sense for both sides as Smith may be in the last year of his career and $12 million is still a good deal for a 34 year-old safety.
  • Dalvin Cook, who turns 28 later this year (historically when RBs exit their prime), has a $14 million salary cap hit- third highest among RBs in the league. And yet, compare his EPA stats with Alexander Mattison last season:

Expected Points Added or EPA is a measure how much a play increased the team’s expected points for that drive. For example, going 75 yards for a touchdown on 1st and 10 adds around 6 expected points. That starting position has a 1-point expected point, while scoring a touchdown has around 7 expected points (six of them realized), so the point difference added is 6 points. Going from 1st and 10 at the -25 to 2nd and 9 from the -26, however, results in a negative EPA, as expected points go from roughly 1 point to less than one point, as the play put the team behind the sticks, making converting a first down less probable and therefore reducing expected points.

As you can see in the comparison above, Alexander Mattison had higher EPA/play numbers than Dalvin Cook, in both rushing attempts (RUSH) and receiving targets (TAR). This is meant to bring into context that while Cook had some house calls last season, he also had a ton of negative EPA plays- rushes a few yards or less on early downs that put the Vikings behind the sticks and into 3rd and long situations.

In that sense, Cook was like an average home run hitter in baseball. He got the occasional home run, but most of the time he struck out or made an out in his at-bat. Mattison, by contrast, wasn’t as much of a home-run hitter as Cook, but his batting average and on-base percentage was higher than Cook’s. Kevin O’Connell mentioned more than once this off-season that he wants to be more efficient in the running game, particularly on early downs, staying ahead of the sticks and avoiding unfavorable 3rd and long situations. Mattison may be the better back in that role at this stage in their respective careers.

In any case, taking a $14 million salary cap hit for Cook this season didn’t make a lot of sense for a running back of his age and performance last season- especially if they can get similar or better production from a less expensive player on the roster.

Cook has been a great back for the Vikings since he was drafted and when healthy, but being nostalgic for players past their prime- particularly expensive players- is not something that leads to good team decisions by a GM. The reality and difficulty of being a GM is that players have performance life cycles. Hanging on to a player who has exited his prime can be an expensive mistake that hurts the team. And so releasing players that have become top performers and fan/locker room favorites, but are now no longer earning their salary cap, can be tough decisions- but also the right ones from the team perspective.

Dealing with Player Situations

The Vikings had said earlier in the off-season, when Za’Darius Smith posted his goodbyes to Minnesota on social media, that they had no intention of letting him out of his contract- they wanted him to remain with the Vikings. But they also signed Marcus Davenport. Smith apparently did not budge in his demand to be let out of his contract or be traded, and so the Vikings eventually relented and were able to trade Smith to the Browns for something around the equivalent of a 5th round pick next year, freeing up a lot of cap space.

Smith had a productive first half of the season last year, but his production fell off in the second half of the season after aggravating a chronic knee injury. As part of the deal, the Browns agreed to a new one-year contract for Smith valued at $11.7 million. Despite the Vikings’ earlier statement about wanting to keep Smith, with the addition of Davenport opposite Danielle Hunter, Smith was looking more like a luxury player on the Vikings roster and so it wasn’t that surprising to see the Vikings trade him. They could’ve played hardball and the way the league punishes hold-outs now, Smith would’ve been forced to show up and play for the Vikings. But they opted to trade the soon-to-be 31 year-old, rather than keep him against his will, and for reasons that made sense for the team as well in freeing up salary cap space for needs elsewhere.

Why Didn’t the Vikings Get Anything in Trade for These Players?

As it looks now with the Dalvin Cook situation, the Vikings will have moved on from Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Cook, and Za’Darius Smith and all they got for the entire lot was the equivalent of a 5th round pick. Only a 5th round pick for four players that have each been to the Pro Bowl multiple times. Is Kwesi giving away the farm for nothing?

The reality is that teams are willing to trade for expected future performance, not past performance. They’re also trading for the player’s contract, the terms of which heavily influence the player’s trade value, along with age and recent performance (as a gauge for future performance). All these players are old for their position and have either declined in performance and/or have injury issues which impact expected future performance. That in itself is a limiting factor. But whether the player’s contract is currently above or below market value, along with the remaining length of the contract, are huge factors in how much a team is willing to pay in trade for that player’s contract.

For example, Adam Thielen’s contract had a $20 million salary cap hit this season, which was way more than twice his market value (his new contract with the Panthers averages $8.3 million/year). No team is going to pay draft picks for the right to pay double a player’s market value based on his performance. It doesn’t matter what accolades he’s earned in the past.

The same situation was true of Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Cook. Kendricks signed for just over half his salary cap hit for the Vikings this season before he was released. Again, no team is going to pay draft picks for the right to inherit a contract that is way overvalued relative to performance. Dalvin Cook’s contract is the same way. The Cowboys tried to trade Ezekiel Elliott but had no takers for his overvalued contract, and the Chargers put Austin Ekeler on the block, as he wanted to be traded, but he had no offers either.

Running back in particular is a position that has become much less valued as a component of winning, and so teams are not willing to pay as much for running backs as they once did relative to other positions. It’s also becoming more common for teams to find good running backs in the late rounds of the draft, which makes paying a running back a premium veteran salary even less appealing.

If you can use a late-round pick to get a running back as good as Dalvin Cook is now, why pay a late-round pick to acquire Dalvin Cook and his eight-figure cap hit when that late round rookie may cost less than $1 million in cap space?

And in the case of Za’Darius Smith, he was willing to re-work his contract to facilitate a trade. But the new contract- which would’ve been agreed in advance of the trade- was only for one year. How much should a team pay for a one-year rental of 31-year-old Smith, who missed the last half of the season with a chronic knee injury and hasn’t been healthy for a couple years? Smith said at a press conference in Cleveland that the only reason he played the last half of the season was to collect his weekly game bonuses ($187K/game). A 5th-round pick is about right.

Danielle Hunter Situation

This gets us to the Danielle Hunter situation. Darren Wolfson reported on SkorNorth today that the Vikings are, and have been, interested in extending Danielle Hunter. But the recent news that the Vikings are taking trade calls for Hunter suggests that the talks are not progressing well. Often it happens that someone on the player’s side makes it known that negotiations are not progressing well, which in turn leads to calls for a possible trade from interested teams.

This doesn’t mean that the Vikings have necessarily changed their mind about wanting to extend Hunter, and calls from other teams can help to clarify Hunter’s market value as a trade would almost certainly result in a new contract in this case. The Vikings may also be curious about what a Hunter trade may bring in trade value. On the other hand, they may also clarify the Vikings’ extension offer is a good one to Hunter’s camp, which could help end the impasse. We don’t know what the gap or sticking points are in the negotiations, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Hunter is looking for a longer deal than the Vikings are willing to offer at present. Part of the reason for that speculation is that Adofo-Mensah has not provided extensions longer than three years since his arrival, while the Hunter camp may be looking at the six-year, $120 million extension Von Miller signed last year- at age 33. Or the five-year, $110 million deal Bradley Chubb signed last year, among others. Many of the recent deals with high-end edge rushers have been for five or six years, with average annual values (AAV) in the $22-24 million range. Collectively they provide a comparable range for Hunter’s market value. It’s unknown if Hunter is seeking substantially more than those comparables would suggest is his market value, or if the Vikings are unwilling to do a deal that long, or if the AAV or guaranteed money or some other issue is where the gap remains between the two sides.

I suspect that the Vikings want Hunter to be there for mandatory mini-camp next week, particularly as Brian Flores’ scheme is substantially different than anything Hunter has known previously, and he’ll need that time to help him get up to speed. That may have been an influencing factor on the timing of Dalvin Cook’s release, as the Vikings may need at least some of that $9 million in saved salary cap space to work an extension with Hunter.

But again, this isn’t an indicator of rebuild or no rebuild. It’s a particular situation and negotiation. Ultimately the Vikings will have to weigh the best trade offer they get vs. the best extension deal they can negotiate with Hunter’s camp. Trading Hunter would both save $5 million in cap space for the Vikings this year and create almost $19 million in dead cap between this year ($7.62MM) and next year ($11.24MM), which is no incentive to trade him. The Vikings will also consider their existing edge rusher roster and available free agents or potential trade candidates in their deliberations.

In any case, this isn’t the Vikings suddenly deciding to jettison good players and rebuild- they want to keep Hunter if they can on a reasonable contract. It’s negotiating a tricky contract situation and trying to come up with the best solution for the Vikings.

Kirk, JJ, TJ, Others Still Out There

Kwesi and Company still have other major contract extensions to consider beyond Hunter, although his is the most urgent at the moment given he’s not showing up until he has a new deal.

The Vikings paused extension talks with Kirk Cousins in early March after an impasse on guaranteeing Cousins’ salary for the 2025 season. Darren Wolfson reported that Cousins was willing to take less than $40 million/year- probably somewhere in the high $30 millions- which was seen as a bit of a discount on his market value- and the Vikings were willing to guarantee his 2024 salary but not 2025- which was the sticking point. That was before the draft, however, and with Jaren Hall unlikely to be the QBOTF for the Vikings anytime soon, the Vikings may be more willing to guarantee Cousins’ 2025 salary now as well. We’ll see how things develop on that front, but extending Cousins seems like the most likely possibility at this point for the Vikings. But without a significant signing bonus, nearly all of Cousins’ extension salary will likely be pushed out into future years, and 2024 would likely be a huge cap hit. Cousins’ cap hit this year is only $20.25 million as the Vikings restructured his contract to push more cap hit to future years, including four void years.

The Vikings are also likely to extend both Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson. Jefferson’s will likely be north of $30 million in AAV, and usually those deals come with a big signing bonus, which could be tricky for the Vikings right now. A deal with Hunter could easily eat at least half of the Vikings’ $19 million in salary cap space, leaving not much available for a Jefferson extension. A $50 million signing bonus for Jefferson, even spread out over 5-6 years, would take all the Vikings’ remaining cap space this year.

Lastly, the Vikings still have an extension with TJ Hockenson on the table. Hockenson impressed last season, but this is the last year of his contract, and the Vikings didn’t spend a second-round pick on him for only a season and a half of service. The Vikings could probably do an extension for Hockenson without much or any impact on the 2023 salary cap, as they could convert most of his $9.392 base salary into a signing bonus, topping that up or even doubling it, which would still save cap space this year assuming its at least a three-year extension. There hasn’t been much reporting at all on where any extension talks with Hockenson stand right now, or even if they’ve begun.

And Ezra Cleveland is still out there too, although there seems to be no talks underway at the present time. It appears that the Vikings are treating Cleveland similar to Bradbury, taking a wait-and-see approach to whether they offer him an extension or not based on his performance this year.

A Lot on Kwesi’s Plate

At the end of the day, there has been a lot on Kwesi’s plate this off-season, and a lot that remains to be done. It would not surprise me if the Vikings did not do an extension with Justin Jefferson until next season, at which point they can convert his nearly $20 million base salary into a signing bonus and spread that out over the length of the contract. It would make it easier to get other deals done this year, although I’m not sure how sensitive the Jefferson side is to get a deal done sooner rather than later.

But it’s all a series of individual evaluations, negotiations, and decisions to improve the team today and tomorrow. It’s not some binary choice many pundits like to pigeon-hole as rebuild or all-in. It’s much more nuanced and determined by the annual off-season process that begins with player evaluations.

When the new regime of Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah came to town last year, they “really, really liked” the roster they inherited. Several of the players they liked last year are no longer on the roster this year. But one could anticipate- and many did- that last year would be the last for Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, and Dalvin Cook. Just looking at their salary cap hits, age, level of production, and the Vikings salary cap situation made it pretty obvious the Vikings would move on from them. And so they did. Others like Harrison Smith and Jordan Hicks they kept at reduced salaries. And still others like Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter- they’ve tried or are trying to work a deal to retain them. The fact that so many players have come up for review, so to speak, this year came down to how a lot of the contracts were structured- back-end loaded in many cases- and how the players have performed.

When Adam Thielen signed his 4-year extension in 2019, few would expected the Vikings to maintain his $20 million salary cap hit (although that went up with restructurings) in 2023 at age 33. The same was true of Cook’s extension, which Cook held out to get. It’s not the new regime being bent on a bloodletting to clear the way for a rebuild down the road. It’s the new regime playing the hand they’re dealt as best they can, to benefit the team as best they can this year, and in future years.

It’s a complicated business. Much more complicated than ‘run it back,’ ‘rebuild,’ or ‘all-in’ pigeon-holes make it out to be. But at the end of the day, they want players outperforming their salary-cap hit and every year that means moving on from some players, acquiring others, and perhaps trading some too. What’s happening this year with a number of core players is not part of some overarching, preconceived plan to rebuild on the part of the new regime. It’s simply the new regime attempting to maximize its resources- and therefore its roster- using all the means at their disposal.

The same was true last year, and the same will be true next year as well.


Will the Vikings reach a deal to extend Danielle Hunter?

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