The first big move impacting the Vikings’ salary cap situation happened Thursday when defensive end Everson Griffen opted out of his contract, making him an unrestricted free agent.
That moved dropped the Vikings from having the largest salary cap number in the NFL at $211.5 million, according to Spotrac.com, to the sixth-largest number at $197.6 million, which ranks behind the Jaguars, Steelers, Chiefs, Bears and 49ers.
Salary cap trouble is going to be the big story for the Vikings this offseason, much like it was last year, and the national media has noticed.
The headline in Pro Football Focus last week read, “How the Minnesota Vikings should navigate the worst cap situation in the NFL.” Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com wrote that the Vikings’ No. 1 priority for the 2020 season was to create some cap space.
But in order to do that, they’re going to lose some star power.
Griffen figures to be done as a Viking after 10 seasons in which he became one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, totaling 74½ sacks over 147 games, including eight in 2019.
But Griffen isn’t the only big-name player the Vikings might lose.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is considered a likely cut candidate, but doing that would only open up around $8 million in salary cap.
Barnwell suggested the club could renegotiate quarterback Kirk Cousins’ contract. His $31 million due in 2020 is the third-highest total in the league, trailing only Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
The thought there is that if Cousins puts together a 2020 campaign like he did in 2019 — when he finished fourth in the NFL in quarterback rating at 107.4 and threw for 26 touchdowns against a career-low six interceptions — he could be the most highly regarded free agent QB in 2021.
That gives the Vikings a lot of reasons beyond the salary cap to try to negotiate a new long-term deal with Cousins with a big signing bonus to open up some cap space in 2020.
Pro Football Focus said the Vikings’ prime candidates to being released are Rhodes, left tackle Riley Reiff and defensive lineman Linval Joseph. Letting go of those three players would free up around $29 million in cap space, but they also would need to find cheaper replacements.
The real issue with the Vikings going forward is having a lot of money tied up in only a few players.
Their 2021 salary cap is already at $161.9 million for only 31 players and their 2022 salary cap is at $120.6 million for only 18 players.
Looking at 2022, they have $15 million going to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, $14.4 million to wide receiver Adam Thielen, $10.3 million to tight end Kyle Rudolph, $15 million to defensive end Danielle Hunter, $12.5 million to Joseph, $15.6 million to linebacker Anthony Barr and $12 million to linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Even if the salary cap leaguewide is raised before 2022, those long-term deals will leave the Vikings with some tough decisions to make.
Last week when Andre Patterson held his news conference after being named co-defensive coordinator, he talked about how the club can still be competitive while most likely having to lose some of its big stars on defense.
“Personally, it’ll be tough because I have relationships with those guys, but we understand that it’s all part of the business,” Patterson said.
“However, [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and the front office feel [it’s something] we have to do to field our team for 2020, we accept that challenge and we go with it.”
Patterson said one thing that makes the Vikings successful is developing low-contract rookies into big stars. That’s something they must continue to do going forward.
“I can remember when we first showed up here seven years ago, on defense, everybody was pretty much gone,” Patterson recalled. “Nobody knew Everson Griffen was going to become Everson Griffen. Nobody knew Linval Joseph was going to become Linval Joseph, OK? We drafted Danielle [Hunter]. Nobody knew he was going to become what he’s become. Now, Anthony Barr was a first-round pick, so it’s a little bit different, the expectation’s a little bit higher.
“So we’ve proven since we’ve been here that we’ve been able to take players and develop them into players that can win in this league. However, Rick and the front office decides we need to do this in order to give our team a chance to win, I accept the challenge and I’m very comfortable that we’ll get it done.”
Several Vikings contributors are still on cap-friendly contracts for next season, including running backs Dalvin Cook ($2 million) and Alexander Mattison ($830,000), wide receiver Olabisi Johnson ($604,000), tight end Irv Smith Jr. ($1.3 million), defensive linemen Jaleel Johnson ($905,000), Jalyn Holmes ($843,000) and Ifeadi Odenigbo ($660,000), and cornerbacks Holton Hill ($665,000) and Kris Boyd ($612,000).
The club also has six draft picks, including three in the top 90 of the first three rounds at 25th, 57th and 89th.
Last season the club got a lot of contributions from their rookie class, including center Garrett Bradbury, Smith Jr., Mattison, Johnson and Boyd. There’s no doubt they will need that kind of contribution again next season from whoever they select in April.
• Gophers baseball fans can get a good look at Max Meyer, the standout pitcher who is a consensus preseason All-America, while the team plays 14 games at U.S. Bank Stadium between Feb. 22 and March 11. Meyer struck out 87 batters over 76⅔ innings last season while posting a 5-3 record and a 2.11 ERA. He’s made one start so far this year, a 12-10 victory over Oregon, throwing five innings and striking out seven while allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits and three walks.
• In three games with the Golden State Warriors, former Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins is averaging 22.8 points on 58% shooting while shooting 52.6% on three-pointers (10 of 19).