INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago at the NFL scouting combine, as the Vikings marshaled their resources for a run at Kirk Cousins that would lead to the first fully guaranteed veteran contract in league history, coach Mike Zimmer stood at a podium and issued something of a word of caution about the potential effects of the team’s upcoming decision.
“The thing that I told [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] was, ‘Look, we’ve won this many games and these many years because of this football.’ Because we’ve played really good on defense for the most part,” Zimmer said on March 1, 2018. “This year obviously we played so much better on offense and were able to go further than what a lot of people thought we would, so it’s important that we continue to put the pieces in place on defense. What I don’t want to do is say, ‘OK, this is the one thing — we’re going to do this and we’re going to take away from the rest of the things that have gotten us to this point.’ ”
The Vikings surged on ahead, giving Cousins a three-year, $84 million deal. He is projected to be one of three NFL QBs whose contract will occupy at least 15 percent of his team’s cap space this season, as his cap number jumps from $24 million in 2018 to $29 million this year. The Vikings, in other words, could be about to test how much financial weight their roster structure can carry.
They are projected to have around $5 million in salary cap space to start the 2019 league year, putting it among the NFL clubs with the least money to spend once free agency starts March 11. The Vikings can remedy the problem by trading, releasing or attempting to restructure the contracts of several veterans, but such moves can come with a cost.
Minnesota’s shrewd salary cap management, directed by Rob Brzezinski, is viewed almost as sorcery among a segment of the fan base, as if the vice president of football operations can simply wiggle his fingers to make cap space appear. The secret to the Vikings’ salary cap sauce, traditionally, has been a pay-as-you-go structure that favors base salary guarantees or roster bonuses over big signing bonuses that take years to hit the cap.
That means dollars hit the cap at the same time they land in players’ pockets, the Vikings avoid debilitating dead money charges late in a player’s contract and they retain leverage over a veteran player whose deal contains no guaranteed money in its later years.
The Vikings figure to use the mechanism to their advantage again before the start of the new league year — chatter at the combine centered around potential salary reductions or releases for such players as defensive end Everson Griffen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, safety Andrew Sendejo and offensive lineman Mike Remmers — and they could quickly push their available cap space north of $20 million with a handful of decisions on their veterans.
But such moves, designed to clear space for the rest of the team’s needs, could disrupt some of the cohesion the Vikings have carefully created on defense over the past five years. Nine of the 11 defensive starters in 2018 have never played for another NFL team, and a 10th, nose tackle Linval Joseph, has been with the team for all of Zimmer’s tenure. The Vikings have reaped rewards from such continuity; they are able to disguise blitzes and make on-the-fly adjustments as well as almost any team in the league.
They also saw the growing pains that can come with a lack of institutional knowledge in the defense. When rehashing the Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Rams in an interview with the Star Tribune in December, linebacker Anthony Barr dissected the touchdown pass he had allowed to Robert Woods, saying a lack of familiarity with rookie corner Holton Hill prevented the two from checking to a different coverage after the Rams shifted to an empty formation. That left Barr matched up on the slot receiver, who caught a 31-yard TD pass.
“I should have flipped with the corner,” Barr said then. “But it was Holton. He’s a rookie. I don’t have a chemistry with him yet. I was in the slot one-on-one with one of the better receivers. I didn’t have bad coverage. But they threw it in there, and it looks like I’m the worst player ever. And I was getting killed for losing the game.”
If the Vikings are forced to part with seasoned defenders such as Griffen or if they lose players such as Barr or defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency, they will count on the development of players such as linebacker Eric Wilson and defensive end Stephen Weatherly to help close the gaps. While Zimmer sounded hopeful last week the Vikings could keep their defense intact, he also acknowledged the Vikings’ financial constraints.
“Anthony was my No. 1 pick as a head coach, right?” he said Thursday. “I love him as far as the things he does for the organization, the football team. It’s just really going to depend on where the numbers go. And really the same thing with Sheldon. ... But the way it is with the cap, we have to budget where we’re going. So if it goes to, if Barr gets paid $18 million, it probably ain’t going to happen, you know? But if it’s a reasonable deal, and I think Anthony would love to be here, too.”
But in this stage of an NFL roster’s life cycle — with a high-priced quarterback and veteran contracts galore — the Vikings might have to adapt to the fact they can’t always get what they want.