To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.

Q: Top 5 or top 10 Vikings games since 2009? NFL is offering free streaming of every game since 2009.  –@SambolAmbo

A: I thought this one was a fun exercise as we all try to fill our time without live sports — and I’m mostly going to stay away from the obvious ones, since you don’t need my help finding Favre vs. the Packers in 2009 or the playoff games against the Saints in 2017 and 2019. Here, instead, are a few of the ones that stick out from my eight seasons on the beat:

You can watch them on NFL Game Pass, which is offering free access through the end of May.

–Vikings 37, Packers 34 (12/30/12): Until the “Minneapolis Miracle” and Super Bowl LII, this held the distinction of the best NFL game I’ve seen in person. It really had it all: playoff stakes for both teams, sublime throws from Aaron Rodgers, an officiating controversy that Jordy Nelson tried to cover up by stuffing a challenge flag down his pants, the biggest throws of Christian Ponder’s career and Adrian Peterson running right to the doorstep of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, before Blair Walsh hit the game-winner to send the Vikings to the playoffs. It remains the wildest game I’ve seen between these two teams (which is saying a lot), and it still makes for great fun.

–Vikings 21, Rams 18 (11/8/15): Listeners to the Access Vikings podcast probably have heard my strange fascination with this game, and it remains a favorite for me: Two aggressive, confident defenses slugging it out on a windy afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium. This was the one where Lamarcus Joyner’s flying elbow knocked Bridgewater out of the game and sent Mike Zimmer into a frenzy (find the NFL Films clip), and the Vikings boldly took the wind in overtime after winning the coin toss, betting they could seize prime field position after stopping the Rams. They did, and won on a Walsh field goal.

–Vikings 41, Falcons 28 (9/28/14): For the Teddy Bridgewater fans in the bunch, this was his first win as a Vikings starter and a moment where the future couldn’t have looked much brighter for the rookie QB. He threw for 305 yards in a game where the Vikings posted 556 on offense; find his 13-yard TD with 1:59 left in the second quarter and stick around for the shots of his mother, Rose Murphy, celebrating exuberantly in the stands.

–Vikings 30, Lions 23 (11/23/17): This Thanksgiving Day win against the Lions came at a point where the 2017 Vikings had an inner confidence that contenders always seem to acquire: they knew they had something special, with Case Keenum playing a fun, freewheeling style of quarterback and an elite defense, and their ability to put down the Lions a year after they lost their grip on the NFC North at Ford Field was a big moment. They led by 17 into the third quarter, before a Matthew Stafford rally that nearly produced a stunning finish (remember the blocked field goal that got overturned because of an offside penalty?).

–Vikings 36, Rams 22 (12/16/12): This was in a stretch of games with Peterson at his most otherworldly, and his 82-yard TD in the second quarter remains my favorite run I’ve seen live. There’s also a fun twist involving a pick-six from a 24-year-old Everson Griffen on Sam Bradford.

Q: Can/will Reiff be restructured? How much would Nickell Robey-Coleman cost per year/is he a fit? Do the Zim/brass believe these 2/3 year CBS and OL can step up? Zim historically doesn’t like playing rookies… 12 seems like a lot to fill all the holes? –@arealmullett22

A: OK … this is like four questions. But I’ll allow it, since it hits on a lot of the big topics. The Vikings actually pursued Robey-Coleman a few years ago in free agency, and he could be a fit if they don’t like their other options in the slot. As for a restructured deal for Riley Reiff, I don’t see it, simply because the Vikings’ lack of options at left tackle (and a thin group at guard, should they draft a left tackle) gives Reiff some leverage. While Zimmer typically doesn’t play many rookies, he’s not opposed to it if he thinks they’re ready (see: Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, Pat Elflein, etc.), and his comments this year suggest he knows this year could be a little different. I think the Vikings are counting on a big return from their draft class, either in terms of rookies who can play right away or the draft capital to procure a starter in a trade.

Q: In the financial situation for all teams what does DEAD MONEY mean for cap space?? –@MichaelGreenbl3

A: Glad you asked; since we’ve been talking so much about this topic as it relates to the Vikings’ cap situation in free agency this year, it’s worth stopping for a minute to explain exactly what “dead money” means in the NFL and how it affects things.

First, NFL contracts are different from those in the NBA, NHL and MLB in one major respect: They’re not fully guaranteed. If a major-leaguer signs a three-year, $30 million deal and he’s released after one season, in most cases, the team still has to pay him for the full value of the contract. If a NFL player signs the same deal, but he’s released after one season, the team doesn’t owe him a penny beyond what it had guaranteed. That’s why you see more veteran players get released in the NFL than in other sports, and because the league also has a hard salary cap that teams cannot exceed at any point during the year, it’s where dead money comes in.

Dead money, put simply, is cap space that’s occupied by a player no longer on a team’s roster. That can generally take two forms. It can be money a team had guaranteed (but not yet paid) to a player it had released (in which case the team would both have to pay out the guaranteed cash and allocate the money to its salary cap), or it come in the form of a signing bonus proration that had yet to hit the cap. The cap hits of signing bonuses are spread out over the life of a player’s deal, up to five seasons; it allows a team to give a player a large sum of cash without putting the full weight of the deal in Year 1 of the contract. For example, the Vikings gave Kirk Cousins a $30 million signing bonus as part of his new deal last week, but because the deal is three years long, they’ll only count $10 million of the bonus on this year’s cap (before counting $10 million in both 2021 and 2022, respectively). The signing bonus cash will be in Cousins’ pocket long before the end of the deal, but it will be allocated to the Vikings’ cap in pieces.

Now, when a team releases or trades a player whose signing bonus hasn’t fully hit the cap, it no longer gets the benefit of spreading that bonus out over the life of the deal; all of the remaining dollars from the bonus hit the cap at once. So, let’s look at the Stefon Diggs trade: The Vikings gave Diggs a $15 million signing bonus as part of the five-year deal he signed in July 2018, which means only $6 million of his signing bonus had hit the cap at the time of the trade ($3 million allocations in 2018 and 2019). Because of that, the Vikings had to count the remaining $9 million of Diggs’ bonus against this year’s cap when they traded him; the Bills didn’t sign Diggs to the contract, so they don’t get stuck with the, uh, bill when they make the trade. They’ll absorb Diggs’ salary, but the Vikings pay for the rest of the bonus. That’s why there’s $9 million of dead money on this year’s cap.

The Vikings generally adopt a “pay-as-you-go” strategy, which means dollars mostly hit the cap when they’re paid out in cash. They don’t like to do deals with exorbitant bonuses, or back-load guaranteed money into the later years of the deal, so they retain flexibility with their roster (not to mention leverage over players who might not have any guaranteed money left). Since guaranteed money is a player’s best insurance against getting released, the lack of it allows a team to say, “Well, you can accept this restructured (i.e. reduced) deal, or we can release you without penalty; it’s your call.” But in the case of deals for quarterbacks like Cousins, or high-priced receivers like Diggs, signing bonuses are generally part of the game. It’s why the challenge of avoiding dead money gets more difficult, and why the Vikings’ roster adjustments have them carrying an uncharacteristic $20.22 million of it on their books this year. In other words, they’ve got almost as much cap space allocated to players who are no longer on their roster as they do to their starting QB, who will count for $21 million against this year’s cap.

Star Tribune photo by Liz Flores

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