Featured Posts | Gophers

Zulgad: Vikings will have to make some tough calls if they want to be active in free agency

Redskins Vikings Football
Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Riley Reiff gets set during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Editor’s note: This column was written shortly before the Vikings released Riley Reiff to get them under the salary cap.

The NFL’s announcement on Wednesday that its salary cap will decrease to $182.5 million for the 2021 season did not catch the Vikings by surprise, but it also couldn’t have been considered welcome news at TCO Performance Center.

Not after the 2020 cap had increased to $198.2 million in a league where the revenue is usually flowing. The coronavirus pandemic changed that and even with mammoth new television contracts being negotiated, the loss of revenue from empty stadiums this past season caused an 8 percent rollback in the cap and the first drop in a decade.

The Vikings, who find themselves $2.2 million over the cap, must be in compliance with it by 3 p.m. next Wednesday when the new league year begins. The team already has taken steps to cut salary by releasing tight end Kyle Rudolph to save a little more than $5 million and then cutting kicker Dan Bailey on Tuesday to save $1.7 million.

There will be more to come but what we don’t know is how significant the moves might be. That will depend on how active general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer plan to be in free agency and how much the Vikings’ value players on their roster. Rob Brzezinski, who has long done a masterful job of handling the Vikings’ salary cap, will be tasked with making sure the final figures all work and also make the Vikings competitive in 2021 after a disappointing 7-9 finish in 2020.

What will make these decisions interesting is that Spielman and Zimmer don’t appear to have the benefit of time. Both will be beginning three-year contract extensions next season, meaning ownership might find it palatable to write the duo a going-away check after next season, if the Vikings fail to make the playoffs for the third time in four years.

The Vikings have needs at left guard, defensive end and safety to name three positions. Quality depth at cornerback is another must. The problem is how do you create the salary cap space to fill these needs and what is the price of doing so?

For instance, left tackle Riley Reiff is entering the final season of his contract and has a $14.95 million salary-cap hit coming. Cutting Reiff would result in $11.75 million in cap savings and would only end up with the Vikings taking a $3.2 million hit in dead money. Reiff, 32, is a candidate for a restructure and extension but after the team made him take a $5 million pay cut before last season, he couldn’t be blamed if he has told the Vikings he isn’t going to do them any favors. Reiff is scheduled to receive a $5 million roster bonus on March 19, so a decision will need to be made by that time.

Reiff is coming off a solid season and getting quarterback Kirk Cousins more pass protection, not less, is the goal. So if Reiff is jettisoned who takes his spot? One option would be to move 2018 second-round pick Brian O’Neill from right to left tackle, but then you are creating an opening on the right side of the line and you have to trust that O’Neill’s transition will be a smooth one.

O’Neill has turned into a solid player and is entering the last season of his rookie contract, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings do a long-term extension with him. That could start off with a team-friendly cap figure.

There also are likely to be extension talks with Danielle Hunter, who wants to be among the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL, and safety Harrison Smith, who will have a cap hit of $10.25 million in the final season of his contract. Smith has no guaranteed money left and probably would welcome a new deal. Wide receiver Adam Thielen has four years left on his contract, but with a 2021 cap figure of $13.469 million he might be willing to restructure because he also has no guaranteed salary coming.

Brezinski can get creative and move money around, pushing it off to future seasons, in order to free up some cap room, but if the Vikings really want to pursue a top-level free agent, such as Patriots guard Joe Thuney, it’s going to require more than asking for restructures.

The Giants released veteran guard Kevin Zeitler on Wednesday, saving $12 million in cap dollars. Those are the types of moves we’re talking about and, yes, it won’t be surprising if the Vikings express interest in Zeitler.

Cousins has made it pretty clear he doesn’t have any interest in restructuring his contract for a second consecutive year — his current cap hit would be $31 million (that’s not as painful to accept if the cap did what everybody expected) — so the savings would have to come elsewhere. Linebacker Anthony Barr, who missed all but two games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle, has a $15 million cap hit for 2021. It would save the Vikings $7.262 million if they were to trade or cut him but there would be a dead cap hit of $7.8 million.

The Vikings’ defense is coming off a horrible season, so odds are good Zimmer will do everything in his power to make sure Barr stays on the roster. But Zimmer has to realize his title isn’t head coach of the Vikings’ defense. It’s head coach of the entire team and his future will be decided on how that team does in 2021.

The upside for the Vikings, and the rest of the teams, is that there should be some quality players hitting the market because many teams are going to have to make cuts with the cap falling. This could help the Vikings land a few below-market bargains. But creating the space to sign those players is where the next week figures to provide Spielman, Zimmer and Brzezinski with some difficult challenges that could help decide the future for all three men.