INDIANAPOLIS – The Vikings front office will toe a tightrope in the next 12 days before NFL free agency starts.
One part of the balancing act is lucrative long-term deals for star defenders.
Another is quarterback Kirk Cousins’ $29 million cap hit for the upcoming season.
Up in the air is the status of linebacker Anthony Barr and that of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, both set to become unrestricted free agents on March 13.
General Manager Rick Spielman could find a way to re-sign one or both as negotiations are ongoing this week at the NFL scouting combine.
But because of the Vikings’ tight salary cap situation, key defenders with little financial security — such as Everson Griffen and Andrew Sendejo — could be cut or have contracts restructured.
Coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday the Vikings “would love” to re-sign Barr and Richardson, but the Vikings could be priced out depending on what other teams are willing to pay for each defender.
“We have to budget where we’re going,” Zimmer said. “So, if it goes to — if Barr gets paid $18 million [per season], it probably ain’t going to happen, you know? But if it’s a reasonable deal … I think Anthony would love to be here, too.”
One tool in Spielman’s back pocket is the franchise tag, which can be used until 3 p.m. Tuesday; but even the one-year tender would require money to be cleared.
Tagging Richardson or Barr is expected to cost $14 million to $15 million, nearly double the Vikings’ projected $7 million in cap space based on an expected cap increase to $190 million for each team.
It’s unlikely the Vikings could stomach the tag for Barr or Richardson, but Spielman declined to comment Wednesday.
Barr has started 73 games for the Vikings since he was drafted with the ninth pick in 2014, and Richardson started all 16 games on a one-year deal last season.
Both are disruptive pass rushers.
“If we can afford them, we’re going to bring them back,” Zimmer said. “If we can’t afford them, we’re going to have to move on, unfortunately.”
Some cost-cutting moves could shed proven talent but gain precious cap space. One involves Griffen, the longest-tenured player in the organization. A veteran of nine seasons, the 31-year-old missed five games last year to address mental health issues.
Any change in Griffen’s contract or roster status would need to come by March 15, when his $10.9 million salary becomes fully guaranteed. Releasing Griffen would create more than $10.5 million in space.
The Vikings boast depth at defensive end, where Danielle Hunter has ascended into a star and Stephen Weatherly showed promise in six starts last season.
“It’s very difficult,” Spielman said of evaluating Griffen. “The way he attacked the issue and the way he came back to our team, he’s been an integral part of our organization and sometimes you’ve got to take the football part out of it and recognize everything that he’s been through.
“We’re going to have to look at everything.”
Potential restructures or cuts in the Vikings’ cap puzzle also include cornerback Trae Waynes, whose $9 million salary becomes guaranteed March 13; and a $5.5 million option on Sendejo, the veteran safety whose season ended on injured reserve.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph and guard Mike Remmers, set to earn $7.275 million and $5.65 million, respectively, have no guaranteed money left in their contracts.
At the end of the season, Barr alluded to the two sides being far apart on a contract: “A lot of things have to happen for that to come together,” he said, after negotiations last spring failed to produce a long-term deal.
Richardson, after the season-ending loss to the Bears, said he hadn’t heard from the Vikings about a new deal.
A lot can change in two weeks before the free-agency bell tolls.
“Anthony was my number one pick as a head coach, right? I love him as far as the things he does for the organization, the football team,” Zimmer said.
“It’s just really going to depend on where the numbers go and really the same thing with Sheldon.”