After completing initial interviews with eight general manager candidates last week, the Vikings planned to bring Browns Vice President of Football Operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Chiefs Executive Director of Player Personnel Ryan Poles to Minnesota for in-person interviews.
They plan to talk with Adofo-Mensah on Tuesday and Poles on Wednesday, possibly naming a successor to Rick Spielman soon after that. Then the new GM will get to work on the fundamental question facing the 2022 Vikings:
How will a team talented enough to make the Vikings' job one of the more desirable spots in the league satisfy ownership's expectation to remain "super-competitive" while dealing with the leftover costs of Spielman's last attempt to do so?
After a 7-9 season in 2020, the Vikings tried to return to the playoffs, in a must-win year for Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer, by adding veterans to an already top-heavy roster to compensate for draft picks that hadn't quickly become key contributors. With the 2021 salary cap dropping 8% because of COVID-19, the Vikings became one of many teams that chose to defer costs into 2022, employing more uncommon measures like voidable years and signing bonus conversions alongside decisions to cut veterans like tight end Kyle Rudolph.
If it all worked and the Vikings made the playoffs? Great — they'd have some things to figure out in the future, but at least their decision-makers would have their jobs. If it didn't work? The financial issues would be someone else's problem, anyway.
The bill, effectively, is still on the table for Spielman's successor to pick up.
The Vikings have about $221 million in cap costs on their books for the 2022 league year, putting them more than $11 million over their adjusted cap figure of $209.952 million.
That figure includes nearly $18 million of dead money, counting about $6.9 million in cap costs for players the Vikings already released (Rudolph, Jeff Gladney and Britton Colquitt among them), as well as $11.1 million in costs for two void years in Anthony Barr's and Sheldon Richardson's deals.
Only three teams (the Saints, Packers and Cowboys) have more costs to clear in order to get under the cap when the 2022 league year begins in March.
If Adofo-Mensah or Poles gets the job, either one will be able to employ the considerable talents of executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski, one of the league's most experienced and skilled cap managers. The Vikings' financial headache could also be a short-term ailment, alleviated by the influx of new TV money and the expiration of contract guarantees in the next several years.
But there are few midpriced veterans the Vikings could eliminate in the name of cap savings. They have $154.377 million in cap costs committed to nine players on veteran contracts, meaning some of their quickest routes to short-term cap savings are also the ones that make for the trickiest decisions.
The Vikings could clear up to $35 million by trading Kirk Cousins this offseason, though they might have to absorb part of Cousins' base salary to make the quarterback a more attractive trade candidate. Dealing the 33-year-old, though, would leave the Vikings preparing for 2022 with the unproven Kellen Mond, a veteran the team could acquire this offseason, or a draft pick. They could also pursue a contract extension with Cousins to lower his $45 million cap number, but that would mean committing to him for several more years.
Danielle Hunter's 2022 deal has a $26.12 million cap number, which includes an $18 million roster bonus added to the contract as an olive branch during a dispute between the defensive end and the team over his current deal. The bonus, due on March 18, seemed likely to force the Vikings back to the bargaining table after the season, but Hunter has played six games in the past two seasons. He won't be 28 until the end of October, and remains a rare athletic specimen, but will his injuries give the Vikings pause about paying him — or will his missed time cause Hunter's camp to modify its contract expectations?
Harrison Smith (who will be 33 on Feb. 2), Eric Kendricks (turning 30 at the end of February) and Adam Thielen (who turns 32 in August) could all be productive starters for the 2022 Vikings, or possible cap casualties. The Vikings might look at a restructured deal for one of the three Pro Bowl players, given that they would recoup at least $9.5 million if any of the players is released with one of the team's two post-June 1 designations. Michael Pierce will be 30 in November, with a $10.5 million cap number in the second season of his deal. He was effective when he was on the field this season, but he played only eight games.
And while Dalvin Cook doesn't turn 27 until August, he missed four games because of injury or COVID-19 this season. Will a new leadership group see the game's fifth-highest paid running back as a foundational piece of the offense, as Spielman and Zimmer did, or will it make a different decision given Cook's workload (942 touches the past three seasons) and potential for cap savings ($8.9 million with a post-June 1 cut)?
Some of the Vikings' veterans, because of age, skill or contract, are more plausible candidates than others to be cut, traded or approached about a contract restructure. Brian O'Neill (who signed a five-year deal before last season), for instance, might be as safe as any player on the roster, and Dalvin Tomlinson will be in the second season of a deal with three void years.
But the Vikings' decisions on the veterans will signal how competitive they believe they can be with the current roster, or how much they are willing to take on something of a rebuild to become a consistent playoff team. They have only three picks in the first four rounds of the 2022 draft after Spielman traded the Vikings' fourth-rounder to the Jets for tight end Chris Herndon after Irv Smith Jr.'s knee injury last August, and they aren't projected to receive any compensatory picks.
Unloading veterans would bring additional dead-money costs, but it could make the Vikings' cap issues a one- or two-year problem. For the franchise to take that route, however, it might have to commit to a period of restocking the roster with cheap talent and developing young players, not unlike what the Vikings did in 2011 and 2012, when they emerged from the financial rubble of their all-in attempts at the end of Brad Childress' tenure and put Spielman on the path to full control of the roster.
That stretch stands out as one of the only times in the Wilfs' ownership that the Vikings willingly embraced rebuilding. They have otherwise mostly been in win-now mode, acquiring veterans in free agency; trading a first-round pick for Jared Allen and wooing Brett Favre during the Childress years; signing Greg Jennings in 2013 to replace Percy Harvin after a surprising playoff trip in 2012; spending on the open market in an effort to fix the offensive line early in Zimmer's tenure; and committing cash to retain a veteran roster in the coach's later years.
Remaining competitive in 2022 will take another nimble round of cap management from Brzezinski, effective bargain hunting from the new front office, or maybe both. Committing to a financial purge will require an effective long-term plan and some patience: from the Wilfs, the Vikings' new leadership and perhaps players like Justin Jefferson, the 22-year-old star who has already lost 11 more games in two NFL seasons than he did in three at Louisiana State.
The decision makes the Vikings' job, attractive as it is because of stable ownership, state-of-the-art facilities and a solid roster, one that comes with some challenges.