What's the Plan For C.J. Ham?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

On Selection Sunday, a majority of Minnesota Vikings fans were on the receiving end of a gut punch courtesy of new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell. Instead of trading him away or allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, they extended quarterback Kirk Cousins through 2023 while providing the team with just under $14 million in cap relief this offseason.

Following contract restructures from Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith, the Vikings’ brass has been plenty busy, adding run-stuffing nose tackle Harrison Phillips and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks to Minnesota’s new-look 3-4 defense. And with reports coming out that the Vikings are receptive to converting Danielle Hunter‘s roster bonus to a signing bonus, thus creating an additional $13.5 million in cap space, Kwesi and Co. have wasted little time in going big-game hunting.

A reunion between edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and newly hired Vikings defensive assistant coaches Mike Pettine and Mike Smith would provide Skoldiers with the offseason splash that they’ve been clamoring for. Pairing Smith opposite a (healthy?) Hunter would give Minnesota one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFC.

But if signing Smith to a substantial free-agent deal means taking up most of the $13.5 million in cap space that’s created through Hunter’s signing-bonus conversion, where does that leave the holes that need fixing throughout the rest of the roster — on the interior of the offensive line or at cornerback, for example?

Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have made it crystal clear that they plan on contending in 2022. And with that comes making some extremely tough decisions. If the Vikings find themselves in a position to land not only Smith but to also sign an immediate-impact offensive lineman and/or corner, how would they create the necessary space to improve the roster?

With a $3.4 million cap hit in 2022, Duluth native C.J. Ham has the second-highest cap hit among NFL fullbacks this season. Ham also currently occupies the 13th-highest cap hit on the roster. While no one can question Ham’s impact over the years under Mike Zimmer’s Vikings, history hasn’t necessarily been kind to fullbacks playing in the system that O’Connell is bringing with from his time with the Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams.

Granted, when speaking at the NFL Combine at the beginning of the month, O’Connell mentioned that he plans to be more multiple with the Vikings’ offense based on the existing personnel.

As for the usage of fullbacks in McVay’s offense, which is passing through the league with his former assistants Zac Taylor and Matt LaFleur in Cincinnati and Green Bay: According to Sharp Football Analysis, the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, and Packers used multiple running backs on just a combined 48 out of 3,736 offensive plays this past season. This equates to a little more than 1% of their plays.

For context, the 2021 Vikings led by Zimmer and Klint Kubiak used multiple running backs on 337 out of 1,078 offensive plays — nearly a third of their plays.

In 2019, when both Taylor and LaFleur became head coaches in Cincinnati and Green Bay, the Rams, Bengals, and Packers used multiple running backs at the following rates:

  • Los Angeles Rams: 0 of 1,049 plays
  • Cincinnati Bengals: 24 of 1,047 plays
  • Green Bay Packers: 180 of 1,128 plays

The trend didn’t change much the following year in 2020.

  • Los Angeles Rams: 3 of 1,202 plays
  • Cincinnati Bengals: 17 of 1,034 plays
  • Green Bay Packers: 188 of 1,126 plays

Over the past three seasons, McVay and his former minions combined to use multiple running backs on just 460 out of 10,322 offensive plays. This equates to approximately 4.5% of their offensive plays.

Considering that O’Connell will likely be leaning on the same core philosophies that helped win the Rams the Super Bowl, where does that leave Ham in Minnesota? Even if O’Connell replicates the same usage of multiple running backs as LaFleur did in ’19 and ’20, that’s still just 16.3% of his offensive plays.

To accommodate Ham, could O’Connell diverge heavily from the McVay system by incorporating a much greater percentage of plays with multiple running backs? Of course. But if that’s the case, why would Adofo-Mensah and the Wilfs ask their new head coach to implement an offense that is essentially foreign to the former Super Bowl-winning Rams’ offensive coordinator?

In this scenario, hiring someone like former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel would’ve made more sense than O’Connell, as very few offensive schemes ask more of their fullbacks than the 49ers. One of McDaniel’s first free-agent signings after becoming the head coach of the Miami Dolphins was making former Raider Alec Ingold the second-highest paid fullback in the league.

The Vikings are in a tough spot with Ham’s aforementioned $3.4 million cap hit in 2022. By releasing the fan-favorite fullback, they could immediately open up an additional $2 million in cap relief. By doing so, Adofo-Mensah and the front office could use that space to help sweeten any hypothetical offer for an elite pass-protecting interior offensive lineman such as J.C. Tretter, Ereck Flowers, and/or Michael Schofield.

Just last week, former Baltimore Ravens center Bradley Bozeman — who was graded by Pro Football Focus as the fifth-best center in pass protection last season — signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal with the Carolina Panthers. Would the Vikings have been better off using the money that’s currently allocated for Ham on reinforcements up front by signing someone like Bozeman?

Conversely, the Vikings could elect to bring Ham back and figure out a role for the former Augustana Viking within O’Connell’s 11-personnel-centric offensive scheme — and a role that would hopefully justify his cap hit.

But considering that there are more pressing needs on the roster than a fullback that’s best suited for a 1990s-style rushing attack, don’t be surprised if Ham is the sacrificial Viking that’s needed to clear cap space for an impact interior offensive lineman and/or a cornerback in free agency.

Especially if the Vikings end up signing Smith as an edge rusher. In that case, Adofo-Mensah and the front office will need to find ways to trim as much off the cap in order to fill out the roster. And Ham is the most likely way to do so, should circumstances present themselves.

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