The Vikings’ regular-season finale Sunday against the Bears puts a finish on what has been an up-and-down regular season for a team coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance a year ago.
There is no question the big decision to bring in quarterback Kirk Cousins for three years and $84 million was the right move, but it also means that going into the 2019 season there are big questions about how the team will balance the salary cap, with a number of key players going into free agency and the team already pressed up against the cap with the current roster.
This year the Vikings had $182 million in salary given out to 62 players, but for the 2019 season they already have $181 million given out to just 43 players.
The good news for the Vikings is that the NFL announced this month that the salary cap for next season will go up by about $10 million, to $191 million overall, compared to $177.2 million this season.
A big reason for that jump was that the salary cap is tied to player contracts, so when quarterbacks such as Cousins, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees signed big contracts this offseason it meant the league had to consider increasing the cap.
Several free agents
Who can the Vikings bring back and still keep under the salary cap?
Their unrestricted free agents are: quarterback Trevor Siemian; running backs Latavius Murray and Ameer Abdullah; wide receiver Aldrick Robinson, offensive linemen Nick Easton, Brett Jones and Tom Compton; defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson; linebacker Anthony Barr; defensive backs Marcus Sherels and George Iloka; and kicker Dan Bailey. Safety Anthony Harris and offensive lineman Rashod Hill are restricted free agents.
Those are some big contributors, and there’s no doubt that bringing back Barr, Richardson and Murray are some of the team’s top priorities among the group.
Barr has been selected to four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. He is the Vikings’ fourth-leading tackler on the season with 54 to go along with three sacks, eight tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two pass deflections.
Richardson has been fantastic alongside Linval Joseph on the defensive line and has 4½ sacks to go along with 49 tackles.
And Murray has been a key player on offense, with 560 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 15 games, including six starts. He also has 22 receptions for 141 yards.
A big question mark will be what they do with Easton, who has been injured all season. Coach Mike Zimmer has talked about how important Easton was to the offensive line, where they will once again need help next season, but it’s unclear how much it would cost to bring back Easton, who made $2.9 million this season.
It will not be easy to replace those kind of players without finding some cap space.
Will need draft picks
One factor in the Vikings’ favor for the 2019 roster is their number of draft picks. They have nine picks available in the April draft, and that big of a number is always positive for General Manager Rick Spielman, who likes to make draft-day moves.
They have their first-, second- and third-round picks to go along with a compensatory third-round pick that they received for losing Case Keenum in free agency.
They have their fourth-round pick as well, and while they traded their fifth-rounder to Broncos to get Siemian, the Vikings do have two sixth-round picks, including a compensatory pick for losing Teddy Bridgewater, and two seventh-round compensatory picks, one each for the loss of Tramaine Brock and Shamar Stephen. They dealt their own seventh-rounder to the Giants for Jones in August.
With Kevin Stefanski taking over as interim offensive coordinator, one has to imagine the Vikings will try to sign him to a permanent deal, but the word around the league is Stefanski could be a candidate for other positions and his contract is up.
Spielman, Zimmer and the coaching staff have done a great job this season and certainly deserve extensions going forward. They aren’t going to find a better coaching staff or front office than the one they have.
Schedule no picnic
Because the Vikings are locked into finishing in second place in the NFC North, they know who most of their opponents will be next season.
While they probably won’t have a stretch like they did this year where they faced the Packers, Patriots and Seahawks in three consecutive contests and faced the Rams on the road and the Saints at home, their schedule is not looking much easier in 2019.
They will face the Packers, Lions, Bears, Eagles, Redskins, Raiders and Broncos at home and face the Bears, Packers, Lions, Giants, Cowboys, Chargers, Chiefs and Seahawks on the road.
They are still waiting to find out who their eighth home opponent will be; it will be whoever finishes second in the NFC South, either the Panthers, Buccaneers or Falcons.
• The last time the Vikings made the playoffs in at least three out of four seasons was their stretch of five consecutive playoff appearances from 1996 to 2000 under Dennis Green. That stretch featured two NFC Championship Game appearances.
• The Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since the final game of the 2011 season, 17-13 on Jan. 1, 2012. That loss gave the Vikings a 3-13 record in Leslie Frazier’sfirst full season as coach. That remains tied for the worst record in franchise history with the 1984 team coached by Les Steckel.
• U.S. Bank Stadium’s capacity of 66,655 ranks 23rd in the NFL, but the Vikings’ average of 99.9 percent of seats sold ranks 11th in the league and second in the NFC North behind only the Bears.
• The first NFL mock draft by ESPN had the Vikings selecting 6-5, 325-pound Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Expert Todd McShay wrote: “Getting a prospect like this at No. 22 would be robbery. Brown is the type of pass-rushing tackle that Mike Zimmer loves, and Sheldon Richardson’s one-year deal provides an opening in the interior of that Minnesota line.”
• With a lack of fans attending Gophers football games at TCF Bank Stadium, expect the athletic department to announce some cheaper ticket packages to fill up those seats for next season.
• Members of the Gophers athletic department who had a chance to meet future University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel in a very brief visit were very impressed. Gabel, in her fourth year as the University of South Carolina provost, has a reputation of being a big sports fan.
• Seattle has been awarded an NHL expansion team that will begin play in the 2021-22 season. Former Wild President Tod Leiweke, billionaire investment banker David Bonderman and film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer lead the team’s ownership group.