Is the Vikings Contract Strategy Working?

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

It was hard not to get excited when the Minnesota Vikings came to terms with Danielle Hunter before mandatory minicamp, especially while Aaron Rodgers continues to hold out on the Green Bay Packers. Every team has thorny contract issues; some just handle them better than others. That’s why it’s important to evaluate whether Minnesota’s strategy of locking rising stars into contracts early works as advertised.

PFF just came out with their top-32 contracts list, and the Vikings have the most players of any team with four. It could have been five. Rick Spielman was the maestro behind Stefon Diggs’ contract, which is ranked first on the list. The only other teams that came close to the Vikings are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints, and the, ahem, Packers (one being Rodgers). Each had three of the top 32, per PFF.

Rob Brzezinski and Spielman take full advantage of the available cap space and players who want to sign with the Vikings. But not every instance of a team-friendly deal works out for Minnesota. Hunter’s brief holdout is an example of this.

The recent drama surrounding Hunter ended up being alleviated by a reworked contract. Looking back, it already seems silly to have worried about the Vikings losing one of their most important players over a contract that had room to be reworked. The root of the issue? It had become too team-friendly.

Hunter was making $14.4 million per year on average before it was restructured. That’s nearly half of the $27 million Joey Bosa is making after signing an extension last year. Hunter was a victim of timing and cap space. He had become underpaid for his performance.

Following the restructure, Hunter seems satisfied with his compensation, and there are fewer issues on the team. Still, to build a complete team under a restrictive cap, the Vikings are eager to sign players to team-friendly deals as soon as they identify them as future stars. They’ve also approached veterans about taking a cut to create cap room. This sometimes can leave players wanting out.

A prime example of this is Riley Reiff, who took a pay cut last year so that the Vikings could trade for Yannick Ngakoue. The move ultimately backfired. Minnesota traded Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens at the bye week and upset one of their few reliable offensive linemen.

Reiff’s restructure ultimately created an issue this offseason. He would have had a $13.9 million cap hit this season, too rich in a year with a reduced cap due to COVID. Reiff was cut by the Vikings to create cap space and ended up signing a one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Because of the initial restructure, the Vikings were left without a reliable starter on the O-line. He was already upset about being moved from right tackle to left, but it’s hard not to believe money wasn’t the driving factor.

However, Minnesota may have salvaged the situation by taking arguably the best tackle in this year’s draft. But don’t tell me that Reiff wouldn’t have signed to a reasonable deal after one of the best seasons of his career for Minnesota had his previous one not been restructured. This would’ve given the Vikings even more flexibility in the draft.

What about Trae Waynes? The three-year, $42 million contract he got from Cincinnati may be an overpay, but the Vikings were left without their first-round pick from 2015. It can’t go overlooked that he missed last season with a pectoral injury, but Minnesota’s CB play was lacking last season, and they probably could have used a player like him.

Had the Vikings offered him a fair contract, it’s likely he would’ve stayed in Minnesota, especially considering Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie Alexander both left in the 2019 offseason. It’s speculative, but wouldn’t Waynes have stayed knowing he’d be the No. 1 corner for the Vikings had he been offered fair money?

Waynes’ consistency would have been valuable in a secondary full of young players. There’s no doubt he’s at least a second-tier corner, but he would have been a competent outside corner last year, and he excels in the run game. Yes, he got overpaid. But he plays a position of need for the Vikings. What if he had played for Minnesota last year? Would the team have been as bad as they were with a veteran cornerback on the roster?

How about Anthony Barr? In the 2019 offseason, he had a verbal agreement to sign a deal with the New York Jets that would pay him $15 million per year. However, he abruptly changed his mind and settled for a five-year, $67.5 million deal with the Vikings. It worked out for everyone except the Jets.

Even with a player-friendly culture, they risk stars like Barr because of their contract strategy. Barr was less likely to win with the Jets, but they were offering substantially more money. The Vikings may be a team that guys want to play for, but there are limitations in using that as leverage.

Admittedly, it’s hard to push back on the team’s strategy here. In reality, it’s probably best for the long-term that they didn’t overpay for Waynes or Reiff, and ultimately it would have been hard to keep them in Minnesota without offering early in Waynes’ case and keeping Reiff at his original number.

Although Minnesota’s strategy of offering a team-friendly contract early led to the Hunter situation this year, the contingency for a rework had to have been in mind after the low cost of the deal. Plus, that same strategy worked out with Eric Kendricks and Adam Thielen, two integral parts of the team.

Nick Olson broke down why the approach the team took with Thielen works. The Vikings are willing to extend players a year or two before their first contract expires to keep them longer without breaking the bank. They did the same thing with Kendricks. It doesn’t always keep the player happy, although Hunter’s situation may differ because he wanted financial security after suffering a neck injury.

In short, the Vikings are signing their best players before the end of their first contract expires, and they lose all leverage. It’s a good way to maintain a core of players without running out of cap space. They have trimmed the fat, so to speak, by letting players who demand more money than they’re worth walk.

The Vikings are generally good at handling contract negotiations. When five of the top 32 contracts in the league come from this front office, it’s hard to blame Spielman, Brzezinski, and Co. for the lack of a title. Given the state of the NFC North, it looks like they can make a run with the roster they’ve built.

Sheldon Richardson’s return is an inspiring move, given that he was willing to take a pay cut to sign with the Vikings. Minnesota needed another pass-rusher, and it’s a good sign that a big-name player was willing to sign an affordable deal to fill out the defense.

After Diggs’ dramatic departure, it’s refreshing to see players actually want to be here — especially after hearing rumors of Hunter being influenced by former players to leave for a new team during his contract dispute. It speaks volumes about the front office and the head coach that he stayed with. A well-run front office that has created a culture players want to be a part of? That’s a foreign concept in Minnesota sports.

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