The Vikings were hailed for their proactiveness when they signed Everson Griffen to a new deal before the 2017 season, locking up the defensive end through the 2022 season even though he had two years left on his existing deal. While the contract did extend the marriage between the Vikings and Griffen on paper, its structure did something else: It guaranteed the Vikings the kind of leverage they could exert over Griffen in the coming weeks.
Griffen’s old deal had him set to make $7 million in 2017 and $8.5 million in 2018, with none of the money in those two seasons guaranteed. His renegotiated deal put an additional $2 million in his pocket for the 2017 season and an extra $1.5 million for 2018, with Griffen getting $6.2 million in cash at the time of the deal’s completion. The deal effectively solidified Griffen’s status for two seasons he was under contract with the Vikings anyway, fully guaranteeing his 2017 base salary and delivering another $5.5 million roster bonus last May. Beyond that, though, it essentially gave the Vikings control of Griffen’s future, and the structure of the contract means a decision on Griffen could be coming in the next month.
Like his 2018 base salary, Griffen’s 2019 base was guaranteed against injury at the time he signed his new deal, and will become fully guaranteed if he’s still on the roster by March 15 (the third day of the 2019 league year). His base for the 2019 season, however, is $10.9 million. The Vikings would face just $1.2 million of dead money charges if they released Griffen, while recouping $10.7 million of cap space.
The contract’s structure is similar to many of the deals the Vikings do, and it’s not unusual in the NFL, where the cold reality is that a player’s relationship to his team is often only as strong as his recent performance or the guaranteed money in his contract. Griffen’s battles with mental health issues during the 2018 season could cast a business decision in a cruel light, but a Vikings team not flush with cap space is nonetheless likely weighing its options in the final weeks before free agency.
Griffen, who turned 31 in December, posted 5 1/2 sacks for the 2018 season and notched 4 1/2 in the eight games he played after returning from his five-game absence, while playing around 80 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps in that time. Those are solid numbers, to be sure, but when Griffen’s current deal makes him the ninth highest-paid defensive end in the league, the Vikings might not view his production as being worth his scheduled price tag for 2019. That could be especially true given the year Danielle Hunter had, and what he did on the right side while Griffen was out.
Hunter’s 2018 season was a tour de force, one that saw the 24-year-old finish with the most sacks (14.5) by a Vikings player since Jared Allen had 22 in 2011. Hunter paired that with 72 tackles and 21 tackles for loss, ranking 24th in the NFL in run stop percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. He had six sacks in five games at right end, and was actually more productive there than he was on the left side; PFF ranked him the NFL’s ninth-best pass rusher from the right side, compared to its 26th-best on the left.
The other complicating factor for Griffen is the play of third-year man Stephen Weatherly, who had a pair of sacks while Griffen was out and turned into a disruptive run defender in his own right, ranking 13th among NFL defensive ends in run stop percentage, according to PFF. Weatherly had just one sack in a rotational role after Griffen returned, and isn’t the kind of prolific complement that Hunter and Griffen have been to one another in recent years. But when the Vikings are projected to have just over $6 million in cap space for 2019 before any other moves, and Weatherly is set to make only $720,000 in the final year of his rookie deal, some hard choices must be made.
The Vikings could approach Griffen about restructuring his deal to take a salary reduction in exchange for some assurance (either contractual or implied, though the latter isn’t worth as much as the former) that he’ll be on the roster in 2019. There’s been plenty of chatter in league circles about whether the team will release Griffen or try to trade him before the new league year, and it’s possible he’d opt for a fresh start rather than choosing to return at a lower salary. If he’s back in Minnesota in 2019, though, it’s hard to see him returning under his current contract structure.
What Griffen went through in 2018 far exceeds the importance of what happens on a football field, and whatever happens with his contract in the next month pales in comparison to his continued efforts toward good health. The realities of the NFL, though, mean the status of the Vikings’ longest-tenured player figures to be in question through the final weeks of the 2018 league year. When the Vikings’ simplest method of freeing up cap space for 2019 is to open up some hard conversations with veterans — a group that could include Kyle Rudolph, Andrew Sendejo, Mike Remmers or Riley Reiff — Griffen could be approaching a tricky decision.