Drastic reduction in NFL salary cap for 2021, could be bad news for Dalvin Cook

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs the ball against New Orleans Saints outside linebacker A.J. Klein (53) during the second quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

And you thought the Vikings had salary-cap issues this offseason?

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported this week that the league’s salary cap for 2021 could potentially drop by $40 million “or a lot more per team,” because of the impact of COVID-19 and the fact that it’s expected games either will be played with no fans in stadiums or far fewer than normal because of social distancing.

This would be a problem for every team and have a significant impact on how the Vikings do business going forward in 2020. Minnesota began the league year in March at the bottom of the NFL in cap space and made various moves to now rank 20th with $12.3 million in available room, according to Over The Cap. That’s working off the 2020 cap of $198.2 million per team, a $10 million increase from last season.

Considering the NFL is usually a money-making machine because of its lucrative television deals and various other revenue sources, the expectation was that that figure again would increase for 2021. That’s no longer the case and, if Rapoport is right, the figure could be as low as $158.2 million. The salary cap hasn’t been that low since it was set at $155.27 in 2016.

The Vikings’ active cap spending, according to Over The Cap, is currently at $165,034,220, and their 2021 figure is at $182,026,119. That puts them $23.8 million over the potential cap for ’21.

It will be interesting to see how this will impact the contract extension talks with running back Dalvin Cook, who is set to make a base salary of $1.3 million in the final season of his rookie contract. Cook has become the centerpiece of the Vikings’ offense and it has been assumed he would be rewarded with a rich deal this summer. The Vikings are known for taking care of their own and often announce new deals right before or early in training camp.

But with Cook looking for the type of deal that Carolina gave Christian McCaffrey (an average of $16 million over four years) and Dallas gave Ezekiel Elliott (an average of $15 million over six years), it seems like a long shot the Vikings could now match that without getting extremely creative. The problem is that even if Vikings cap guru Rob Brzezinski did work some magic no one would be exactly sure when the cap might rebound.

It’s not just Cook who could be impacted. Safety Anthony Harris and the Vikings have engaged in talks on a multi-year deal, but right now he’s set to play under the $11.4 million franchise tag in the coming season. If the salary cap gets cut significantly, it’s unlikely the Vikings could afford to use the franchise tag again in 2021, and Harris might be asking more than Minnesota feels it can pay on a multiyear deal.

Then there is quarterback Kirk Cousins, who won’t be going anywhere after 2020 but could eat up a huge portion of the Vikings’ cap. Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million extension with the Vikings in March that provided some immediate cap relief, but that decision might end up being very costly. He will count $21 million against the cap in 2020, but that figure grows to $31 million in 2021. Cutting him isn’t an option because of the enormous amount of dead money that would count against the cap.

The Vikings’ only option if the cap plummeted by $40 million — and they wouldn’t be alone — would be to get players to restructure their contracts or make some incredibly tough decisions on which veterans to jettison. Overall, that would put a ton of quality players on the market, and leave many of them having to sign for next to nothing.

That would be less than idea for everyone and that’s why Rapoport reported that working on the cap for 2021 is a huge negotiating point for the NFL and the NFLPA before the season starts.