After a two-decade-long dynasty, the New England Patriots used 2020 as a reset. Forging ahead without Tom Brady was never going to be easy, and the Pats seemingly weren’t all that interested in putting bandages on the many holes that Brady’s absence exposed. They signed quarterback Cam Newton to a dirt-cheap contract. They scarcely invested on the offensive side of the ball besides their guards. Their front seven was mostly anonymous. And a league-high in COVID-related opt-outs nudged them even further in the direction of mediocrity.
But now that the dust has settled on a sub-.500 season for the Patriots, and Bill Belichick has finished throwing phones, there are few teams set up better to make an offseason splash than they are. With the salary cap plummeting, New England’s prescient decision not to spend sets them up with nearly $70 million of estimated cap space while roughly a dozen teams, including the Vikings, are already over the threshold.
Throwing its chips into the middle of the table might be the right call for Minnesota in 2021, considering the NFC North’s instability. The offense is still well-positioned to succeed, last year’s rookies could easily take a step forward, and the draft could yield more contributors.
Of course, the risk is that maxing out the cap could exacerbate the Vikings’ financial problems into 2022 when Kirk Cousins is set to count $45 million against the salary cap. However, there is an alternate path where they regain their financial footing, and it means parting with the quarterback. It’s worth contemplating if only to see what could come to pass if they leaned into that direction. This isn’t an endorsement of that strategy, necessarily, but rather a peek at a potential alternate reality.
The Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff trade set the wheels turning on numerous possibilities for the Vikings, fueling the notion that if Stafford can be moved for multiple first-round picks, why not Cousins? The apparent interest from the San Francisco 49ers only stoked rumors further, considering Kyle Shanahan’s apparent interest in acquiring his old protege.
This may amount to one-sided conjecture. There’s been no steam suggesting that the Vikings are interested in shipping off Cousins and potentially diminishing their potential in 2021. Justin Jefferson and Mike Zimmer have both endorsed Cousins in media interviews this week. Cousins’ 2020 performance would likely have been good enough to reach the playoffs if a league-average defense had complemented him.
The potential of a Cousins for Jimmy Garoppolo swap does little to inspire the belief that Garoppolo would be a panacea to the team’s problems. The appeal to such a move, though, would be a clean financial slate that could open up more team-building possibilities in 2021 and 2022 around a cheap quarterback salary. Garoppolo would not have to be retained unless the Vikings wished to hold onto him as a bridge quarterback while they nurtured a rookie. His $2.8 million dead money in 2021 could easily be swallowed in the name of clearing cap space. Garoppolo technically has a no-trade clause, yes, but that gives him little leverage with so few guaranteed dollars remaining on his deal.
Assuming the Niners would absorb Cousins’ entire contract in a quarterback exchange, the Vikings could release Garoppolo and net nearly $30 million in cap savings.
Then there are the logical cost-saving moves the Vikings could make elsewhere: Cutting Kyle Rudolph ($5.1 million saved), cutting Shamar Stephen ($3.75 million saved), and restructuring with Anthony Barr (let’s say that saves another $5 million). That’s another $14 million put aside.
Riley Reiff probably presents the most difficult decision with a reported $11.75 million cap hit coming. In a scenario where the quarterback’s salary has been eliminated, the team could absorb that next year and get relief in 2022. They could also seek to lower his cap number through a short extension, ask him to take a second straight pay cut or release him outright for maximum savings. Let’s assume, for this exercise, that Reiff is rostered in 2021 under a reduced salary in some form.
In this reality, the Vikings have saved close to $50 million without blowing up the roster (besides quarterback, of course). They could do other drastic things like trade Harrison Smith and/or Danielle Hunter to put themselves in salary cap/draft pick heaven, but things are still pretty favorable without making those moves. Assuming a $180 million cap, the Vikings could have about $40 million of cap space before any expenditures.
Minnesota shouldn’t have to shell out much to in-house free agents aside from RFA tenders to Ifeadi Odenigbo and Chad Beebe and a couple million for swing tackle Rashod Hill if he’d like to stay. Then there’s Brian O’Neill, who is set to make just over $2.7 million in the final year of his rookie deal. He’s the only member of the 2018 draft class who the Vikings might have an urgency to extend — and he’ll likely demand a deal worth $10 million per year or more — but his cap number in Year 1 shouldn’t break the bank if the Vikings backload it like they do with most contract extensions.
So now we’re down to $25 million-ish remaining, time to find the Rolls-Royce of keep-the-seat-warm quarterbacks. Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick are all on the market. Uninspired? Remember, as nice as it would be to win nine or 10 games in 2021, this plan is based on hitting a Super Bowl window with a young quarterback AND cash in your pocket, and you’d like for bridge quarterback du jour to willingly step aside for Rookie Quarterback X when the time comes.
The Vikings still have enough money at this point to make some mid-level moves in free agency, but if we’re really leaning into this plan, let’s hold onto the capital — find a budget guard again not named Dakota Dozier if you have to. Team-building demands good drafting, so Minnesota can look to select guard help, defensive line depth, and a starting safety, along with their future franchise quarterback, in April’s draft. You’d like to bat 100%, but you don’t have to because this is a 2022-centric plan.
Minnesota should try and carry over at least $10 million in cap space to the 2022 cap. Subtract Cousins’ $45 million and Rudolph’s $10.25 million, lower Barr’s cap hit, and account for someone’s big salary getting converted to signing bonus money. Assuming $190 million for the 2022 cap, the Vikings could be approximately $60 million under with the following assets on the roster: Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Irv Smith Jr., Dalvin Cook, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, Brian O’Neill, Alexander Mattison, Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks. That’s a strong roster even before the 2021 and 2022 drafts, or perhaps most importantly, 2022 free agency.
At that point, they’ll have had a year under their belt with a rookie quarterback and a chance to evaluate the holes on the roster. Now it’s time to spend. Find your Harrison Smith replacement. Find better than a replacement-level guard. Grab a third receiver.
Bear in mind, if Cousins’ $45 million cap hit is on your books, most of your free agency budget is gone.
Circling back to the present, the Vikings may have a rare opportunity to pay off their mortgage early. They could buy a new fireplace, a four-season porch, and a riding lawnmower. The only caveat is picking correctly on your next franchise quarterback, and it’s a big caveat when Cousins provides a high floor. Same, too, with Garoppolo.
That’s why it’s a risky plan, and that’s why it probably won’t happen.