Vikings are $24 million over cap, and some veterans would need to take pay cuts to stay
The Vikings enter the offseason with salary-cap issues. To fix them, some aging veterans likely will have to take big pay cuts or be let go.
After going 13-4 and winning the NFC North but losing in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Giants, Minnesota is way over the projected salary cap. Analyst Jason Fitzgerald, using a possible cap number of $225 million, has the Vikings now at $24.55 million over the cap, which gives them the third-least amount of room among all NFL teams.
“It’s not a great spot they’re in from a cap standpoint,’’ said Fitzgerald, who runs the website OvertheCap.com. “They’re in kind of a position where they’re kind of weathering the storm and making sure things don’t get too bad (with the cap) and pretty much try to get through next season.”
But there are ways Minnesota easily can get under the cap and find some money to spend in free agency and contract extensions for wide receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson. The first order of business likely will be addressing big cap numbers on veterans such as receiver Adam Thielen ($19.97 million), safety Harrison Smith ($19.13 million), running back Dalvin Cook ($14.1 million) and, to a lesser extent, linebacker Eric Kendricks ($11.43 million).
“They’re coming off a good season, so I guess they would try to run it back and try very hard to do something with guys like Thielen and Smith, but only keeping them on the roster at a much-reduced salary,” Fitzgerald said.
Thielen, who turns 33 in August, has a nonguaranteed base salary on the books of $11.82 million and Smith, who turns 34 next month, has a nonguaranteed figure of $14.7 million. Fitzgerald figures the market value for both now is about $5 or $6 million, and either could be cut if they don’t agree. A Thielen release would create $6.42 million of cap room, Smith $7.38 million.
Cook, who turns 28 in August, is on the books for a nonguaranteed salary of $10.4 million — high for a running back. His situation is tricky because he was still effective in 2022 while still showing some signs of decline. Cook rushed for 1,173 yards while averaging a career-low 4.3 yards per carry. Yet the Vikings don’t have a sure-fire in-house replacement for Cook because backup Alexander Mattison is an impending free agent.
“Maybe that’s another where they look to bring the numbers down, but that’s one that they’re going to look pretty hard at,” Fitzgerald said of Cook’s situation.
As for Kendricks, who will turn 31 in just over a month, Fitzgerald could see his nonguaranteed base salary of $9.15 million remaining intact in 2023, the final year of his contract. He’s not the same player he was when he made All-Pro in 2019, but is still effective.
Cook was asked last Monday about the possibility of taking a pay cut and referred questions to the Vikings’ brass. General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was asked Wednesday about Minnesota’s cap issues resulting in some hard decisions needing to be made on some veteran players.
“Every team’s got those (cap) restraints. … Ultimately, we have a lot of tools at our disposal, extensions and different things like that, where you can get under the cap, and continue on,’’ said Adofo-Mensah, who was hired last January. “So, we’ll consider everything we have.”
In recent years, the Vikings have been pushing a good bit of money to future cap years, a practice most teams also have done. That’s because the coronavirus pandemic led to a significant decrease in fans in 2020 and cost teams a lot of money, meaning the cap in recent years hasn’t gone up as much as expected. It was $208.2 million in 2022.
But money from new television deals will kick in for 2024, and Fitzgerald expects the cap then could be about $256 million. He projects it could be about $283 million in 2025.
For now, Adofo-Mensah said Kirk Cousins will remain the team’s quarterback in 2023, the final year on his contract, but he was non-committal about the possibility of an extension. Cousins has the highest cap number on the team at $36.25 million but Fitzgerald expects it could be lowered even if he isn’t signed to an extension.
One possibly could be taking Cousins’ $20 million roster bonus and turning it into a signing bonus. Cousins has two void years already on his deal, and an addition of two more could create up to $16 million of cap room by prorating money over five years.
The Vikings could convert some of their hefty base salaries to signing bonuses to spread out cap hits. That could be done with 2023 base salaries for tackle Brian O’Neill ($14.4 million) and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith ($9.45 million).
WHAT ABOUT HUNTER?
Perhaps the most up-in-the-air salary situation will involve edge rusher Danielle Hunter, who led the team with 10½ sacks. But at 28, Hunter is not quite as dominant as he was during his Pro Bowl seasons of 2018 and 2019 — before injuries sidelined him in 2020 and 2021. Hunter had money from his contract moved to what was an $18 million roster bonus for last season and is on the books next season for a nonguaranteed base salary of just $4.9 million in 2023.
“I’m sure he’s going to complain if he doesn’t have (a lucrative) extension, and that puts them in a tricky spot,” Fitzgerald said. “He signed a bad deal when he first signed and then gave every reason why he took less money, and then was unhappy with it right away because he took too little money on that first deal.”
Hunter is entering the last of a five-year, $72 million extension that kicked in for the 2019 season. Fitzgerald expects the Vikings to try to agree to a “reasonable” extension with Hunter. But if Hunter, who has had contract squabbles with the team in the past, is not agreeable, Fitzgerald could see him being traded after June 1, when dead money on his deal could be more spread out.
Still, Hunter was one of the top players on a team that ranked No. 31 in the NFL in total defense and fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatall on Thursday. While the Vikings will need to rebuild the defense, they’re unlikely to have the cap room to make massive personnel changes when the new league year begins March 15.
Minnesota’s most notable free agents on defense are lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Patrick Peterson. Fitzgerald figures Tomlinson’s market value is in the range of $10 million, and Peterson’s in the range of $5 million. The key free agent on offense is center Garrett Bradbury, whose market value is likely in range of Tomlinson’s.
It remains to be seen if the Vikings will keep the 3-4 defensive scheme they had for one year under Donatell or go back to the 4-3 they used to play. If the Vikings return to the 4-3, Kendricks would figure to be the middle linebacker. That could impact the future of inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, who turns 31 in June and has a cap number of $6.5 million for 2023.
With an eye on the cap going up significantly in future years, the Vikings will work this offseason on extensions for Jefferson and Hockenson. Fitzgerald expects Jefferson will command a deal for at least $30 million annually, which would begin in 2025. However, any signing bonus he might get this offseason would be prorated over five years. So, a $30 million signing bonus would equate to an additional $6 million cap hit for 2023 on Jefferson.
Fitzgerald figures Hockenson, who will make $9.33 million in the final year of his contract in 2023, could command an extension worth more than $17 million annually. Any signing bonus Hockenson might get this offseason would be prorated, but on an extension, the Vikings could lower his $9.33 million cap hit for 2023 by pushing money from his base salary to later years.
Overall, though, the fastest way for the Vikings to get their cap situation under control would be to significantly reduce the salaries of some aging veteran players. Or perhaps some simply will be released.
“There are tough decisions they have to make,” Fitzgerald said. “But one thing for Minnesota is that their general manager shouldn’t really be married to some of these players that had deals that pre-dated him.”
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