Everson Griffen is one of the best defensive players in Minnesota Vikings history. His success is one of the great accomplishments of Mike Zimmer’s (and Andre Patterson’s) tenure. He might one day end up in the Vikings’ ring of honor. But decisions in the NFL are never about what you have done in the past. For Griffen, his success between 2014 and 2017 won’t mean as much to the team’s decision as his 2018 production and 2019 cap hit.
That decision is likely to come before March 15, according to the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling, who wrote that Griffen’s $10.9 base salary for 2019 becomes guaranteed on that date. They can release him before then for $1.2 million in dead cap or re-work his contract.
The March 15 deadline gives the Vikings two full days of free agency before making a final call on their Pro Bowl defensive ends. A free agent pool chock full of impressive pass rushers could influence the Vikings’ thinking on Griffen.
At age 31, he will be coming off a season in which he set his lowest sack total during Zimmer’s time in Minnesota and his lowest pressure total (per Pro Football Focus) since 2011, when he was a rotational rusher.
Considering he missed five games with a mental health issue, it’s difficult to tell whether he would bounce back quickly or if Griffen will ever return to form. Keeping him in the fold could be more risky than using the cap space that would be created (more than $10 million) by cutting him to spend on a free agent edge rusher.
Some of the players on the market are around five years younger and fly in the same air as Griffen as disrupters of opponents’ passing games.
Jadeveon Clowney, 26, of the Houston Texans is coming off his best season. He posted 9.0 sacks, 63 pressures and was graded by PFF as the No. 2 run-stuffing edge rusher in the NFL. It would not be a surprise to see him land the most lucrative deal of any player on the market this offseason.
Dallas free agent defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence will start the 2019 season as a 27-year-old. Over the last two seasons, he has 25 sacks and has played 16 games in all but one of his past four years. PFF graded him the seventh best player at his position.
New England’s Trey Flowers is coming off a breakout age-25 season. He managed 9.0 sacks and 64 pressures. He rated as the No. 2 overall edge rusher by PFF.
Dee Ford of the Kansas City Chiefs also had a breakout year. He’s coming off a 13.0 sack season and will turn 28 by the start of the 2019 season.
Vikings fans would be all too familiar with veteran DE Brandon Graham of Philadelphia, who might be a bargain after a down season in the sack category. He was credited with just 4.0 sacks, but ranked fourth in the NFL in pressures and graded ninth at his position by PFF.
Seattle free agent Frank Clark, who graded 25th, picked up 13 sacks and 64 pressures. Free agent Za’Darius Smith of the Ravens had 60 pressures and 10 sacks last year.
If the Vikings didn’t want to go all-in on one of the big-time names in the edge rusher market, there are quality rotational players who could mix in with up-and-coming defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Veteran Cameron Wake ranked 21st in pressures, rotational rusher Alex Okafor had 39 in a part-time role with the Saints.
The class is so stacked with players who are either younger or cheaper, it would be hard to justify bringing back Griffen unless the Vikings were certain he would bounce back to 2017 form. In his best years, Griffen was better at getting after the than 95 percent of the NFL. In 2015, he registered an incredible 71 pressures, seventh best in the league that year and the highest of his career.
It wouldn’t be easy to walk away from a heart-and-soul player like Griffen, but the Vikings proved before last season they aren’t into sentimentality by releasing Brian Robison. In another win-now league, they may decide it’s simply too risky to keep him on board when compared to projected production from the elite free agents of the class.
However, Khalil Mack may have hurt the Vikings in more than just one way this year. His $141 million deal, worth $23.5 million annually, raised the price for pass rushing around the league.
If the Vikings elect to spend their cap dollars surrounding quarterback Kirk Cousins with talent, they could go another direction and replace Griffen with the 18th overall pick.
The team’s front office faces a number of tough decisions, including whether to re-sign/franchise tag Anthony Barr and/or Sheldon Richardson. The choice surrounding Griffen, however, is likely the most difficult call they will make over the next month.