Neal: Vikings shifting into ‘teardown mode’ — and that’s a good thing

The first week of the NFL new year could very well confirm the direction the Vikings are headed: They are moving into teardown mode, a change from their previous "competitive rebuild" stage.

And it needs to happen.

Because they need to move money around and shed salaries: The Vikings must be cap compliant by the start of the new season on Wednesday, and they also must prepare for Justin Jefferson's bank-breaking contract extension talks later this spring.

Because they need new players: Usually when a team goes 13-4, it's scheming up ways to stay the course with a few upgrades. But General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah inherited a roster with a porous defense that needed upgrading two years ago. They need to retool the defense under new coordinator Brian Flores.

And because of both money and talent: The roster contained some aging players on sizable contracts.

The finances were foisted on him by seventh-round-draft-pick-hoarder Rick Spielman. Spielman, the previous GM, changed the course of the franchise when he signed Kirk Cousins in 2018 for three years and $84 million, leading to cost-cutting elsewhere on the roster that sent the defense to its current state as one of the worst in football.

Two Cousins contract extensions and several kick-the-can-down-the-road decisions later, the Vikings are dealing with cap calamities. They have been chiseling away on a $24 million cap overage since the end of the season. Adofo-Mensah eventually had to clean up this mess.

Notice that on Monday, the first day teams could contact free agents, reports about free agent agreements came fast and furious around the league without any indications of the Vikings making a splash. That's what a team does when it's hamstrung by its finances.

Linebacker Jordan Hicks agreed to restructure his contract. Instead of making $5 million next season, Hicks is expected to make significantly less. The Vikings also agreed to a contract for blocking tight end Josh Oliver.

Wait — what? A blocking tight end? Can he tackle?

The Vikings spent last week lowering expectations by saying goodbye to familiar faces such as Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks. Are Harrison Smith and Dalvin Cook next?

Brace yourselves, Vikings fans.

The Vikings have approached Smith about a sizable pay cut from his $14.7 million base. There are no indications Smith will accept a steep pay cut, and he could be released. It's hard to imagine the defense improving in 2023 without Smith's experience.

Obviously, Patrick Peterson feels that way.

Peterson, one of their best defensive players last season, agreed to a two-year deal with Pittsburgh on Monday. That's a telling sign. Peterson stuck around after an 8-9 season in 2021. But he's not returning now after a 13-4 season? Maybe he decided not to run it back, or maybe he was not offered an acceptable contract. Indications are it was the latter.

This is the position the Vikings are in: Possibly scrambling to re-sign Duke Shelley to have at least one familiar starter at the position. Financial flexibility is needed to bring in a credible corner, because there's not one on the roster.

Then there's the curious case of Za'Darius Smith, who had 10 sacks last season but only 1.5 after Week 8. Smith reportedly has sold his Eagan home and requested to be released, a potential cap savings of over $12 million. How can the Vikings not honor his request? A team can't keep someone who doesn't want to be there and who might become a problem behind the scenes. If the Vikings can't talk him into a more affordable deal, they might need to find an affordable edge rusher in Flores' scheme.

It's understandable if Vikings fans feel bamboozled after such a successful regular season. But the aftermath of cutting expensive veteran players could be worth it if the Vikings use the cap space they create to sign talented replacements who won't break the bank.

And who can tackle somebody.