The common refrain around Minnesota’s pursuit of marquee free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins is the restrictiveness of his potentially massive contract.
There is concern within the fan base that a $30 million per year salary — or thereabouts — would prevent the Vikings from retaining some of their home-grown talent, though a recent article by the Star Tribune‘s Ben Goessling lays out how Minnesota might be able to fit everything in under the salary cap without having to sacrifice any young stars.
Five names keep surfacing as players that the Vikings will need to extend: WR Stefon Diggs, CB Trae Waynes, DE Danielle Hunter and LBs Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
First, let’s establish this: The Vikings, ideally, prefer to handle business with new contracts during the slow time of the offseason before the final year of a player’s contract — or during training camp at the latest. For example, Harrison Smith signed an extension on June 6, Kyle Rudolph on July 27 and Xavier Rhodes on July 30.
But as Goessling projected in his story, the Vikings may only have around $17 million in cap space this year after theoretically signing Cousins.
That’s not a ton.
It means that Vikings’ brass will have to get savvy, likely in the form of ‘cash-over-cap’ finagling (explained well here) where they give the player a low base salary in the first year with a prorated signing bonus. This increases earnings but keeps the salary cap number down (this can be risky long-term since it defers guaranteed money toward the back end of the contract).
All of the aforementioned players are finishing up their first contracts and will be looking to cash in with contract no. 2. Let’s dig into each of the five players, evaluate their current situation and hazard a guess at their value.
CB Trae Waynes
Waynes is unique in this discussion because, unlike the other four, he is unlikely to be a free agent next offseason. The Vikings would likely exercise his fifth-year option and, as they did with Barr last year, make him earn the fifth year with a strong season. Remember, the fifth year is only guaranteed due to injury, so the Vikings could reconsider the option if Waynes had a bad 2018 season.
This makes a contract projection much tougher because Waynes’ fourth season will likely determine his future. His third year was certainly his best yet, but without an equal or better season in 2018, Waynes may exit his fourth season with uncertainty.
On the other hand, an outstanding season from Waynes could price him out of the Vikings’ budget, considering Minnesota already made Xavier Rhodes one of the league’s top-paid cornerbacks. Waynes’ fifth-year option could become a bargain, in that case. Then the Vikings could let the former first-round pick play out his contract year and possibly risk free agency if they feel too cap-strapped to extend him next offseason.
At the moment, Logan Ryan’s three-year, $30 million contract with Tennessee is a fair comp, but things will change after this coming campaign.
WR Stefon Diggs
There’s no doubt Diggs is set to become the most handsomely-paid Vikings receiver in a long time.
In terms of recent signings of in-house receivers, the Vikings got incredible value inking Adam Thielen to a four-year, $19.246 million deal last March, while Jarius Wright signed a four-year, $14.8 million contract right before the 2015 season.
Thielen, though, had only put together one big year before signing, and Wright was never more than a complementary option in the passing game — albeit a very reliable one.
Diggs, on the other hand, is coming off three consecutive solid seasons, averaging 824 yards through the air. As a fifth-round draft pick, he is not subject to a fifth-year option, therefore entering the final year of his contract. He has far exceeded his $2.5 million rookie deal and is only 24 years old.
Let’s look at a few free-agent contracts. Robert Woods signed a second contract as a 24-year-old last offseason for five years, $34 million, but Diggs has better stats than Woods. Marvin Jones, perhaps? He had two of three terrific years with Cincinnati with a lost injury season in between, then signed for five years, $40 million with the Detroit Lions at $20 million guaranteed.
In 2015, Jeremy Maclin signed a deal worth $55 million over five years with $22 million guaranteed (which has since been terminated). Maclin had put together five consistent seasons before signing that deal, including a 1,318-yard season in 2014 with Philadelphia. One would think Diggs isn’t worth that much, especially if you incorporate his history of nagging injuries.
But then you look at the Davante Adams deal. Adams signed an extension just before the end of last season, getting four-years, $58 million from Green Bay with $30 million guaranteed. He combined for 22 touchdowns over the last two seasons with 1,882 combined receiving yards.
Diggs could certainly lobby for a similar deal, considering his first two seasons were better than Adams’ first two seasons, and his yardage over the past two seasons was comparable. Since the two are in the same division, this is an easy comp to make — one that Diggs’ agent will definitely identify — and the Vikings would surely be pleased with a four-year term over a five-year term.
Four years, $55-60 million may be Diggs’ price tag.
DE Danielle Hunter
It’s rare that a 23-year-old gets to negotiate a second contract. Heck, 2017 Dolphins rookie Isaac Asiata was 25 years old when he got drafted. But here the Vikings are with Hunter, who, after three seasons, is one of the most promising defensive ends in the NFL.
There might be a possible comp for Hunter’s deal in Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt, though he is a 3-4 defensive end rather than a true edge rusher. Tuitt signed a five-year, $60 million extension with $13 million guaranteed after three years with the Steelers, despite having 14 fewer sacks in his career than Hunter (25.5 vs 11.5).
Hunter should believe he can make more than Tuitt.
Hunter could make a bid for Olivier Vernon money, who got five years, $85 million, $52 million guaranteed with the New York Giants — more guaranteed money than J.J. Watt.
But because of Hunter’s shorter track record — and to some extent, his reduced production last season — his next deal may look more like Tuitt’s, though probably with more than $13 million guaranteed.
LB Anthony Barr
Despite only having one sack, Anthony Barr got back to his 2014-2015 form last year after a less effective 2016 during which he played through injury. His 52 tackles, six passes defended and 16 games played positioned him well for an extension this offseason.
Barr is owed over $12 million in his fifth year, which the Vikings could reduce amidst an extension/restructure.
The former first-round pick could aspire to land a Melvin Ingram-type deal with the Chargers, who gave him four years, $64 million overall and $34 million guaranteed. Ingram had better sack numbers than Barr, though, at the time of his signing with 18.5 over the previous two years — Barr has just three — but Ingram benefited from the Chargers’ 3-4.
The Vikings may also consider the route the Chargers took by franchising Barr after his fifth season as Los Angeles did with Ingram and negotiating a new contract during the ensuing offseason. But if Minnesota likes Barr enough, it would make more sense to extend him now and reduce his cap number.
Somewhere between Lavonte David’s last deal (five years, $50 million, $25 million guaranteed) and Ingram’s makes sense for Barr. Let’s go four years, $56 million with $30 million guaranteed.
LB Eric Kendricks
Kendricks is the final piece of the conversation. At age 26, he enters his contract year at an inconvenient time with the Vikings facing so many big decisions that his accomplishments may be overshadowed.
The former second-round pick has 7.5 sacks through three seasons to go with 209 solo tackles, 16 passes defended, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
Comps for Kendricks include Alec Ogletree (four years, $42.75 million, $21.3 million guaranteed) and Christian Kirksey (four years, $38 million, $20 million guaranteed). He’d be unlikely to sniff Luke Kuechly’s contract, as Kuechly had nearly 100 more solo tackles than Kendricks through three seasons, in addition to five more interceptions.
But with several other extensions that appear to be greater priorities, the Vikings may hold off on Kendricks and let him play out his fourth season at a $1.64 million cap hit.
It’s likely the Vikings award two or three extensions this offseason with Diggs, Hunter and Barr as the likeliest candidates. If Cousins signs in Minnesota, his term and salary will be a gigantic influencer of the rest of the offseason decision-making.
The greatest challenge the Vikings would face is managing their cap in Year 1 of Cousins’ contract, as the team would presumably like to bolster its offensive line in free agency, re-sign in-house free agents and ink a new crop of draft picks.
There would be relief down the road as the cap increases, money comes off the books and the front office manipulates the cap through strategic restructures.
Statistical data gleaned from Pro Football Reference. Salary data taken from spotrac.com.