MANKATO – In the NFL, there’s perhaps no better deterrent for balletic wide receivers like Odell Beckham and brilliant quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers than 6-foot-2 Pro Bowl cornerbacks who run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds. So there was an air of inevitability last Sunday when Rick Spielman strode to a podium to announce that the Vikings weren’t going to let theirs get away.
What was striking, though, was that Spielman had already been there days earlier, to announce that the Vikings had finished a third contract for a 29-year-old defensive end — with two years remaining on his existing deal — before they’d come to terms with Xavier Rhodes.
It was the Vikings’ four-year, $58 million deal for Everson Griffen, more so than their five-year, $70 million extension for Rhodes, that hinted at a shift in the team’s financial philosophy. They are, as Spielman said on Sunday, trying to maintain the foundation of a defense that has become one of the league’s best largely through homegrown players.
And by working ahead on deals for such veterans as Griffen, they’re trying to beat a looming deadline.
The Vikings have roughly 19 months left on the contracts of three key defenders — nose tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter — as well as wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Linebacker Anthony Barr could be in line for a new deal after the 2018 season, too, if the Vikings bring him back on his $12.3 million fifth-year option next year. Cornerback Trae Waynes will be a free agent after 2018 or 2019, depending on what the Vikings decide to do with his fifth-year option. And none of this takes into account the pivotal (as well as expensive) decision the Vikings will face on their quarterback position after this season.
NFL teams are generally loath to do new deals with players two years before they hit free agency, but the Vikings’ latest contract with Griffen clears one item off their to-do list and buys them some cost certainty well before the defensive end approaches the open market.
The advantages to such an arrangement are why there could be more deals for players like Griffen in the near future. The Vikings have $11.7 million left in cap space this year, according to NFLPA salary data, meaning they could conceivably work on an extension for a player like Joseph and absorb some of the costs this season.
“As we always have, we have not only cap-planned for this year but for future years,” Spielman said after the Vikings signed Griffen. “I know we have some significant contracts and significant young players coming up, so to get, I wouldn’t say ahead of the curve, but to get some of this out of the way now, it is going to give a lot more flexibility as we go forward into next year and future years because I do think we have some very talented, young players and we want to keep this core group of young players together as long as we can.”
Of all the Vikings’ free agents-to-be on defense, Barr might represent the most curious case. Because the Vikings drafted him in the top 10, taking him ninth overall in 2014, his fifth-year option is equal to the league’s transition tag amount, or the average of the 10 highest-paid players at his position.
That list is mostly populated with 3-4 outside linebackers like the Broncos’ Von Miller or the Chiefs’ Justin Houston, who make their money by pressuring quarterbacks. If the Vikings were to keep Barr on his fifth-year option in 2018, he’d be the sixth-highest-paid linebacker in the league, and earn upward of $3 million more than any other 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
Then, if Barr played well enough to earn a long-term extension from the Vikings, the team would have to decide how to value a player whose primary job isn’t to rush the QB, even if he would head into free agency being paid like one.
The linebacker’s status is but one of the financial puzzles facing the Vikings over the next two years. It’s why, in addition to locking up the team’s most important pending free agent in Rhodes, the team is choosing to think differently about some deals now.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us. There are still some guys that we will be looking at to extend,” Spielman said Sunday. “I don’t know when or where those will take place, but we do have a strategic plan in place.”