EAGAN — If you spent any time this summer perusing the daily headlines during the NFL offseason, you were inundated with contract drama.
You read about Antonio Brown forcing a trade in hopes of a new deal, Ezekiel Elliott practicing by himself in Cabo, Julio Jones waiting out an extension and Melvin Gordon trying to force his team’s hand by sitting on the sidelines until his price is met.
If you are a Minnesota Vikings follower, you probably buzzed past the news and notes because they had nothing to do with your team. And it’s been that way for awhile for Vikings fans. Since the Vikings reached the NFC Championship in 2017, contract disputes have been other people’s problems.
Here’s a timeline for you:
On April 20, 2018, linebacker Eric Kendricks agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal with the Vikings. Two months later, on June 27, Danielle Hunter signed for five years, $72 million. One month after that, July 31, Stefon Diggs agreed to a five-year extension worth $72 million.
To start the 2018 offseason, Everson Griffen restructured his contract. It took awhile but Anthony Barr finally elected to stay with the Vikings in mid-March for five years, $67.5 million. Not long after that Adam Thielen signed an extension for four years, $64 million and tight end Kyle Rudolph agreed to stick around for four years, $36 million.
All said and done over the past 16 months, five Pro Bowlers and two other top-notch starters decided to re-sign to stick with the Vikings organization rather than testing the market or forcing the team to franchise tag them.
A closer examination of the contracts would find that many of them were not top dollar had the player forced the team’s hand or gone out on the free agent market.
Hunter, for example, is one of the league’s elite pass rushers, averaging 10 sacks per season over his first four years. Only six players in the NFL have more sacks in that timespan. Yet his contract puts him 20th in fully guaranteed dollars.
Barr took less money than the Jets were offering. Diggs is 22nd and has less in fully guaranteed dollars than Texans receiver Kenny Stills.
So in a league in which players are using the NBA as an outline and taking their own futures in their hands, why have the Vikings — to a man — taken a different path and decided to stick together in Minnesota?
The 2017 effect
The farther we get away from the 2017 season the more obvious it becomes that the Vikings trip to the NFC Championship impacted every decision they made thereafter. From signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to an $84 million contract to hiring an offensive coach from the team that beat them to putting forth the effort to keep players from that No. 1 ranked defense.
The success of the ’17 season was validation for the Vikings team-building philosophy that was forged in 2014 when Mike Zimmer was hired. The subsequent moves have reflected belief from Zimmer and the front office that they chose the correct path rather than hunting for the next offensive guru and therefore they have to retain the defensive talent that it took to be No. 1.
So the team’s perspective has straight forward: Keep all the good players that got them within one game of the Super Bowl and be willing to pay out large amounts of cash to do so.
The players’ decisions to stay are more complex but all roads appear to lead back to the same conclusion: They believe that this group is capable of reaching a Super Bowl.
Had the Vikings lost the Minneapolis Miracle game in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, the consensus might be different. Had Case Keenum struggled in relief of Sam Bradford, the following two offseasons might have turned into every man for himself. But the ’17 season bonded the team in a way few NFL franchises have seen in the modern days of free agency.
“We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs here, but I want to continue to build on what we have and I feel like we do have a real chance to win,” Barr said. “We have a really good team. Money is great but you can’t be miserable coming into to work every day.”
After signing with the Vikings, Kirk Cousins told a story about discussing the mentality of the team with Kendricks, who signed 11 months in advance of becoming a free agent.
“When I talked to Eric Kendricks and congratulated him on signing his extension, he said, ‘Kirk, really, I decided to sign and I wanted to be here because it’s all about winning here. There’s no other agendas. Let’s just win football games,'” Cousins said. “He looked at me and said, ‘you’ll see, you’ll see when we get there in the season and you’ll know.'”
The 8-7-1 year following the Vikings’ come-together season did not sway their belief in repeating ’17.
“Guys have a taste of what it was like a couple years ago to get close,” owner Mark Wilf said. “And they know what it’s going to take.”
Turns out that “culture” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2014. It could be the word of literally every year in NFL history. It’s used so often that it’s more likely to mean “I’m blowing you off” than “I’m saying something important.”
On the many meanings of the word “culture,” Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker wrote: “Institutions that drone on about their ‘culture of transparency’ or ‘culture of accountability’ often have neither.”
You could certainly say that for football, where teams that make endless statements about “culture” and then make preposterously bad choices with the people they employ.
But in the Vikings case, the dedication of star players acts as proof that the “culture” has power.
Barr said it begins with the head coach.
“Coach Zim, that is my guy,” he said. “I’d go to war for him any day. You all see him as a football coach but he is so much more than that. He treats us like his children. He demands a lot and I wouldn’t want it any other way so I owe him a lot and a big reason why I returned is because of Coach.”
“I knew I could trust the people in [Minnesota],” Barr added.
Zimmer pointed back toward the personalities of the players.
“We work them hard but they have it pretty good and we have good guys,” Zimmer said. “We don’t have a lot of trouble off the field, we don’t have a lot of trouble in the locker room. I think they appreciate how we do things. If you get the guys that are responsible and you make them accountable I think they fit in well.”
Wilf said that a major component in building a strong “culture” has been drafting the right type of people through the years — those who ultimately shape the locker room and set standards for work habits.
“We try to build through the draft and try to build in house to get our system and our way of thinking,” he said.
Players all over the draft map have stood out during draft season for their character makeup, from 2019 first-rounder Garrett Bradbury as the leader of his college team’s offense to 2016 seventh-round pick Stephen Weatherly, a Vanderbilt-trained defensive end who has developed over the years into a promising player to Diggs, a late-round pick who turned into a superstar by honing his route-running craft.
Rudolph, who has been with the team through the entire rebuild of the franchise after an abysmal 2013 season, said he has seen results of bringing in specific types of personalities.
“Part of the reason I wanted to stay here is because of the culture,” Rudolph said on Thursday. “That’s the type of players they have brought into this locker room, whether it’s guys they draft and develop or in free agency, there is a certain type of player that they look for and when you look around this locker room you have a bunch of guys who come to work every day…and I have to do my job well so the guy next to me can do his job well. When we go out there we have 11 guys with that same mentality.”
Before last season Griffen explained the “culture” as older players putting ego aside to teach younger players — an act that has increased value in today’s complex game.
“That is how you win,” the Pro Bowl pass rusher said. “What is it, you’re strong as your weakest link? Everybody has to be strong. I feel like the faster you get them groomed up and trained and prepared to play on game day…Good things can happen and the faster you get them coached up and on the playbook, great things happen. I think that is what we strive for.”
Veterans like Terence Newman and Brian Robison were known for passing along their knowledge. Newman held extra film sessions for young defensive backs and Robison helped train Hunter, who was his successor. Now their pupils are leading the extra sessions.
Rewarding players who have been hits in the draft with second contracts — as difficult as it may be with the salary cap — seems to have played into the team’s magnetic “culture.”
“That’s why I want to play for them — for selecting me in the fifth round,” Diggs said last year. “It was a bumpy road that day, and I just remember getting a call, and they gave me a chance. They believed in me, and they won, and going forward they pushed me to be where I am now.”j
It’s also easy to look toward the investment from the Twin Cities and from the Vikings in US Bank Stadium and TCO Performance Center as enticing.
“This facility is ridiculous,” Kendricks said when he saw TCO Performance Center for the first time.
So as the Vikings take the field with high expectations at their billion-dollar stadium on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, around half the starters will do so having actively made the choice to be there — a true rarity in the NFL in 2019. And whether their goal repeat 2017 and beyond comes to fruition, we will soon find out.
“I think you follow your heart, [you can] live with the results,” Barr said.