Change is inevitable in the NFL thanks to its hard salary cap, non-guaranteed contracts, and increasing lack of patience from front offices. Unsuccessful teams are getting dismantled quicker than ever, while successful teams routinely descend into salary cap purgatory once they start compensating their stars.
The Minnesota Vikings wound up in the latter category after a 13-3 season in 2017 that essentially started a timer on how long they’d be able to retain their core. Three seasons later, less than a third of the starters from the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles remain on the team following Kyle Rudolph‘s release Tuesday.
Let’s walk through how the roster has changed from that NFC North title team and categorize the various departures.
There are six starters from the 2017 team under contract in 2021, but there are questions about several of them. Reiff would represent over $11 million in savings if he was released as he enters the fifth and final year of his contract. Cutting Barr could save the club over $7 million, and he is reportedly unwilling to restructure. Hunter is coming off an injury, and speculation is that he has potentially untenable contract demands. Smith will likely return, but he’s entering the final year of his contract. Only Thielen and Kendricks seem like locks for the immediate future.
Rudolph became the latest cap casualty when his release saved the Vikings $5 million against the cap and wiped out the last three years of his contract. His decline in production made this a relatively easy decision. Still, it serves as an example of how quickly the Vikings have been forced to move on from players on the perceived downhill of their careers to avoid paying bloated salaries to aging veterans. It also shows how team-friendly their contracts have been structured to allow for this type of flexibility. Remmers, Rhodes, and Joseph were all cut with three years remaining on their contracts following below-average seasons.
The Vikings shouldn’t have too much regret about making those moves — hey, you have to stay cap compliant — but all three have resurfaced and managed to be relatively productive starters in their new homes: Remmers with the Kansas City Chiefs, Rhodes with the Indianapolis Colts, and Joseph with the Chargers. Rhodes and Joseph’s cases are a bit more maddening, not only because of how the Vikings struggled in their absence in 2020 but because of how healthy both stayed last season after dealing with injuries toward the end in Minnesota.
Sendejo was released to make room for Anthony Harris after 2018, only to find his way back in 2019 as a backup before departing once more.
Then there are the ones who set out for greener pastures in free agency. Keenum was deemed too unpredictable to trust with a long-term contract, and the Vikings seem justified in that decision after what happened to him in Denver. Murray was overpriced for a backup running back, with Dalvin Cook taking a huge role in the offense.
The Vikings would have been receptive to Waynes’ and Griffen’s return in 2020 free agency, but neither ended up being financially feasible. They were negotiating on a shoestring budget, and Waynes wanted badly to get a big payday, which he found in Cincinnati. Even Griffen, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys, couldn’t come to terms.
Ironically, the decision to let Keenum walk also contributed to the reason they couldn’t retain Waynes, Griffen, and other defensive starters like Joseph and Rhodes. To replace Keenum, the Vikings shelled out a historic contract to Kirk Cousins, which is starting to have major implications on the team’s cap situation. If Cousins stays at his current cap figures in 2021 and 2022, Minnesota will have another two years of cap gymnastics and limited ability to retain in-house talent.
TRADED: WR Stefon Diggs
Nobody increased their value more in the 2017 postseason than Diggs, which contributed in part to his 2020 departure. He signed a $72 million extension in 2018 that became too financially straining when combined with his behind-the-scenes dissatisfaction in Minnesota. His trade netted the draft pick that produced Justin Jefferson, so this deal worked out as well as it possibly could have, but it was also jarring to see the face of the 2017 Vikings gone within three years.
Three glue guys from that tight-knit locker room ended their careers before their play fell off a cliff. Berger was sorely missed in 2018 when he chose to hang up the cleats, Newman became an assistant coach, and Johnson spent one more year in Minnesota before calling it quits. These are the type of players, though, that a financially-strained team like the 2021 Vikings need: starting-caliber veterans who are willing to play for close to the minimum and know how to galvanize a locker room.
Elflein was released before his rookie contract expired, having arguably never recovered from the ripple effects of injuries he suffered in that 2017 NFC Title Game. Those surgeries set him back in 2018, which led to his poor performance, an eventual position switch, and a fizzling end to his Vikings career. Morgan never recovered from a knee injury in 2018 that seemingly will end his playing career.
IMPENDING FREE AGENT: T Rashod Hill
A key piece who may even be asked to start in 2021 if Riley Reiff moves on, Hill could be the cheap veteran starter this team needs after serving as their swing tackle for four years now.
If you didn’t realize it by now, the 2017 team isn’t coming back and may be gone entirely within the next couple of years. The 2020 team (and now the 2021 team) is paying for the 2017 team’s success — a tricky aspect of the NFL’s cyclical nature. Good franchises can rebuild on the fly to work around cap casualties and free-agent departures. We’ll see if the Vikings have what it takes.
Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters.