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Vikings mailbag: How do contract situations for Spielman, Zimmer impact decisions?

Below are a handful of questions submitted for our Access Vikings podcast, which you can find on Apple podcasts and Google Play. You can submit questions on Twitter to Ben Goessling, Andrew Krammer and Michael Rand, or via email to

Q: In terms of decision making, how big an impact do the short-term nature of Spielman/Zimmer contracts have? Personally, I think Spielman should be contracted long term, so there is limited incentive to prioritize short-term over long-term success. — Neil Gleadall

AK: Good question. Every year, it seems more than half of NFL teams need to ‘win now’ to avoid calls for change. Both general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer are under contract through the 2020 seasons after one-year options were exercised for each this offseason. Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf said in late March the pair’s contracts have been “synced up,” and perhaps so are their futures in Minnesota. The question is one that may be applied to their latest decision in signing tight end Kyle Rudolph, who turns 30 in November, to an extension after making Irv Smith Jr. a second-round pick. It’s reasonable to think Vikings brass needs to surround quarterback Kirk Cousins with as much talent as possible — and win — right now, not only to get the best possible evaluation of Cousins for 2020 and beyond, but to make the most of a core of defensive stars who aren’t getting younger while chasing a playoff win (or two) for a franchise that has just one playoff win since 2009.

Pressure’s effects lurched into view as early as Week 3 last season, when three roster moves were made in response to a road tie at Green Bay. Pressure again may influence decision making, but maybe it’s only intensified Spielman’s tendency to bet on homegrown talent, whether through extensions for Rudolph and linebacker Anthony Barr or re-signing a 2014 seventh-round pick, Shamar Stephen, to be the starting defensive tackle.

Q: How’s the competition at three-tech [defensive tackle] looking? Who do you guys envision getting the lion’s share of snaps this season? — Andrew Lowell

AK: Stephen got $6 million guaranteed on a three-year deal to return to the Vikings and replace the outgoing Sheldon Richardson. Stephen, lauded by coaches and teammates as a fundamentally-sound run stopper, will step into the starting role next to Linval Joseph and get the lion’s share of snaps. But how will the Vikings manufacture the pass rush brought by Richardson? That’s the intriguing question, especially with young players like second-year Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa, who is essentially in his rookie season now recovered from a torn ACL. But the safe money would be on the Vikings incorporating either defensive end Stephen Weatherly or Everson Griffen more as an interior pass-rush threat. We saw glimpses of this throughout spring practices.

Q: When Shurmur ran the zone run he utilized an unbalanced line multiple times, especially in short yardage. Are you seeing this being used again, or expect to see it? — The Northern Defender

AK: Give some of that credit to the late Tony Sparano, who was the Vikings’ run game coordinator as well as offensive line coach before his unexpected passing last summer. Sparano implemented an unbalanced line, either moving a tackle to one side or subbing an extra tackle into the game, while serving as Dolphins head coach. The Vikings tried to do this some last year, too, but simply didn’t have the bulldozers up front to create room for running backs. It’s certainly a possibility for a brief appearance or two in 2019, but this Vikings offense needed fresh talent such as center Garrett Bradbury. They hope a beefed-up Pat Elflein will make a difference at left guard as well.

Q: I heard Jordan Taylor is finding himself in the first team and helping young receivers understand the system. Do you guys have any early front runners for the WR3 spot? — Raphao Martins

AK: The Vikings have an interesting mix of unproven talent behind the star duo. Could players such as Jordan Taylor, Chad Beebe and Brandon Zylstra (and Jeff Badet, Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson) play first-round pick Laquon Treadwell off the roster in August? Perhaps. The man to watch for the No. 3 job is Beebe, who is a shifty underneath/slot option showing last year he can get open quickly (when healthy). The Vikings need another get-open-quick option when Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs draw so much attention. Beebe and Taylor are also competing for the punt returner job vacated by Marcus Sherels. Special teams will play a big role in these decisions as the Vikings push for a balanced offense with a healthy dose of heavier personnel groups (meaning likely fewer three-receiver sets). This offense has been described in the Eagan headquarters as a “two-tight end offense.”

Q: The depth at safety worries me. If we move Kearse to the slot or linebacker, as predicted, doesn’t that leave us with just Epps as a backup? — Steve Dixen

AK: Jayron Kearse, the fourth-year safety, is still just that — a safety. He’ll provide valuable depth and is a matchup piece for Vikings defensive coaches, who have toyed with using Kearse in different ways. He played a seldom-used ‘big nickel’ role last season. We’ve seen Kearse drop in as a ‘box safety’ in goal-line and red-zone drills this spring, giving him nickel/linebacker-type responsibilities. Depending on how Kearse plays this summer, he could find himself on the field in those situations. At the very least, he’s expected to provide safety depth. Keep an eye on rookie Marcus Epps, the sixth-round pick, as he’s impressed early with reps at safety and nickel.

Q: Which player has the most fascinating hobby, to your knowledge? — Eddie

AK: I’m not sure any hobbies compare to former Vikings running back Joe Banyard, the rattlesnake wrangler from west Texas.

A handful of players have private pilot’s licenses, including safety Harrison Smith and kicker Dan Bailey. Kevin McDermott, the veteran long snapper, is also a certified pilot and studies meteorology. He surprises new teammates with talks about the “Waffle House Index.”

Defensive end Danielle Hunter is a budding car enthusiast with sights set on more than his current Hellcat-powered Jeep Trackhawk SUV. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson was known as the ‘Dancing Bear’ at his Iowa fraternity and locker room. Many players, ranging from Smith to tight end David Morgan, have found a side hustle in streaming channels where fans can watch them play video games. Albeit not hobbies, but noteworthy: safety Anthony Harris is a partner in a cryotherapy business (CryoRVA) near Richmond, Va. Tackle Rashod Hill, a criminal justice major at Southern Mississippi, wants to be a police officer in his hometown Jacksonville, Fla. after his NFL career.

Vikings can plan on more tough decisions with 2020 salary cap

After the completion of Kyle Rudolph’s four-year contract extension, the Vikings bought themselves some breathing room under the salary cap for the 2019 league year. They’ve now got $4,686,926 under the cap, having created $4.075 million of cap space with Rudolph’s new deal.

Their 2020 cap situation, which was tenuous before signing Rudolph, will still require some work between now and next spring.

According to sources with access to NFL Players Association salary data, Rudolph received a $7.25 million signing bonus, and retains the ability to make up to $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses and $100,000 in offseason workout bonuses in each year of the deal. His annual base salaries and cap numbers are as follows:

2019: $1.75 million base (fully guaranteed)/$3.55 million cap number

2020: $7.025 million base (guaranteed for injury)/$8.825 million cap number

2021: $7.65 million/$9.45 million

2022: $8.45 million/$10.25 million

2023: $9.85 million/$11.65 million

The Vikings would incur $5.8 million in dead money charges — against $3.025 million in cap savings — if they released Rudolph before 2020, so the team might look at the deal as a two-year proposition before it would make much sense to get out of it. It’s not believed that Rudolph’s $7.025 million base salary in 2020 — which is currently guaranteed against injury only — becomes fully guaranteed before next season, so if Rudolph stays healthy, the team could always think about releasing him with a post-June 1 designation, which would allow them to push $4.35 million of dead money charges into 2021, when Kirk Cousins will either have a new contract or the team will have a new quarterback.

As it stands now, though, the Vikings are carrying $211.638 million worth of cap charges into 2020. Even if they’re able to carry over some of their remaining cap space into next season, and the NFL salary cap spikes to $200 million, they’ll again need to clear space to be able to do much in free agency and sign draft picks.

Veterans like Riley Reiff, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Xavier Rhodes — who will all be at least 30 and carry cap numbers of at least $12.9 million in 2020 — could be candidates for release or restructured deals before next season. The Vikings will have decisions to make on cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, as well as safety Anthony Harris and defensive end Stephen Weatherly, so it’s possible they’ll part with a couple of longtime fixtures in Mike Zimmer’s defense in an effort to keep some of their younger players. Reiff, who turns 31 on Dec. 1, would likely need a better year than he had in 2018 to remain in Minnesota on his current contract. But then again, if the Vikings release him, they’ll have to be confident enough about their options at tackle to move on.

The Vikings’ deft salary cap management under VP of football operations Rob Brzezinski will likely continue into another year of tough decisions. But after an offseason when the Vikings had to restructure contracts of three veterans — Griffen, Rudolph and Eric Kendricks — just to sign Josh Kline, keep Anthony Barr (among others) and sign their draft picks, the set of decisions facing them in 2020 might involve some big names once again.

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