General manager Rick Spielman prides himself on turning over every stone, but like the rest of the NFL, he's in uncharted waters this month. He's trying to find a free-agency road map under a shrinking salary cap and evaluate draft prospects with pandemic-restricted access.
The first order of business is financial, as the Vikings are among the one-third of NFL front offices with 2021 cap commitments over the $180 million salary floor, according to OverTheCap.com.
To get under the cap before the new league year starts March 17, Spielman anticipates more "tough business decisions" after the team released tight end Kyle Rudolph on Tuesday. The Vikings have mapped out a few pathways, Spielman said, through more possible cuts, pay cuts and extensions.
"We're going to have to be very creative this year," he said. "We're going to have to make a lot of tough business decisions. That process is getting started this week and next week."
The official 2021 salary cap has not yet been set by the NFL and its players union, but will be considerably lower than last year's cap of $198.2 million because of pandemic-related loss of revenue.
“We went through a lot of different scenarios,”
Spielman said the road map could lead anywhere, but it remains unlikely the Vikings will retain their top free agents, safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson. Veterans like defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, kicker Dan Bailey and punter Britton Colquitt are possible cuts. Extensions for safety Harrison Smith and offensive tackle Riley Reiff could clear space, but Spielman declined to talk specifics Wednesday in his first news conference since October.
The Vikings, hoping to re-sign some of their 10 players scheduled for unrestricted free agency, have already begun discussions with player representatives, now held over videoconference or phone calls as opposed to steak dinners in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine, which canceled this year amid the pandemic.
"We've kind of laid out a preliminary plan, just like if we were going to the combine and we have preliminary talks with agents like whether they're extensions, whether they're a reduction in pay or just an outright waive," Spielman said. "There are a lot of decisions that have not been made yet."
He indicated that unloading quarterback Kirk Cousins' contract was not in play, reiterating that Cousins "is our quarterback going forward."
Keeping the Vikings' defensive core together is the goal, according to Spielman, who admitted "it's hard to spend that much money on three linebackers" when asked about Wilson's pending free agency after 25 starts in the past three seasons.
"We went through a lot of different scenarios," Spielman said. "If we got Danielle Hunter and [Michael] Pierce back, and then you have Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks back – you can't fill every hole with expensive players.
"If we're not able to sign Eric Wilson back, then a Troy Dye or a [Blake] Lynch or a [Ryan] Connelly or someone like that steps up."
Spielman added Barr, who suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in September, is a "critical piece" with a unique skill set that can dictate matters for offenses. Spielman made it sound as if the Vikings are willing to take on Barr's $15 million cap hit for next season, but that's part of the balancing act facing the general manager as he tries to repair last year's 27th-ranked defense.
"Pretty simply, get our core players back," he said. "Add some players in free agency and depth and get better overall on the defensive side from a personnel standpoint. Then continue to develop the young guys we drafted last year."
The lack of a combine primarily alters preparation for April's NFL Draft, leaving January's Senior Bowl as the only other in-person evaluation outside of pro days at college sites this month. Spielman said he'll personally attend 10-15 pro days while he and the personnel staff navigate varying COVID restrictions at schools around the country.
But prospect interviews, like negotiations with agents, will have to happen virtually. Spielman attended two video interviews with prospects after his media availability on Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm actually starting next week to start hitting the road," he said. "You'll see a lot of GMs out to all these pro days, just because most of us were not able to go out in the fall because of the testing protocol and being in the building all year with our teams."