Since they kicked off their 2017 training camp with three contract extensions in an 11-day span — giving two deals to players with two years remaining on their contracts — the Vikings have gone to more audacious lengths to keep their core players together than just about any team in the NFL.
They have issued 12 contracts of more than $50 million each in that time, writing deals with a total value of over $814 million. They at least partly guaranteed nearly half a billion dollars of those deals — $499,030,361, to be exact.
The Vikings paid everyone from a free-agent quarterback who got the first fully guaranteed deal in NFL history to a tight end who’d mused publicly about the possibility of being traded before he signed. They paid two linebackers — getting a deal done with the second after he’d verbally committed to sign with the Jets — and two receivers, making a former rookie camp tryout player one of the league’s highest-paid wideouts despite the fact he was still two years from the open market.
This spring, they worked out a second contract with Kirk Cousins, giving him a $30 million signing bonus to help clear cap space. All told, Vikings ownership has written $154.4 million worth of bonus checks as part of the 12 contracts, as well as signing bonus conversions like the ones they’ve undertaken for Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks (twice). And they’ve managed to add extra trinkets, like a one-year, $8 million deal for Sheldon Richardson and an $11.441 million franchise tag for Anthony Harris, in the process.
The 12th deal, which the Vikings completed last Saturday, might show them at their boldest, most committed to their vision and most willing to see it through.
A day before opening their 60th season at home in front of no fans, they gave a $15.5 million signing bonus — larger than any they’ve awarded to a player not named Cousins — to Dalvin Cook, paying the running back six months before he would hit an open market fractured by the coronavirus pandemic.
It might take years to determine whether the deal was prudent, but the immediate aftermath revealed the logistical feat it took to bring it to fruition.
The Vikings and Cook’s camp were caught between countervailing forces. The team stared at a 2021 cap that could drop because of revenue losses from the pandemic, and Cook faced a running back market that gives players one real chance to maximize their value.
A tense set of negotiations, which included Cook skipping the final days of the Vikings’ virtual offseason program, a holdout threat that never passed muster and a stoppage in talks in August, concluded the day before the regular season with a five-year, $63 million deal that made Cook the sixth highest-paid back in the league.
At times, the talks had the Vikings believing they were close to a deal; at others, they resulted in shouting matches. Days before the season, the team gave Cook’s side what it had long sought: a contract structure that would pay him $27.3 million in the first three years of the deal, allowing him to earn more than he would theoretically make in the final year of his rookie deal and two seasons on the franchise tag.
The Vikings effectively guaranteed Cook’s deal through 2022, in exchange for the low base salaries ($825,000 and $1.5 million) they needed in 2020 and 2021 to handle the rest of their business. The negotiations ended with the team paying a player it values and a leader it esteems, and Cook joining a club of highly paid running backs that might get more exclusive in the future.
The result prompted social media wonderment at how the Vikings managed to finagle another top-dollar contract into a tenuous cap situation, and triggered popular memes about how the NFL salary cap is a myth.
The Vikings’ ability to sign Cook with less than $2 million in available cap space, and quickly convert $6 million of Kendricks’ base salary into a signing bonus to pay for it all, seemed effortless enough so as to be sleight of hand.
In reality, their approach owes plenty to foresight, disciplined cap management and an ownership group willing to spend to win.
A team in the Vikings’ position — intent on winning now, with both a highly paid quarterback and top-end contracts throughout the rest of the roster — has few ways to manage it all other than to dole out signing bonuses that hit the cap over the life of the contract, rather than in one year.
The Vikings managed the earliest contracts of the spending spree (for Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph) with minimal signing bonuses, instead rewarding players with upfront cash in the form of roster bonuses that counted against the cap as soon as they were issued. Deals for young players at premium positions (like Xavier Rhodes, Stefon Diggs and Hunter), however, demanded big signing bonuses, and after the Vikings signed Cousins, they increasingly turned to the mechanism to help them manage the cap, issuing six bonuses of more than $10 million.
The approach carries risks: Every dollar hits the cap eventually, and teams have to make difficult decisions on veterans who might need to be released before their bonuses have been fully amortized. The Vikings are carrying $17 million of dead money on their 2020 cap as a result of parting with Griffen, releasing Rhodes and Joseph and trading Diggs, who still had $9 million of his prorated signing bonus alone.
And while signing bonuses have cap benefits, they also require something else: an ownership group willing to spend far more in cash than it is counting against the cap. The Vikings have nearly $196 million on their books for this year; the Wilfs are slated to spend nearly $220 million in cash for players on their roster.
The team’s owners, now in their 16th season of running the franchise, have long talked about a Super Bowl being the ultimate item on a list of goals that included a new stadium and new practice facility. They’ve left little doubt about how willing they are to provide the resources to make those things happen.
The Vikings’ bold approach carries no guarantees of success: the team is 2-4 in the playoffs since Rick Spielman became general manager in 2012 and is going through what he has termed an “evolution of the roster” after needing to jettison high-priced defenders this spring.
The Vikings have paid dearly for both a quarterback and the pieces (like Cook) to make him successful, and they could face another decision on Cousins in March, when his $35 million base salary for 2022 becomes guaranteed.
But in the days after the Vikings signed Cook, pandemic and recession notwithstanding, it’s worth stopping to take full view of their audacious approach. It, like their billion-dollar stadium and their sprawling practice facility, is certainly a sight to behold.