Can the Vikings Fit Cousins, Jefferson, and Hunter Under the Cap?

Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings will define the direction of the franchise with decisions on three major players, which could set market expectations for the respective position groups of those athletes. On top of that, there has been some pretty significant reporting on all three negotiations.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been vocal about his preferred contract structure, with new reporting solidifying that preference from Cousins. Negotiation details also seemingly leaked for receiver Justin Jefferson, with the apparent negotiating posture from the Vikings enraging some fans.

On top of that, edge defender Danielle Hunter’s contract will be hitting a deadline next month. Last year, trade buzz ramped up for him before the Vikings temporarily assuaged his concerns with a stop-gap one-year deal.

But the Vikings might be able to keep all three players while meeting their demands without destroying their salary cap. We can go through it player by player, assuming the worst-case scenario for each player, where the Vikings meet their purported demands.

Kirk Cousins

The Vikings are reluctant to fully guarantee Cousins’ contract, a historically consistent demand for the quarterback. He has always valued security, and Cousins sees that security in the form of fully guaranteed deals, like the one he signed with the Vikings in 2018 and the extensions he signed in 2020 and 2022.

Cousins has received every dollar he’s signed for since 2016, and he’s apparently not about to stop now. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the biggest hangup preventing an extension is Cousins’ need for a fully guaranteed deal. That accords with Kevin Seifert’s reporting at ESPN, where Cousins indicated that the structure was more important than the total dollars.

The Vikings have a bit of a conundrum, with Cousins carrying $28.5 million in dead cap space in 2024 if he’s not signed to the roster. However, the opportunity is there to decrease his cap charge by signing him to an extension. Cousins is reportedly not seeking top quarterback money. His demands were just under $40 million a year, which is in line with the second tier of the quarterback market.

Were it $40 million, 18% of the 2023 salary cap, those demands would have matched Daniel Jones’ current contract with the New York Giants, Jared Goff’s second contract with the Los Angeles Rams, and slid in just below Russell Wilson’s final contract with the Seattle Seahawks.

That number fell just behind Matthew Stafford’s new contract with the Rams, Derek Carr’s final contract with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Dak Prescott’s current deal with the Dallas Cowboys.

In a new cap environment, that 18% figure would come in at $43.5 million a year. If we give teeth to the “discount” Seifert reported from the Cousins camp, we can estimate a new extension at $40 million a year.

Should the Vikings sign Cousins to a three-year, $120 million extension, they could reduce their 2024 cap hit and engineer a bridge quarterback situation should they bring in a rookie QB this year or next.

By necessity, the Vikings will want to extend the paper terms of the contract to at least 2027 because his prior contract’s void years extended that far. If they shorten the contract, even in pure paper terms without any functional changes, they may run afoul of compensatory pick rules. Giving up a potential third-round pick would be foolish.

Below, we can look at a sample contract structure using the cap calculator tool at OverTheCap to get a sense of what a Cousins extension may look like.

Notably, a contract would not prevent a trade, though they would have to absorb a bigger hit if they traded him before the 2026 season – a $44 million hit. But they would likely be benefiting from a rookie contract at the position in that case, making it pretty easy to absorb.

A $40 million per year deal wouldn’t bankrupt the Vikings. Adding an extra void year allows the team to take on a lower cap hit in 2024 with a new deal than they would with Cousins off the roster. While the cap number of $49 million looks exorbitant in 2026, it would be just 17.3% of the 2026 cap – similar to Cousins’ 2021 hit.

This scenario demonstrates that Cousins’ terms are doable. It also demonstrates why the Vikings would be hesitant; a fully guaranteed two-year deal at $40 million is much more difficult to engineer under the cap than a three-year deal.

And he’s not the only new contract that will save space.

Justin Jefferson

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio jumped on Paul Allen’s KFAN show to reveal what seemed to be a shocking detail about Minnesota’s negotiations with Jefferson. The Vikings weren’t willing to guarantee anything beyond the first year of Jefferson’s new deal.

“The problem continues to be not the dollars, but the structure,” said Florio. “The Vikings are one of the few teams that will not fully guarantee beyond the first year of the contract for anyone other than Kirk Cousins. If you’re not gonna make that same exception for Justin Jefferson, you’re gonna have a problem with Justin Jefferson eventually.”

That sounds pretty damning – and backward for an organization that stumbled into the top receiver in the NFL that now won’t support him. But this report doesn’t give us enough information.

When Florio says the Vikings won’t guarantee the first deal of the contract, we don’t know if he means the first year of any new money in an extension or of the contract as a whole. Practically speaking, that’s the difference between guaranteeing only Jefferson’s 2024 salary or also guaranteeing his 2025 salary.

On top of that, guaranteeing a base salary doesn’t mean much. A team could hypothetically provide a signing bonus that constituted 90% of a contract’s value and functionally guarantee more than any other non-quarterback contract in history has ever done. The structure would protect the player from termination until the fifth and/or final year of their contract.

That also doesn’t include rolling guarantees, where salaries become guaranteed as the life of the contract continues. In some cases, the guarantee kicks in for the same year as the vesting deadline. As an example, $2.5 million of Josh Oliver’s $4.7 million 2024 salary becomes guaranteed on the third day of the 2024 league year, which is March 15.

In other cases, these are functionally the same as guaranteed salaries because the guarantee kicks for the year following the vesting deadline. T.J. Hockenson’s 2025 base salary of $10.9 million becomes fully guaranteed at the beginning of the 2024 league year. There’s almost no circumstance that he won’t see that 2025 salary because the Vikings would have to cut him before any games are played in 2024 to deny him that.

That would mean that the Vikings would have to be comfortable taking on $24.3 million in dead cap space in 2024 to avoid paying Hockenson in 2025. It’s cheaper to roster Hockenson for the 2024 season because he only carries a $14 million cap hit.

In that sense, Hockenson does not have any years “guaranteed” beyond the first year of new money in his deal. But he functionally does.

But let’s say that Jefferson requires a greater proportion of his salary guaranteed. There’s a method of crafting a contract that ensures that Jefferson earns the highest non-quarterback contract total in the NFL, provides him with long-term stability, and doesn’t destroy Minnesota’s cap situation.

We can use Tyreek Hill’s contract as an example. He signed a record-breaking deal with the Miami Dolphins in terms of absolute average value and in terms of cap percentage – $30 million a year, which constituted 14.4% of the 2022 salary cap.

A contract worth five years at 14.5% of the 2024 salary cap would earn Jefferson $35 million a year and provide him with an impressive $175 million total. The Vikings could guarantee $77 million – the highest guaranteed total in receiver contract history – without violating too many of their principles.

That seems difficult, especially with just $23 million in cap space. But as we’ll see with Cousins and Hunter’s contracts, a new contract would reduce 2024 cap liability and create more space. A $60 million signing bonus would be in line with the signing bonus percentages of Hill and Cooper Kupp’s contracts.

If they fully guaranteed the first year of new money in the deal, maybe a $13 million base salary, they would hit $77 million guaranteed.

They could also guarantee the salary for 2026 in the first few days of the 2025 league year, providing a vested guarantee that gives Jefferson three years of security. His take-home pay in year one of the new deal would be $64 million.

The $52 million price tag in 2028 might seem intimidating, but it’s not that concerning. The Vikings would restructure his contract before then and $52 million would be about 15.3% of the expected team total salary cap for that year. Hill’s final contract year consumes 19.8% of the cap.

That reduces his 2024 cap liability from $19.7 million to $16 million.

Danielle Hunter

Pro Football Focus’s Brad Spielberger believes that Hunter will draw a three-year, $65 million contract in free agency – averaging $21.7 million a year. We can use that to figure out a contract structure for Hunter that works for the Vikings.

It may seem unusual not to add any guaranteed money to the contract outside of the signing bonus, but the bonus is large relative to the deal. Edge rushers earning around $21 million a year have had anywhere between 28% to 43% of their contract fully guaranteed at signing. This guarantees 40%, a high proportion.

There’s not much detail to add here. The newest piece of reporting on Hunter’s contract situation comes from Alec Lewis at The Athletic, which has less new information on negotiations and seems to primarily provide context. For example, Hunter’s injury history was impacted by overcompensation – a herniated disk forced him to use his left arm more, resulting in a pectoral tear.

The Vikings are already lacking in pass rush, and their one pass rush asset wouldn’t be too difficult to retain.

The contract structure above reduces Minnesota’s 2024 cap liability by about $1 million. In total, these three deals expand the Vikings 2024 cap space from $23.9 million to $30 million. However, it reduces their projected 2025 cap space from $139.5 million to $43.5 million.

The Vikings are in an unusual situation where free-agent retention gives them more flexibility. They might be able to free up more space with other kinds of moves like a Brian O’Neill restructure or changing Harrison Smith’s contract.

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