In two-plus decades of managing the NFL salary cap, Rob Brzezinski has negotiated more than $1 billion in contracts and a handful of landmark deals.
He inserted a “poison pill” clause into Steve Hutchinson’s offer sheet, a stealth tactic that cleared a path for him to join the Vikings. Brzezinski also handled contracts that made Randy Moss the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL, Jared Allen the highest-paid defensive player in the league, Matt Birk the highest-paid center, Adrian Peterson the highest-paid running back, Harrison Smith the highest-paid safety and, most recently, Kirk Cousins the highest-paid player overall.
Brzezinski has earned a reputation in league circles as a shrewd negotiator who is skilled at tap dancing around the restraints of the salary cap. He’ll need every ounce of his business acumen to finish a complicated puzzle the Vikings face.
The team has handed out more big checks than Publishers Clearing House the past two years in trying to keep intact its nucleus of stars. That list includes Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph and Eric Kendricks. Along with those big-ticket purchases, the Vikings also signed Cousins to a historic, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in March.
Their shopping spree isn’t over. The team still is hoping to sign core players Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs to lucrative deals.
Brzezinski will earn offseason MVP honors if he pulls off this magic trick.
“I would be lying if I said you don’t feel some pressure,” Brzezinski said, “because you want to be able to keep this team together and keep all your best players.”
The Vikings won’t discuss their plan publicly for obvious reasons. Asked last week if he remains confident he can sign every player on the wish list, General Manager Rick Spielman said: “We’re still going to try. Is it going to be easy? No.”
Spielman and Brzezinski started planning for this confluence of mega-contracts three years ago. They always plan three years out in assessing their roster and cap situation. This unique circumstance forced them to deviate from one of their core business tenets by signing Griffen and Joseph to extensions despite both having multiple years remaining on their deals.
“Can you imagine those guys also being up at this time as well?” Spielman asked.
Their plan would have imploded. Brzezinski likened the balancing act to keeping a family budget.
“If you’re going to spend more money on vacation this year,” he said, “then there might be less money to go to the movies or other recreational things.”
The Vikings are vacationing in the Maldives and Maui, which stretches the budget awfully tight. Brzezinski never tells Spielman he shouldn’t pursue a player because of cost. He only lays out the cause-effect on the roster in each case.
“You can do A, then it might affect B or C,” Brzezinski said. “It’s always about options.”
Brzezinski learned high-stakes business on the job, not in a textbook. He doesn’t have a finance background and didn’t set out to become an NFL capologist. He earned a law degree from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
“Once you get in your job,” he said, “that’s when you’re learning in the real world.”
Brzezinski is entering his 26th season as an NFL executive, the 20th with the Vikings. In the mid-2000s, he represented one side of the convoluted Triangle of Authority management structure. The organizational flow chart eventually evolved with Spielman assuming final authority, but he prefers group discussion on matters, so Brzezinski sits in on personnel meetings. Then it’s up to him to make personnel fit under the salary cap.
Signing Cousins was vital to a team built to contend for a championship, but his contract complicates the picture in terms of retaining core players. Barr, Hunter and Diggs won’t come cheap.
Both Spielman and Brzezinski credit the Wilf ownership for allowing them to spend to the limit.
“The owners have never said ‘no’ for what we want to get done,” Spielman said.
The salary cap doesn’t bend, though. And that creates a real challenge when trying to reward a large group of players who have established themselves as premier performers.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Brzezinski said.
Beats the alternative.