The 2021 offseason — the Vikings' 10th with Rick Spielman in full control of their roster — could differ in some significant ways from any they have experienced during his time as general manager. Fresh infusions of cash from the NFL's television deals had allowed the Vikings to operate with few major cap repercussions during a decade of drafting their own players, paying many of them handsomely and making a few splashy free agent acquisitions.
The cap in 2012 was $120.6 million and has climbed each year since then, jumping by at least $10 million every season since 2014. It reached $198.2 million this past season, and even as the Vikings have paid lucrative deals to many of their draft picks while making Kirk Cousins the league's first player with a fully-guaranteed contract in 2018, they've largely been able to circumvent cap trouble thanks to vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski's nimble cap management and an ownership group willing to spend well over the cap.
According to sources with access to NFL Players Association salary data, the Wilfs have spent at least $14 million more than the cap amount, in terms of actual cash paid to players, in every season since 2017. This year, with the Vikings' adjusted cap sitting at $198.4 million, the team spent $218.2 million in cash, making frequent use of signing bonuses as an effective (though expensive) accounting maneuver to stay under the cap while rewarding top performers.
When the 2021 league year starts in March — just after the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the sports world — there could be big changes that make things more challenging for teams like the Vikings.
New TV deals are coming once again, possibly as soon as this offseason, and bullish projections about the league's financial future could offset some of the losses from a season where many teams (including the Vikings) played home games with few or no fans in the stands. But while players and teams likely want to delay the financial impact of lost revenue from the 2020 season, owners might not. As the well-worn business idiom says, cash now is better than cash later.
The league can set the salary cap as low as $175 million this year, and is reportedly considering a $180 million figure. For the purposes of this analysis, we'll use the $176 million amount Over the Cap has projected for the 2021 league year.
The Vikings have $193.3 million of cap commitments on their 2021 books, with $4.5 million of cap space to carry over from 2020. In other words, they'd have to shed about $12.8 million by the start of the league year; only nine teams need to cut more cap space.
The most obvious thing the Vikings have in common with those nine teams — the Saints, Eagles, Falcons, Steelers, Rams, Packers, Raiders, Chiefs and Texans — is their quarterback cost. Cousins' $31 million cap charge is actually only the ninth-highest in the league for 2021 (counting Drew Brees' current deal with the Saints), but his contract is one of the many QB deals that consumed more than 10% of his team's cap space before the pandemic and would take up an even bigger portion of it in 2021.
Changes at the quarterback position created something of an inflection point with how the Vikings spend their money. They've often spent right up to the cap — a function of an ownership group that's spared little expense in pursuit of on-field success — but the larger cash spend (which began, as we mentioned above, in 2017) came right as the team's quarterback costs started to increase.
An effective QB on a rookie contract is one of the NFL's greatest cost efficiencies, given how expensive it is to acquire even an average quarterback on the open market. When the Vikings traded up to acquire Teddy Bridgewater with the last pick of the 2014 first round, they thought they'd have five years of cost-controlled quarterbacking, thanks to the fifth-year option they received as a result of taking Bridgewater in the first round. But when his left knee buckled on Aug. 30, 2016, it ended the Vikings' days of low quarterback costs several years early.
They traded for Sam Bradford four days later, adding $7 million of cap charges in 2016 and $18 million in 2017 to a team that was already starting to reward some of Spielman's more successful draft picks with second contracts. When the Vikings decided after the 2017 season they couldn't plan around long-term health with Bradford or Bridgewater (or around long-term consistency with Case Keenum), they spent big to add Cousins to a team that had reached the NFC title game two months earlier and was in win-now mode.
Cousins' shrewdly-designed contract sacrificed long-term security for short-term guarantees; the quarterback and agent Mike McCartney leveraged those guarantees on the way to another deal before last season that gave the Vikings $10 million of cap relief in exchange for a $30 million signing bonus.
Cousins' deal is fully guaranteed for 2021, and his 2022 salary ($35 million) would become guaranteed if he's on the roster by the third day of the 2021 league year. In effect, if he's still with the Vikings in March, he'll have locked in $150 million over six years in Minnesota, all of it fully guaranteed, while setting up a $45 million cap number for 2022 that could prompt talks on another extension.
But while the Vikings have paid Cousins, they've also tried to keep the rest of their roster together by giving second contracts to their high-performing draft picks. As they've done so, they've increasingly resorted to signing bonuses to help manage the cap. It's a cost of doing business, especially when it comes to lucrative contracts, but it carries a downside.
In the NFL, the only major North American pro league without guaranteed contracts, signing bonuses and base salary guarantees are especially valuable to players for two reasons: They provide the player with cash up front, and offer some measure of insurance in a deal's later years. Since every guaranteed dollar in a player's contract eventually hits the cap whether a player is on the team or not, some teams are more inclined to keep a player it might have otherwise released, rather than devoting a finite resource like cap space to a player who's no longer on the roster.
When a team decides to move on from a veteran player, either for cost or performance reasons, it often doesn't have a choice but to absorb the guaranteed money charges for a player it released (also known as "dead money"). In previous years, the Vikings had used more of a pay-as-you-go strategy, employing signing bonuses sparingly to keep dead money charges low and offering cash upfront in the form of roster bonuses that would hit the cap in the same year a player signed his deal.
Signing players like Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook to competitive deals, though, has meant bigger bonuses that don't hit the cap all at once. That's why the Vikings' cap challenges in recent years — and the hurdles they'll face this year — aren't just related to their quarterback.
They gave Diggs a $15 million signing bonus as part of his five-year extension in 2018, and absorbed $9 million of dead money this year after trading him to Buffalo. The deals Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph signed before the 2017 season carried a combined $7.2 million of dead money this year, and releasing a player like tight end Kyle Rudolph this year would mean $4.35 million of dead money on the Vikings' 2021 cap.
Such a move would also mean a $5.1 million savings, since the Vikings wouldn't be paying Rudolph the rest of his salary for next year, but too much dead money would require them to fill out their roster with cheaper players. They carried more than $35 million of dead money on their 2020 books, before putting another $21.7 million worth of talent on injured reserve when Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr were done for the season before the end of September.
The Vikings have been forced to fill essential positions like quarterback and left tackle on the open market, while paying key defenders and trying to retain a few luxuries (like Cook, who's playing with a $15.5 million signing bonus) that other teams might not attempt to keep. Unless they're able to restructure several contracts, or the league decides to keep the 2021 cap higher than expected, the Vikings will have to release some veterans by March while trying to improve a 7-9 team with little cap space.
They'll face a decision on Barr, whose release would carry $7.8 million of dead money but bring $7.062 million of cap savings. He's returning from a torn pectoral muscle, but the Vikings have tended to value him differently than other teams, both because of his role in their defense and the work he does before the snap, calling plays and getting defenders lined up. Keeping Barr, though, might mean parting with free agent Eric Wilson, and the Vikings might need to restructure his deal even if they do let Wilson go.
Hunter is returning from a torn pectoral muscle that interrupted his tantalizing trajectory (he'd become the fastest NFL player to 50 career sacks during his first four seasons). The deal he signed before the 2018 season has aged quickly, such that he's the 18th-highest paid edge rusher in the league, and there have been whispers this winter that Hunter's camp wasn't issuing an idle threat when it leaked to NFL Network in October he wanted to redo his deal; he could be using Joey Bosa's deal with the Chargers (worth an average of $27 million a year) as a benchmark. The Vikings likely couldn't get to that point without pushing some of Hunter's cap value into the future, and the defensive end isn't working from the best negotiating position after missing all of 2020, but a deal for Hunter could again test the Vikings' appetite for spending well over the cap.
They're not in as difficult a position as some of the teams they're chasing in the NFC. The Packers and Rams each have more than $200 million of cap liabilities on their 2021 books, and the Saints (who are at more than $290 million) would keep $22.65 million of dead money on their books even if Brees retires as expected. The fact that so many teams could face difficult cap constraints could create a list of attractive veterans forced to play at bargain rates in 2021; the Vikings might be able to take advantage of such a market to fill a spot or two.
The way they've built their roster, though, combines with an uncertain economic climate to put a damper on their years of almost uninterrupted building. They'll have a fresh set of financial hurdles to clear before free agency starts in less than two months.