The NFL's new television deals, announced on the second day of the league year Thursday, again underscored the league's status as the nation's most unassailable entertainment product and set it up for a future flush with cash beyond the days of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Associated Press reported the contracts are worth $113 billion over 11 years, nearly double the value of the current NFL TV package that fully expires after the 2022 season. If the league adds a 17th regular-season game, as is widely expected for the 2021 season, the players' share of league revenue increases from 48% to 48.8% — meaning a slightly bigger share of a much bigger pie over the next decade.
Players receive their cut of the NFL's profits through the league's calculation of its annual salary cap, which dropped this year for the first time since 2011 as a result of a pandemic that left stadiums either partly or completely empty all season. It's unlikely the cap, which dropped from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million this year, will surge by tens of millions of dollars in 2022, given the NFL's historical preference for smooth cap increases over time, and the belief the league decided to carry some of its 2020 losses into the future instead of dropping the 2021 cap even further to reflect all of the lost revenue
But during the first several days of free agency, teams have issued contracts that appear designed for a brighter financial future over the first half of the decade, with small base salaries in 2021 followed by larger amounts in subsequent years and big signing bonuses that can be spread out over the life of the deal.
The Vikings are one of the teams conducting their business in expectation of a higher cap in coming years, and many of their moves during the first week of free agency involved maneuvers to push present costs into the future.
They converted $10 million of Adam Thielen's $11.1 million base salary into a signing bonus, dropping his 2021 cap hit by $7.5 million and adding another $2.5 million to his cap numbers from 2022-24. They added three voidable years to the end of Dalvin Tomlinson's deal, signing him for just two seasons but pushing $7.5 million of his signing bonus costs into 2023. Voiding the final two years of Anthony Barr's contract means he will have $5.2 million of signing bonus costs on the Vikings' 2022 cap, but the team offered to void Barr's deal as a concession for him agreeing to a $2.9 million pay cut in 2021. And because Kyle Rudolph's release was designated a post-June 1 cut means the Vikings will have to keep his $7.9 million salary on their books until after the draft, but it also gives them the ability to count only $1.45 million of his remaining signing bonus against this year's cap, while pushing $2.9 million into 2022.
All told, the Vikings put off $14.15 million of costs that would have been on their 2021 books, while dropping Barr's salary by $2.9 million, reducing Britton Colquitt's by $1.375 million and saving another $17.25 million by cutting Riley Reiff, Dan Bailey and Shamar Stephen.
The moves allowed them to get through the first week of free agency with three new pieces for their defense, including two free agents (Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson) who will occupy a combined $14 million of their 2021 cap space, while bringing back Rashod Hill and Chad Beebe on one-year deals.
And yet, the Vikings might need to do more.
Sources said late last week the team was now only in position to offer salaries around the league minimum, as potential free agent targets such as Falcons safety Keanu Neal opted to look elsewhere. Former Vikings safety Anthony Harris, an unrestricted free agent, is headed to the Eagles.
The Vikings have 57 players under contract; they have 11 draft picks they'd have to wait to sign until after Rudolph's deal is off the books in June. They had just over $4 million of available cap space. Their ability to fill holes on their offensive line or add another receiver is limited by their tenuous financial position.
The most obvious ways for the Vikings to clear additional cap space would be two contract extensions: one for Harrison Smith as the safety enters the final year of his deal, and one for Danielle Hunter to address the defensive end's unhappiness with his current contract.
The Vikings could creatively reward the 32-year-old Smith with a deal that ensures he will finish his career in Minnesota and make Hunter one of the league's highest-paid pass rushers, while lowering the 2021 cap hits of both players ($10.25 million for Smith and $17.25 million for Hunter). The contracts would require large signing bonuses from the Wilfs, but the Vikings' expectation of a full stadium this fall, and the reality of the new TV deals means the team's owners can likely continue their practice of spending generously in support of the on-field product while recouping their costs in coming years.
If the Vikings decided to cut cornerback Mike Hughes, who played only four games last season with the neck injury he sustained in the 2019 regular-season finale, they'd save $1.17 million. The Vikings already have done two salary-to-signing bonus conversions with linebacker Eric Kendricks, who's entering his age-29 season, but if they found themselves in dire enough cap straits to do a third, his base salary ($8.15 million) is modest enough to offer the Vikings savings this year while only pushing $2 million or so of cap costs into 2022 and 2023.
Every guaranteed dollar of a player's contract hits the cap eventually, and the Vikings would assume some risk by deferring too many costs, especially with a contract extension for offensive tackle Brian O'Neill likely on their to-do list this summer.
But in what might be an all-in year for a triumvirate (General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins) that has produced only one playoff appearance in three seasons together, the Vikings might not have a choice but to defer some costs into the future.
The team's roster planning, which always stretches three years into the future, can now forecast with some certainty a sharp rise in NFL revenue, with cap increases to follow. If the Vikings can get beyond this season in strong shape, they can look forward to a little more financial flexibility in following years.
The challenge for now is, they have to get there.