The Curious Case Of Dalton Risner

Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Dalton Risner had a small Cholula bottle in his locker last season. The Minnesota Vikings gave into the fans’ will and signed him before their Week 3 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Immediately, he placed the bottle in the upper-left-hand corner of his locker, and it stayed until he cleaned it out after Week 17. Risner had visited Minnesota’s facility in August, but it took him a while to find out where everything was. He liked their food offerings but occasionally wanted to spice things up.

The Vikings run a defense similar to that of the Denver Broncos, Risner’s former team. Risner had also previously worked with Minnesota’s offensive line coach, Chris Kuper, and assistant O-line coach Justin Rascati. Still, it took Risner about a month to master the offense. He played 10 snaps against the Chicago Bears in Week 6 when Ezra Cleveland got hurt and started at left guard for the rest of the season.

Risner remains a free agent despite Minnesota’s need at left guard. Blake Brandel is projected to start there this year, and the Vikings would probably be stretching their sixth-round pick in 2020 by using him as a full-time starter. Meanwhile, Risner was a good pass-protector last year. However, his personality and the stability he brought to the position may have influenced his perception more than his play.

In late October, the Vikings traded Cleveland to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick. However, Cleveland outplayed Risner when he was in Minnesota last year. PFF gave Risner a better pass-blocking grade, but they gave Cleveland better overall and run-blocking marks. Cleveland also had a better relative athletic score (9.98 out of 10 RAS), while Risner had a 7.96 RAS.

The Vikings took Cleveland in the second round of the 2020 draft, and he was in the final year of his rookie contract. Jacksonville extended for three years, $24 million ($14.25 million guaranteed). Given Minnesota’s cap situation, that would have been expensive, although it would have been viable if he filled the left guard need. Conversely, Risner signed a one-year, $3 million contract last season.

If the league views Risner and Cleveland as similar players, Risner could command $9.5 million per year. That would be difficult for the Vikings, given their cap situation. Winning teams often leverage their proximity to a playoff run in negotiations. Minnesota has talent on both sides of the ball and feels that J.J. McCarthy will thrive in their culture. However, they’ll likely be starting Sam Darnold under center, and the NFC North should be one of the more competitive divisions in football next year.

The bigger question with Risner is whether he drives a hard bargain. Teams value guards more than ever, and Risner’s strength is pass-blocking in a passing league. Therefore, he’s wise to hold out for the right contract. Conversely, players usually perform by being in the right situation and going through camp with a team. Holding out too long for the best possible deal may be penny-wise and pound-foolish for Risner.

“Just in case anyone was wondering,” Risner recently tweeted. “I’ve started 73 games over five years in the league, missing only four games due to injury, earning the starting spot amongst three different coaching staffs. I’ve never asked for a bag, simply just a starting guard contract.”

Risner also addressed his market when he arrived in Minnesota last year, saying he wasn’t holding out for the best possible deal. He said he waited until Week 3 to sign because he felt other teams were lowballing him.

“I’m not a guy that thinks I’ve got to get everything I’m worth, or even half, or even a quarter,” Risner said after signing last year. “Listen, I just wanted to play football, but I wasn’t willing to do it for what some of these teams did. Came on a visit [to Minnesota], loved the visit. Where I was at and where the Vikings were at just wasn’t matching up. So I think they took some time, and I think some things happened; maybe injuries. It was like, ‘OK, we want you to come in now.’ [I said,] ‘OK, I’m ready to go. Let’s rock and roll.'”

The Vikings declined to comment on why they signed Risner mid-season instead of in the offseason. Still, it’s fair to speculate that there was a discrepancy in the contract negotiations. Risner is generally a positive person, and his teammates seemed to like him. He also fits a team need. However, Risner is outspoken for a guard, a typically reticent position group. Perhaps he priced them out. Maybe they’re looking for a different personality fit.

Ultimately, the Vikings may not be able to fit him under their cap. Maybe he brings too much spice into the locker room. Regardless of what it is, Risner remains a free agent, and Minnesota could use a proven starting guard.

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