The Minnesota Vikings needed to find a way to get under the salary cap when the offseason began. Rob Brzezinski, the Simone Biles of financial gymnastics, went to work finding ways to restructure deals and make sure the team could be a player in free agency.
One of the most obvious targets was Anthony Barr, who signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract before the 2018 season. With Barr due to make $12.9 million, Brzezinski pulled off his version of the Yurenecho double pike and restructured Barr’s contract to create $8.5 million in cap space.
But there was a catch.
The Vikings voided the final year of Barr’s deal, making him a free agent after the 2021 season. While Barr has his fans and critics, his newest contract is a calculated gamble that could have long-term ramifications.
By restructuring Barr’s contract, the Vikings were able to revamp their defense. While Rick Spielman tried a shotgun approach on Day 3 of the 2020 NFL Draft, he didn’t find any players who could make an immediate impact. Instead, they needed to be savvy in free agency and find players who could step into starting roles.
The problem was the Vikings didn’t have any money. According to the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling, the team told prospective free agents that they could only afford to offer players the veteran minimum. This limited their options before Barr agreed to restructure his deal. With Barr’s cap number reduced, the Vikings were able to sign Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, and several other free agents who were part of a $45 million spending spree on defense.
Barr will benefit from having a better defense around him, and he’ll get to hit the market ahead of his age-30 season. One year may not seem like a big deal, but with teams focusing on getting younger and cheaper, Barr might not have as many options had he not restructured.
There’s also a chance that Barr’s play remains at the same level into his early 30s. A 2013 article by Bleacher Report’s Ty Schalter pointed out that linebackers don’t have the sudden drop-off in play that a running back or offensive lineman would. Because of the curve, Barr might be able to maintain his level of play well into his 30s, which means the Vikings now find themselves in a bidding war to retain his services.
That’s not to say they weren’t interested in keeping him around before. An interview with co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer last September revealed that Barr does more than we see on the field.
“No. 1, he is really good at getting everybody lined up on defense,” Zimmer said. “He calls the huddle. He gets everybody set. He helps [Eric] Kendricks immensely as far as setting the front, setting the pressure, and everything we do defensively.
“No. 2, he’s outstanding in coverage. I know some people might look at Pro Football Focus grades and stuff, but they really don’t know what we ask him to do, and he is always one of our highest-graded guys in terms of defense.”
This may seem odd for a player who has recorded one sack since signing his big contract, but Barr had a strong market for his services before re-signing with the Vikings in 2018. If other teams feel like Barr could provide the same value, there could be competition if he decides to cash in one more time.
In effect, Barr’s career is like Chad Greenway’s. Like Barr, Greenway was a leader on the Vikings’ defense throughout the 2000s but saw his career winding down with the turn of a new decade. The Vikings locked up Greenway on a five-year, $41 million contract in 2011, but Greenway signed a series of restructured deals until he retired at 33.
That will make things difficult if Barr overperforms this fall. With most of the Vikings’ defense signed to one-year deals and Danielle Hunter’s contract status up in the air, they could have several tough decisions to make. While the Vikings would certainly make an effort to keep Barr, letting him leave after this year makes that more expensive than it would have been if they let him play out his contract.
With Chazz Surratt the only prospective option to take over for Barr next season, the Vikings may feel it’s necessary to sign Barr next offseason. That’s where the gamble comes into play. If Barr does just enough, the Vikings should easily be able to re-sign Barr and keep a core piece of their defense. If he overperforms, the Vikings could have a big hole to fill next spring. It’s a risk worth taking to bolster the defense this offseason.