The common belief is that players find an extra gear in contract years.
If that’s true, the Minnesota Vikings may have a lot of motivated individuals taking the field in 2020.
The Vikings have up to nine potential starters entering the final year of their deals this season. That includes Chad Beebe, who may be the team’s preferred slot receiver. Besides Beebe, two more projected starters — Holton Hill and Ifeadi Odenigbo — will be restricted free agents after the season. Six others will be unrestricted free agents: Dalvin Cook, Anthony Harris, Eric Wilson, Pat Elflein, Jaleel Johnson and Dakota Dozier. Dozier’s primary competition at left guard, Aviante Collins, will be a restricted free agent.
If fans thought there was an exodus from last year’s team, there could be an even bigger one coming next offseason since the Vikings have little wiggle room with the salary cap. They do, however, have the leverage with RFAs to extend an affordable one-year tender, and they could utilize the franchise tag on a pending UFA as they did with Harris this past spring. Minnesota only had three pending free agents among their primary starters last season: Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Harris. The former two departed for Cincinnati, while only Harris remained via the franchise tag.
Wilson is playing the 2020 season on an RFA tender and will likely start at base linebacker, and Dozier is playing on his fourth different contract (perhaps simply keeping the left guard seat warm until rookie Ezra Cleveland is ready).
The remaining six are all completing rookie deals and looking to record life-changing paydays sometime in the near future. Some have more work to do than others.
None are under a microscope like Cook, who is likeliest of the group to sign an extension prior to the season. But the team recently tabled contract negotiations when they couldn’t come to terms with Cook’s camp. While the majority of the pending free agents are seeking to improve their stock, Cook’s may never be higher after his healthiest, most productive season in 2019. If Cook heads into 2020 without a deal, he’ll be betting on himself, wagering that he can build on last year’s 13 games played and 1,654 all-purpose yards.
“I was letting my agent and the Vikings do whatever they got to do on the business side,” said Cook, who says he intends to play Week 1, contract or not. “I love playing here in Minnesota. I love being here. I love being around the guys. I love football, obviously. That hasn’t been a thought in my mind. I’m just going to go out there and work hard every day, and I’m going to be ready to play come Week 1.”
Harris became the richest of the group when he signed his $11.441 million franchise tag. While it’s not the long-term deal he sought, and probably deserved after playing like one of the best safeties in football, it sets him up to reset his value for another run at free agency in 2021 where he could cash a multi-year deal. The Vikings missed the July 15 deadline to ink Harris to a multi-year extension before the season.
“In a dream world you want things to go completely your way, no hiccups or anything like that,” Harris said. “But honestly, I wasn’t really worrying about it. I’ve always just been saying, my destiny, it’ll come to me, and not really trying to worry about anything else.”
Beebe, Odenigbo and Hill all have room to grow before they can dream of eight-figure paydays like Cook or Harris, and they may be more than a year away because of their RFA statuses. Beebe only has six career catches but has again found favor with the coaching staff as a shifty slot receiver. His play in 2020 may be what determines his future. Odenigbo has the most impressive resume of the RFA group. His seven sacks in 2019 cemented him as Everson Griffen‘s replacement, putting him in line to become the Vikings next great pass rusher. Odenigbo would have grounds for extension talks if he delivered a big season in 2020.
Meanwhile, Hill has arguably the most to prove of any pending free agent but also the most upside. Despite being suspended for eight games last season, he currently profiles as one of the team’s top two cornerbacks, and a quality starter at Hill’s age (23) would be paid a premium on the open market.
“I came in with a different mentality just knowing I’d be able to have a starting job or have an opportunity to have a starting job,” Hill said. “So I just tried to change my mentality as far as preparation.”
Finally, there’s Elflein and Johnson, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick that have one final opportunity to prove their worth to their current team. Fans wondered if either would crack the lineup in 2020, but indications are that both will receive significant snaps. Elflein is line to start at right guard, testing out his third position after sputtering as a center and left guard. If he can’t succeed at right guard, he’ll have exhausted all three interior positions without finding a clean fit.
“You have to just be the same person every day,” Elflein said. “That’s kind of how I’ve gotten myself here and that’s what I’m going to keep doing to whatever may happen down the line. That’s just go out every day, work as hard as you can, compete and do that on game day as well, but it starts in practice. I just worry about one day at a time and getting better each day. I feel like the rest of the stuff will take care of itself.”
Johnson caught a break when starting nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. The domino effect moved Shamar Stephen to nose and Johnson to 3-technique, where he’s taken virtually all of the first-team reps. After three seasons of taking baby steps at the back end of the Vikings’ rotation, he’ll get a real shot in 2020 to earn a second contract at a position where he feels comfortable.
“Yeah, I think playing nose, and then moving to 3 [technique], everything happens a lot slower,” Johnson said. “Once you’re out there and you have a little bit more space, you’re able to see things a lot quicker, and see things and react a lot faster as opposed to being the middle, where everything is coming full speed and centers and guards are whamming you every single play.”
Naturally, the Vikings only have so many dollars to spend next offseason. Only a handful of their impending free agents will remain in purple, and for most, the 2020 season is their audition.