From the Minnesota Vikings roster to the salary cap, we did a deep dive on the latest Football Machine podcast.
It’s more clear than ever that saying goodbye to a plethora of big names is not an “if,” but rather a “when.” The Vikings’ front office will be tasked with arguably its toughest offseason since the departure of Brett Favre in 2011 and the challenge of restructuring a huge foundation of the roster without convincing the fan base they are in a “rebuild” mindset.
With the Vikings currently holding the second-least cap space in the NFL, the situation looks awfully dire on paper given just how many in-house free agents are already packing their bags. However, I’ve spotted an obvious blueprint to help aid the reconstruction of the roster while dismissing the notion of a “rebuilding” year.
The Vikings stunned the league when they knocked off the Saints in New Orleans using cornerstone pieces just hitting their prime like Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Cook. The biggest catalyst of the team’s developing success is the quarterback who has now improved each year in Minnesota and led the team to multiple marquee wins last season like a primetime road win against the Dallas Cowboys and a 20-point halftime comeback versus the Denver Broncos.
Here’s a snapshot of what general manager Rick Spielman needs to consider to stay highly competitive in 2020 while mending their salary-cap troubles.
Anthony Harris: Let Walk in Free Agency
What a run. The first props need to be handed to the scouting staff in 2015 for finding Harris, who was brought in as a UDFA despite hauling in seven interceptions for the Virginia Cavaliers — the most in the country. We’ve watched Harris develop under “DB Guru” Mike Zimmer every season by specifically improving his running angles and adding true NFL strength. He tied for the NFL lead with six regular-season interceptions in his final season in purple, and now it’s time for Harris to get paid the hefty contract he has truly deserved.
At first glance, this could be a tough pill to swallow for fans, but in general, the Vikings are one of the best teams in the league at retaining their own core guys. Not many franchises in the league take such pride in bringing back the players they drafted and spent the time and energy developing, as they should. However, when the decision was made to push more chips all-in by bringing back the same defensive starters in 2019 for continuity’s sake, there were always going to be casualties the following offseason, and Harris is one of them.
A guy who has earned his big payday, Harris will likely command $12-15 million a year on the open market and will have multiple teams with more readily available money wooing him their way.
Despite the eventual loss, watching Harris flip from UDFA to superstar was a treat to watch from a scouting lens. This should leave fans with a hopeful optimism the Vikings can develop more young players, having proven they have the recipe to duplicate similar player success.
And it’s not all bad news when a big-name player walks. Thanks to league rules, losing Harris should net Spielman an extra fourth-round compensatory pick the following year, helping stock up on valuable extra draft capital.
Linval Joseph: Release (Save Over $10 Million)
It wasn’t long ago Joseph was one of the best nose tackles in the league and the guts in the middle of Zimmer’s budding defense. The 2015 season was arguably the finest of his career as he plugged up holes and chewed up key blockers inside the trenches, helping open up countless splash plays for the rest of the defense on all three levels. Unfortunately, Joseph has watched his play quietly decline while his age and contract continue to climb.
While cutting Joseph could create yet another positional concern, freeing up $10 million in cap is just too much money to pass up on. Now, it’s possible Linval agrees to a restructure. However, if not, I really like what I saw from Armon Watts last year as a rookie. He could help fill the void at a fraction of the cost.
Even if you have to get by early on using a rotation of guys like Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson — who have both lined up at nose tackle before — and use Watts inside during pass-rushing situations, the amount of cap that frees up in turn is a no-brainer. Very few other players would free up as much cap as Joseph, whose dead cap dropped from $12.6 million to just $2.4 million this year, making now the most opportune time to release him.
Xavier Rhodes: Release (Save Over $8 Million)
What happened here? It seems like yesterday Zimmer was staying after practice helping mold his No. 1 cornerback into the Pro Bowler he turned into before our very own eyes. As a bigger-bodied cornerback, Rhodes played more like a “power forward” and swallowed targets up with his big frame, long arms and technically sound footwork. In back-to-back seasons, however, Rhodes’ speed and acceleration have greatly diminished, and the rest of his game has followed. Now at almost 30, it’s clear Rhodes has hit his career peak and plateaued, making the notion of him returning back to Pro Bowl form a mere afterthought.
As time moves on he will only get slower and struggle to keep up with younger receivers. Now is the time to cut bait with Rhodes and move on to a new crop of cornerbacks for Zimmer to mold under his watchful eye once again.
After watching the Jaguars trade A.J. Bouye last week, the Vikings should certainly put in their best effort to move Rhodes and the name brand value he could still carry, likely netting nothing more than a Day 3 pick.
Either way, Rhodes is toast. Clearing over $8 million in cap space helps the front office take a much-needed deep breath and cut ties with their former shutdown cover man. If they can rip the band-aid off, the Vikings can pursue other options at corner, including their own free agents.
Everson Griffen: Strike a “Hometown Discount”
Speaking of in-house free agents, the Vikings have a plethora of their own players who will be playing elsewhere in 2020. I’ll reiterate what I’ve shouted on the Football Machine podcast repeatedly, and that is Griffen will not be one of them.
It was clear in his season-ending press conference his mind was set on staying in Minnesota to finish out his career, which will undoubtedly mean taking less money to do so.
Remember, the Vikings went to bat for Griffen when he broke down mentally at the beginning of the 2018 season and had to sit out for over a month. Despite the unanswered questions, concerns and red flags over Griffen’s ability to ever play again, the front office and coaching staff stuck by him and never swayed in their support for him both on and off the field.
What better way for Griffen to give back to the Vikings’ organization for that support during what was called one of the lowest times in his life. Taking less money to help the team during their own time of need will be a great way to say thank you and repay coach Zimmer personally.
While his physical traits may be on the decline, if you watch the film his overall talent has not deteriorated by much. Griffen has honed his technique and skill set so much over the last 10 years he has molded himself into one of the more feared and refined pass rushers in the league. With Griffen, you can always count on eight-plus sacks in a season while, more importantly, remaining the heartbeat and vocal leader of the team on the field and in the locker room.
There’s no doubt he could land a new contract from cash-rich teams like the Dolphins or Colts in the range of $7-10 million per year. However, I’m predicting a much more team-friendly deal to return — one around the $3-5 million range while getting another round of more guaranteed money up front to sweeten the deal. Just like that, you’re able to retain a core defensive leader while dropping his cap number nearly $10 million.
Kirk Cousins: Extend and Restructure (Save $12-15 million)
After a highly inconsistent first year in Minnesota, Cousins found his groove and put up the best statistical season of his career in 2019. Now, with four-time Super Bowl champion Gary Kubiak running the show on offense, the Vikings brass is committed to Cousins after his improvement, looking to place more talent and stability around him to help maximize his ceiling.
There are two ways Kirk can do this. He can go for the throat and wring the Vikings — or any other QB-needy team — dry, soaking up every penny he can get along the way. At this juncture of his career, though, the more likely mindset is Cousins, who has already cashed in on one monster payday, values a championship more than hopping from team to team and city to city like a debt collections company.
In the past it’s become more and more common to hear of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees late in their careers choosing to take a more team-friendly deal to help aid their front office. This increases the opportunities of acquiring more big-name players to maximize their chances of winning it all during their final few years.
It’s one thing to want to get paid fairly, something Cousins was never given a fair shake at in Washington after being franchise-tagged back to back seasons. But it’s a whole different thing to penny-pinch in negotiations and put your own team between a rock and a hard place.
I don’t see Cousins doing the latter of the two. After already setting the quarterback market with an $84 million fully-guaranteed deal just two years ago, you get the sense Cousins is ready to move on to the next chapter of his career and make a serious run at adding a Super Bowl to his resume.
Signing Cousins to a contract extension could look a variety of different ways. However, a new deal retaining him for three to five more years is most likely, and would likely free up anywhere from $12-15 million in cap space this year alone.
That’s a huge chunk of money to not only retain some of your own Tier 2 and Tier 3 free agents like C.J. Ham, Eric Wilson and Dan Bailey but also allows you the ability to go make a play at one big name on the open market, too.
Think about the addition of a Brandon Scherff-caliber player to the roster. Not only would an addition like that solidify the offensive line and better protect Cousins, who thrives in a clean pocket, but now gives Spielman and Zimmer the luxury of taking the best player available at the beginning of the draft this April, something we all know the front office consistently strives to be able to do on draft weekend.
It certainly wasn’t easy, and it’s not always fun, but breaking up a few members of the band was bound to happen and essential to giving the front office the room needed to stay competitive this offseason.
The Vikings truly had a rare run in the NFL of retaining the same core players for nearly five seasons in a row, but now free agent names like Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander may have already packed their bags.
Harris seems like the biggest blow, but Zimmer stated at the combine the positions of value on defense with safety lying closer to the bottom than the top. Cutting Rhodes and Joseph help give the front office some flexibility after opening up over $18 million in just two quick and seemingly painless moves. After this, retaining names from Stephen Weatherly, Sean Mannion and Britton Colquitt are now strong possibilities with money to play with.
The way I see it, those are the non-negotiables if you want to stay competitive both in 2020 and in the future. The biggest wild card of these moves is Cousins. Will his mindset lean towards the route of other veteran signal-callers that helped create cap space for their team with more friendly deals? Cousins may have started to see his own window for a championship appear smaller and smaller while turning 32 this summer.
It’s possible up to $15 million in cap space gets cleared after Rob Brzezinski works his contract magic with Cousins, giving the team the ability to go fishing for one big name in the free-agent market.
From Spielman to Zimmer, the biggest advantage this newly acquired cap money gives you is the extra flexibility heading into draft weekend to pick the best players available, instead of forcing selections based on obvious needs at glaring positions.
Part 2 of the 2020 Vikings Offseason Blueprint lays out the ideal Vikings draft. Watch for its release at ZoneCoverage.com later this week.