The overhaul of the Vikings defense started Friday when the team released cornerback Xavier Rhodes and tackle Linval Joseph.
Those moves, which removed two former Pro Bowl players from the roster, cleared roughly $18.5 million in salary cap space.
General Manager Rick Spielman said in a statement the Vikings would “remain in communication” with both players as they head into free agency but made the moves now out of courtesy to both in an effort to give them more time to explore their options.
NFL free agency begins next week.
The Vikings will incur $2.4 million of dead money against their 2020 cap by releasing Joseph but will save $10.4875 million by cutting the 31-year-old nose tackle.
He had shoulder surgery last offseason and had knee surgery in November after playing through a meniscus injury for the first part of the season.
Joseph, the first free agent the Vikings signed after Mike Zimmer became head coach in 2014, was an anchor of the team’s run defense. He was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2016 and 2017 seasons, posting a combined 7½ sacks in those years while proving to be a force in the middle of the line.
Rhodes’ release saves the Vikings $8.1 million (to go with $4.8 million of dead money). Assuming the 29-year-old signs with a new team, the move closes the book on a run in which Rhodes became one of the league’s best cover corners until his play took a sharp downturn after his best season in 2017.
His physical style of play and ability to neutralize top receivers earned him the nickname “Rhodes Closed,” and he earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2017.
His 2018 season, though, was marred by injuries that Rhodes tried to play through, and Zimmer said at the 2019 owners’ meetings that the cornerback needed to play better to live up to the contract extension he’d signed before 2017.
Last season, the Vikings rarely asked Rhodes to shadow opposing receivers, keeping safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith deep in coverage more often than they had in recent years to limit big plays downfield.
Rhodes was penalized eight times last season, and apologized after a heated sideline exchange with Zimmer in the Vikings’ loss to the Seahawks on Dec. 2, after Rhodes gave up a 60-yard touchdown pass on a play where he apparently expected to have help in coverage.
Nevertheless, he was a late addition to the Pro Bowl, making that event for the third time.
“Xavier and Linval were key parts of building this team and establishing the Vikings defense the way we wanted,” Zimmer said in a statement. “They’re pros and made everyone around them better. I wish them the best and I know Rick and the personnel staff will stay in communication with them during free agency.”
At the NFL combine, Spielman said, “Xavier has been a Pro Bowl corner, you know? He maybe had not as great of a year as he’s had in the past, but he still helped us win games. … You take each one of those individual players and then assess where they’re at in their career and where they’re at financially and then you make decisions.”
The Vikings also released tight end David Morgan, who missed all of the 2019 season with a knee injury, with a “failed physical” designation; Morgan was in the last year of his rookie contract in 2019, and the $750,000 deal was set to toll if he was on the team’s 2020 roster. It’s possible the team could bring Morgan back on a non-guaranteed deal for 2020.
The three moves Friday cleared more than $19 million in cap room. That means the team will carry around $180 million in cap obligations into the 2020 league year, for which the salary cap has reportedly been projected between $196 million and $201 million.
The Vikings have to see if players will approve the new collective bargaining agreement (voting ends Saturday night) before the start of the league year — and if the league will operate by the rules of the new agreement in 2020, or stick with the provisions in place under the old deal.