Vikings

How To Salvage The Salary Cap Without Losing Anybody

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

According to Overthecap.com, the Minnesota Vikings will be almost $13 million in the red heading into the 2021 season. That’s based on a recent estimate of a $180 million total cap, down from $198.2 million in 2020. COVID disrupted the plans of many teams, and the Vikings are no exception. It seems like they will have to make some serious cuts to get CBA compliant and maybe make more sacrifices if they want to play in free agency at all.

Enter Rob Brzezinski.

The Vikings’ cap wizard has navigated his way through plenty of jams. He kept the Vikings’ defensive core together for two years with a market-rate quarterback on the books. He has a penchant for setting contracts up to be malleable in future years and cashing in on that malleability when the team needs him to. So what can he do this time?

One option is to convert salary into bonus. This doesn’t require a negotiation in most cases, which makes the process much easier. Salary is paid game-by-game throughout the year. Bonuses are prorated over the life of the contract (maximum five years). The Vikings did this with Eric Kendricks to make room for Dalvin Cook‘s extension. They took $6 million in salary and converted it into four $1.5 million debts. If there ever comes a time where the Vikings want to cut Kendricks, it gets that much harder. For a player like Kendricks, they’re unlikely enough to regret it.

The same effect can be achieved with extensions. By adding years to a contract and converting salary into the signing bonus for that extension, the Vikings can kick the can down an even longer road. They can guarantee previously unguaranteed salary and minimize the amount they’d have to tack on.

So what can be done this year? If the Vikings have no desire to cut or trade players for cap space, can they get under? The answer is yes because Brzezinski drafted up these contracts with these options in mind.

1. Extend Danielle Hunter

It’s been reported that Danielle Hunter is unhappy with his contract and that the Vikings will address this at some point. The Vikings could give Hunter an extension that both eases the burden in 2021, raises Hunter’s average yearly salary, and tacks a couple of extra years onto the deal to keep him in Minnesota.

Hunter is due $12.15 million in base salary next season. By extending him two years (through 2025) and converting that to base salary, Hunter gets a salary advance, and the Vikings save almost $10 million against 2021’s cap. As part of that extension, they could bridge the gap and pay Hunter like the top-5 edge rusher he is.

Here is a quickly drawn up extension using OverTheCap’s Calculator that would achieve all of these goals:

Hunter’s AAV (Average Annual Value) would balloon over $25M, his 2021 cap hit would shrink by over $7M, and they’d have room to convert salary to bonus in future years if they so chose. If need be, they could guarantee a lot of this salary to Hunter, so long as they don’t have any plans to cut him any time soon. The Vikings even have that option in 2023, though they may have to guarantee more salary in those years to get Hunter to agree to it. That would certainly be fine.

2. Extend Harrison Smith

When looking for contracts to adjust, guaranteed money is a good place to look. Players without that blanket of security will be extra willing to negotiate. Players understand that unguaranteed base salary is about as good as a handshake in the NFL, which fosters a good faith negotiating environment. The Vikings want Smith to stay around, and he would want reassurance to that effect. Smith’s current deal is in its final year at $10.25 million, without a dime guaranteed. The Vikings could cut him, save it, and try to fill that role for cheaper, but that would be a schematic disaster.

Instead, they can extend him to a deal that guarantees that he retires a Viking. That $10M can also be manipulated into signing bonus and guaranteed salary. This contract would fully guarantee Smith’s 2021 salary and add $12M in possible salary over 2022 and 2023. It also shaves about $4 million off of the 2021 cap. By the time decisions have to be made about the tail end of Smith’s contract, they’d have much more information about how he’ll age.

Again, this hasn’t accounted for any guarantees in the final two years of the extension, but there is room for guaranteed salary if Smith wanted. They could theoretically guarantee half of his 2022 base salary without removing the option of cutting him — not that it would be a good one in that scenario.

3. Restructure Anthony Barr

In 2019, Anthony Barr signed a huge contract that tied him to the Vikings through 2023. Right now, very little of that contract is guaranteed, and the Vikings are mostly tied to him via signing bonus. Minnesota could double down on that commitment and save some money in 2021. To do so, you’ll have to be on board with making Barr uncuttable in 2021 and a very inefficient cut in 2022. The maximum base salary restructure is $11.25M of his $12.3 million, which looks like this:

You’d have to be confident that his play in 2021 would not warrant an inefficient release in 2022. I happen to be that confident, but you may not like this deal as much if you aren’t.

Below is where the salary cap lies after these three moves. The tougher options like cutting Kyle Rudolph or trading Riley Reiff are still on the table, but the Vikings can at least be CBA compliant up until it’s time to sign the draft class.

As you can see, we’ve borrowed a ton from 2022, and 2022 looks pretty tight. Luckily, the Vikings won’t have much homework in a year. The biggest pending free agents are Harrison Smith, who we’ve already extended, Mike Hughes, and Brian O’Neill. If you want some more space to attack free agency in a wide-open post-COVID market, another Cousins extension is on the table. Cousins carries a $45 million hit in 2022 (that will fully guarantee this coming St. Patrick’s Day), but a similar extension to this year’s would make the cap look like this:

If you’re okay with two more years of Cousins, this will set the Vikings up fairly well. If not, that’s a bridge we can cross when we come to it. Either way, each of these moves is fairly easy to pull off. The magic of Rob Brzezinski is not that he finds loopholes or magic money out of nowhere. The Vikings planned for this cap situation, and have a number of ways out from underneath it. That Brzezinski was able to keep these options open while taking on a market-rate quarterback contract and several star defenders is nothing short of witchcraft.

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