The Salary Cap Doomers Have Never Been More Wrong

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again. Every football publication in the world is going to start publishing misleading information about the salary cap. projects the Minnesota Vikings to be about $24 million over the cap in 2023. Of course, that is assuming all years void out, and the team doesn’t do anything about it — which they cannot do by rule. You’ll see pundits in a blind panic on the Vikings’ behalf, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’, and New Orleans Saints’, and every other team that is projected to be over every year and be blatantly wrong about how dire the situation is.

Anyone can look up red-fonted numbers on a website. But it takes a little bit of effort to actually understand the Vikings’ situation. And once you do, you’ll see that the biggest hurdle is going to be choosing the correct path in a sea of viable options. Laying those options will take a while, so strap in. We’ll go over the top fourteen 2023 cap hits slated to slam the Vikings. Those are:

Before we do so, understand that Rob Brzezinski has planned his cap situation meticulously. The Vikings do not find themselves with surprisingly tight purse strings. Teams typically plan their finances out three years in the future, with a loose idea of where they want to head in Years 4 and 5. Even though the Vikings have changed general managers, Brzezinski is still in charge of executing that plan.

That plan is not to cut all the veteran players on the Vikings and go into a state of hibernation. In fact, I don’t think it’s necessary to cut any players that you wouldn’t cut on merit alone. The rest of the cap situation can be resolved without breaking the roster if you so desired. Our goal should be to create enough cap space for the Vikings to participate in free agency without destroying the roster or compromising too much in future years.

By the way, these numbers are all pulled from, who work tirelessly to manually track the cap. The information is sometimes sourced, sometimes reverse-engineered, and their work is much appreciated. You owe it to them to look deeper than the overall totals and appreciate the tools they’ve created.

Now, let’s get into it.

C.J. Ham

Ham’s situation is pretty simple. He costs the Vikings $3.8 million, just over $3 million of which can be saved with a cut. He’s in the last year of his contract, so restructures aren’t on the table, and as a fullback, there’s no reason to fear him playing in a contract year. If you want a fullback for 2023, $3.8 million might be a bit steep, but it’s doable. Personally, I think the McVay-style offense that O’Connell runs fine without a fullback, unless you have Kyle Juszczyk specifically. And C.J. Ham is not Kyle Juszczyk.

Verdict: Cut C.J. Ham, save $3,050,000

Jordan Hicks

Hicks is another easy cut for me, and he’ll be the only other player I cut in this particular exercise. His snap count declined as the season went on and Brian Asamoah ate into his role, and the writing is on the wall with the way O’Connell has talked about Asamoah. Hicks has a trigger in his contract that guarantees $1.5 million on March 20. Normally, a camp competition between Hicks and Asamoah would be just fine, but that contract trigger tips us off to Brzezinski’s plan. Hicks was a bridge player while the rookie developed, and the rookie has developed.

Verdict: Cut Jordan Hicks, save $5,000,000

Dalvin Cook

Cook’s contract doesn’t seem like it was made to be left alone until it expires. Cook is set to cost over $14 million in 2023, the sixth-highest total in the league. If released (or traded), it would save almost $8 million. I’m torn on whether I want to enter a world without Dalvin Cook. I’m not as low as some on Cook, but at 27, his availability is only going to become more of a concern. Running backs age much faster than other positions, and the Vikings don’t seem to prioritize the run under O’Connell the way Mike Zimmer used to.

Trading Cook for even a Day 3 pick could lead the Vikings directly to his replacement. The running back market is a cruel and unforgiving place. It’s not fair, but it’s not supposed to be. If you’d miss Cook more than I would, go ahead and keep him. It won’t ruin the books.

Verdict: Cut (or trade) Dalvin Cook, save $7,898,727.

Brian O’Neill

The simplest move to save cap space without cutting anyone is converting salary to signing bonus. That turns a lump sum into something that prorates over the life of the contract. O’Neill’s contract has four years left on it, which means every $4 you restructure turns into $1 in each remaining year, effectively deferring 75% of the restructured money.

O’Neill is the best restructure candidate on the roster. Or, at least, he was before partially tearing his Achilles while chasing down a pick-six in Lambeau. If you’re worried that his injury will derail his career, you may not want to restructure. But if you did, you could restructure up to $13,320,000. I’ll save you the calculation on what that saves.

Verdict: Restructure Brian O’Neill, saving $10,065,000

Harrison Phillips

Phillips’ contract only saves a little more than $2 million if cut or traded, and with only two years left, the max restructure saves even less. This could be a good nickel-and-dime candidate, but Phillips’ contract isn’t really set up for cap savings. At a cap hit of just $6.8 million, it doesn’t have to be.

Verdict: No action

Za’Darius Smith

Za’Darius Smith’s contract was structured such that his true salary wouldn’t kick in until the Vikings got a year to see if he stayed healthy. As the leading pressure and sack generator on the Vikings, and an emotional leader on the team, Smith’s 2023 cap hit of $16,990,195, 19th highest, seems well worth it. If you wanted, you could push over $5.5 million into 2024 with a restructure, but it wouldn’t be necessary. He’ll make over $20 million in 2024, but none of it is guaranteed. Let the bonuses vest and enjoy Big Z.

Verdict: No action

Danielle Hunter

Hunter’s contract is one of the least movable ones on the whole team. In a 3-4, he struggled at times, but he generated 76 pressures on the season — second on the Vikings and sixth in the league. Plus, cutting or trading Hunter would cost more than keeping him on the roster would. You could theoretically split up the nearly $19 million over two years with a post-June 1 cut or trade, but that would just delay the inevitable. Hunter’s downfall has been greatly exaggerated. Keep the edge department intact.

Verdict: No action

Eric Kendricks

All options are viable for Kendricks, which makes him one of the trickiest players to figure out. He’s entering a contract year, which brings an extension into the equation. Outright cutting him (or trading him, if anyone’s interested) saves $9.5 million. Letting him play out his deal as-is is also perfectly acceptable. Since I already know I won’t need the money, I’ll leave him alone and hope Year 2 in the same scheme will lead to an improvement. A restructure is always on the table if you find you need more money than you thought down the line.

Verdict: No action

Harrison Smith

We’re getting to the trickier part. By this point, we’re cap compliant for the start of the league year, but we don’t even have enough to sign a practice squad, so there’s work to do yet. Smith is set to make over $19 million in 2023, and a simple restructure can save up to $9 million. That alone would be sufficient, but Smith will be 34 in 2023. Let’s set up the exit strategy.

I’m going to steal a move from a couple of years ago. Anthony Barr was in a similar spot with uncertainty running rampant. The Vikings voided out the final years of his contract, reduced his base salary for the current year to the minimum, and vowed to re-assess at year’s end. From there, you can give Smith one-year extensions for as long as he wants to play, which should alleviate the dead cap hit they took when they did this with Barr.

Cutting Smith outright saves over $7 million. With this strategy, I’ll reduce his cap hit by $8 million without pushing any money into future years. There’s always a chance Smith doesn’t agree to this, and if so, a cut, trade, or restructure are perfectly viable options. The full re-work is the best idea.

Verdict: Re-negotiate Harrison Smith, saving $8 million

Adam Thielen

Thielen will be 33 in 2023, and his situation is much the same. Outright cutting him saves just $6.4 million, and restructuring his contract saves only $7.1 million. But doing the same Anthony Barr move can save more, assuming Thielen agrees to it. We’ll structure it the same way, but we won’t expect Thielen to agree to as drastic a deal as Barr did. We’ll just shave a few million off of his $19 million 2023 cap hit, void out the rest of his contract, and resolve to live in the same one-year deal world as Patrick Peterson is. That way, he has control of his future. It’s still more than fair.

Verdict: Re-negotiate Adam Thielen, saving $5 million.

Dalvin Tomlinson

Tomlinson is not slated to be a Viking in 2023, but he’ll cost them $7.5 million. Let’s fix that situation up by extending the 28-year-old defensive tackle to a slightly inflated version of the deal he signed in 2021. I drew up a quick and dirty $20 million extension over three years that would make him one of the highest-paid run-stuffers in the league. What’s better, it decreases his 2023 cap hit by $2 million. How is that possible? Meet the void year.

Void years are ghost years tacked onto the back of a contract to spread that bonus out thinner. The player isn’t actually on your roster for those years, but the contract is constructed like they are. Problem is, when those void years come, it works the same way as cutting a player in the middle of the contract. Any unpaid bonus, $7.5 million in Tomlinson’s case, accelerates and hits the cap in one year. However, extending Tomlinson for three years spreads that bonus back out. So you can add money to the contract while saving money in the first year. And most importantly, keep Dalvin Tomlinson’s game-wrecking talent in purple.

Verdict: Extend for three years, $20 million

T.J. Hockenson

Trading for Hockenson was inarguably a smash hit, and he’s under contract for over $9 million next year. There’s no urgency to extending him, but there are advantages. For one, negotiating with free agency around the corner is far from ideal. For two, a Hockenson extension could bring his 2023 cap hit down and ensure he stays in Minnesota. I think we all want that, so let’s draw up a quick extension that puts Hockenson in the top ten of TE price tags. It takes almost $4 million off of his 2023 hit by turning most of his 2023 guaranteed salary into signing bonus, and locks him in Minnesota through 2025. Meet your new franchise tight end.

Verdict: Extend for three years, $31 million

Kirk Cousins

Checking up to this point: We’re down to $21 million under the cap. At this point, we can comfortably sign out draft class, bring back any pending free agents, and even get involved in the market if they want to backload a deal. Last season, Cousins’ $45 million cap hit was an emergency situation. Letting it ride wasn’t an option. In 2023, it is an option to let Cousins play on a contract year; it’s also an option to extend him. It’s difficult to trade him with the no-trade clause, but if it comes to that, that’s doable by the salary cap’s standards.

Let’s say we want to extend Cousins, just for the sake of argument. You could structure it much the same as his extension from last offseason, but longer. We’ll convert Cousins’ $20 million roster bonus to a signing bonus and extend Cousins through the void years in his contract. In 2025, we’ll put in another $20 million roster bonus so that we have some options when Cousins is 37 years old, and re-assess then.

Verdict: Do whatever you want, but a two-year, $63 million extension saves $23 million in 2023.

Justin Jefferson

The question everyone’s asking is how the Vikings, with that dire, unsolvable cap situation we just solved in about 2,000 words, can extend Justin Jefferson? If you take the path we’ve taken so far, we’ve made $34 million in cap space for 2023, and we still have $93 million projected for 2024. Some of that must be earmarked for Thielen and Harrison Smith possibly voiding out, but there’s more than enough space to give Jefferson the mega-deal he deserves.

If we model his extension after Tyreek Hill‘s contract with the Miami Dolphins, it looks something like this. Hill’s contract has a $43 million base salary in its final year, which I didn’t replicate since it’s unlikely to stay that way. Here’s how that would affect the cap if we enter all of these moves into OverTheCap’s calculator.

If you don’t extend Cousins, you’ll have to get a little more aggressive with Jefferson’s signing bonus. I did a $27 million bonus, which was Tyreek Hill’s, but you can pump those numbers up until you have what you need to work this offseason. In the full version of the plan, the Vikings have money next year to borrow from if they have to, and can go as crazy as they want in free agency.

Or you could do a lot less, running back a version of the same roster and hoping things on defense improve with some continuity. Whatever you want the Vikings can do, they can do it.

Jefferson’s extension would be reported as a four-year deal worth over $114 million. However close the actual extension is to this, it will bewilder the same TV talking heads who are confused by the cap every offseason. Everyone will wonder how in the world the Vikings, what with their dire cap situation, could afford to do so. But now that you’ve read one (1) article that actually explains the cap, you’ll know better.

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