Answering Minnesota's Most Important Salary Cap Questions

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Free agency will begin in earnest next week, and there are still a ton of questions left to be answered. As of this writing, the salary cap isn’t set. That means teams don’t have the full information they need to make their roster decisions. They wouldn’t want to cut or restructure more money than they need, and they don’t know how much they need.

If you’re nervous about free agency and what the Minnesota Vikings will do, here are some simple rules to help you survive. Those are more about evaluation, though, and not necessarily the rules of the season. So here are some classic questions on the Vikings’ situations:

Will Hunter Hold Out?

Danielle Hunter‘s status seems to be more in flux than usual for a player with three years left under contract. He’s criminally underpaid as the 12th highest-paid edge rusher in the league in 2021. He and his camp know it. The Vikings have been in this situation before back in 2019. Adam Thielen was playing on a prove-it contract well after proving it, and he was rewarded. The Vikings would likely have no issue finding a way to pay Hunter what he deserves were it not for his 2020 neck injury.

Holding out is a much less attractive option than it used to be. Thanks to the 2020 CBA negotiation, teams have a lot more leverage in hold-out situations. Previously, a team could arbitrarily fine their players for missed days of mandatory practice. If you miss 10 practices for $40,000 each, you wouldn’t be out $400,000 necessarily. It was standard practice for the team to pay that back. As of last February, that is no longer allowed. Fines are final, and players will have to contend with spending millions of dollars to chase a raise.

If Hunter holds out, he could be forced to forfeit his salary and forfeit his previously paid signing bonus. This is entirely at the team’s discretion. The Vikings could elect not to fine Hunter anything if they wanted to keep the faith. With three years left on his contract, the logical terminus for a Hunter hold-out ends poorly for both sides. They want Hunter on the field for obvious reasons, and his value would diminish each year he stays on the sidelines.

In short, Hunter could hold out. But it would be pretty unwise for both sides to let it get to that point. In fact, an extension now might be better for the Vikings than for Hunter. His value is no doubt depressed by his injury situation. He’s in the thick of his prime at 27 years old. A 2022 extension might pay him more over time than a 2021 extension would. It’s far more likely that Hunter gets paid than any of the nuclear options, but those nuclear options aren’t impossible.

What Can The Vikings Do About Kirk’s Giant 2022 Cap Hit?

Next week, Kirk Cousins will have a $35 million contract trigger lock into place. If he were cut today, Cousins would carry a whopping $41 million dead cap hit (compare to the $31 million he costs to stay on the roster). They can’t feasibly release him before that trigger sets in. These are scary numbers, but they’re not as prohibitive as you think.

The Vikings obviously can’t cut Cousins in 2022 since every dime of his deal will be fully guaranteed. That $45 million is an ugly number, but it’s not entirely immutable. Guaranteed salary still travels in a trade. So if they traded him next year, they’d only keep $10 million on their books, sending the other $35 million to another city.

Guaranteed salary can also be restructured. Restructures aren’t pay cuts. They’re accounting tricks. The above video pitches an extension that gives Cousins a $30 million signing bonus. That would reduce his cap hit, as counterintuitive as that seems. It would guarantee some money in 2023 and 2024. But if you’re extending Cousins, you’re probably at peace with that.

The Vikings’ QB situation can be simply delineated. If you like Kirk Cousins but think he’s too expensive, a 2022 extension can alleviate your concerns. If you want out, start dreaming up 2022 trade partners. Those are the two options.

Can The Vikings Do What The Saints Do?

The New Orleans Saints and Vikings are on the same salary cap, but New Orleans is a bit further down that line. They’ve used restructures and voidable years to kick the can down the road since Drew Brees$100 million extension in 2012. Voidable years may come into play for the Vikings soon, but they haven’t needed them yet. A voidable year is a ghost year on a contract that is used to further divide signing bonuses. A $24 million signing bonus over three years is $8 million per year. Over four, it’s $6 million per year. You could sign a three-year deal with a voidable fourth year to save $2 million in each season.

The downside is that this chicken must come home to roost. If you let that contract play out, you’ll have a $6 million dead cap hit in a year after the player leaves. With multiple voidable years, a large chunk of signing bonus can squeeze a future season. But that could be preferable. Consider a $5 million signing bonus. Over three years, that would cost $1.7 million per year. Over three years with two voidable, it would cost $1 million for two years before you have to pay the piper in the third — with a 40-plus-year-old QB, that made sense for the Saints.

For the Vikings, it might not be as wise, but it is an option available to them. The Vikings utilize restructures and salary manipulation similarly to the Saints. It’s how they keep handing out large extensions despite having a market-rate QB contract on the books. If they wanted to take it further and truly mortgage the post-Cousins years, they could do so. But at 32 years old, he does not inspire that sort of short-term strategy.

Why Don’t The Vikings Use The June 1st Cut Designation More?

I wrote about this last week. In short, the June 1st cut is a way to cut a player without taking their full dead cap penalty right away. You can defer some to the next season. However, to do that, you have to wait until June 1st to access the money you saved. By then, most of the good opportunities to spend that money have passed until March of 2022. If you’re going to wait until March of 2022 to spend the savings, you may as well keep the player in the building for an extra year.

Will The Vikings Franchise Tag Anyone This Year?

Something removing a lot of pressure from this offseason is the relative lack of departing talent via free agency. Anthony Harris is the only departing starter. Eric Wilson could be missed, and Rashod Hill is a valuable depth piece. Ifeadi Odenigbo needs to be tendered, but that should be easy to work in. The Vikings could franchise tag Harris for a second-straight year like the Denver Broncos did with Justin Simmons, but his play over 2020 might discourage that. Some years, the franchise tag just isn’t a great idea. This seems like one of those years.

If you have any other cap questions, fill out this form and I will answer them on Tuesday’s Locked On Vikings podcast.

Can Danielle Hunter Save This Defense?
By Rob Searles - Sep 25, 2021
What If Minnesota’s “Seahawks Problem” Is Just Home-Field Advantage?
By Tom Schreier - Sep 25, 2021

What Would a Vikings In-Season “Hard Knocks” Look Like?

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Nothing gets football fans excited for the upcoming season like HBO’s Hard Knocks, an all-access show chronicling an NFL team’s training camp and preseason. This summer, Hard […]

Continue Reading