Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was finally going to have to make some sacrifices when it came to his beloved defense. That was the expectation as NFL free agency approached and one considered the needs the Vikings had on the offensive side of the ball.
The Vikings entered the official opening of free agency on Wednesday — the process actually started Monday with the beginning of the legal tampering period — with limited room under the salary cap so making any impact moves, such as signing a top-notch offensive lineman like guard Rodger Saffold,seemed far-fetched.
It appeared to be equally as big of a long shot that linebacker Anthony Barr, the first player Zimmer told general manager Rick Spielman to draft in the first round in 2014, would return. It came as no surprise Monday when reports surfaced that Barr had a verbal agreement in place to join the New York Jets and fulfill his potential as a full-time pass rusher
Barr reportedly would get an average of $15 million per year and had incentives that meant the yearly average could reach $17.5 million. Only word had it that Barr became physically ill Monday evening because he was so uncertain about his decision. His agent returned to the Vikings looking to reached an agreement. The end result is a five-year contract that reportedly will pay Barr $13.5 million per year and additional incentives that could make him an additional $10 million. Barr will get $33 million in guarantees.
While Barr took a discount to return to Minnesota, there is no question that the early days of free agency have been a win for the Vikings’ powerful head coach. The Vikings will make two players available to the media at TCO Performance Center on Thursday and they will be Barr and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who began his career with the Vikings before joining Seattle last season. Stephen will return to the Vikings on a reported three-year, $12.45 million contract that includes $6 million in guarantees.
Barr’s return is due in part to the salary-cap magic that Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ executive vice president of football operations, is able to work year after year. But it also speaks to the influence Zimmer continues to carry in keeping the message loud and clear on where the Vikings’ blueprint for success needs to start in a league that appears to be turning more and more to offense.
That would be with a defense that finished fourth in total defense and ninth in scoring, a season after finishing first in the league in both categories. The Vikings, however, went from going 13-3 and making the NFC title game in 2017, to being out of the playoffs at 8-7-1 in 2018. This was in large part because of offensive issues that needed to be fixed, and came after the Vikings made one of the biggest splashes in free agency a year ago by signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract.
It is looking as if the Vikings will attempt to find fixes on offense through the bargain bin of free agency — that was former Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s favorite time to shop — and during the draft.
Clearly, Zimmer believes that if he can keep the key members of his defense together, he can recapture the magic of 2017 by having an offense that is just good enough. It’s also become clear that Zimmer, and others with the Vikings, believe that recently hired Gary Kubiak is going to be the biggest free agency signing the team made.
Kubiak, who will be assistant head coach and an offensive advisor, will be counted on to install a system that will help Cousins thrive and allow Minnesota to establish its run game. If the Vikings are right, their success on offense will be due to a guy who does not count against the salary cap.
It will be interesting to see if Zimmer is forced to make any sacrifices on defense in the coming days. There have been reports that the Vikings have been talking about a restructure with defensive end Everson Griffen, who will have his $10.9 million base salary become fully guaranteed on Friday.
There also are reports the Vikings are getting calls from teams interested in trading for cornerbacks Trae Waynes and/or Xavier Rhodes. Waynes is due to make $9.1 million next season in the last year of his contract, and Rhodes will make $10.4 million and carry a salary-cap number of $13.3 million.
It’s logical to believe that the 31-year-old Griffen won’t return, and that Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly could become the Vikings’ primary pass-rushing ends, with Barr being asked to get after the quarterback more often. But the Vikings trying to restructure Griffen’s contract shows there is an interest in keeping him around.
The Vikings, according to the Over The Cap website, were last in the NFL as of Wednesday night with only $2.35 million of cap room. More room is going to have to be created and some tough decisions are going to have be made.
Does that mean Zimmer will lose any of his favorites from the defense? It’s no longer safe to assume that will be the case.