The salary cap might not be sexy, but it calls for analysis, particularly in relation to what the Vikings’ front office has to deal with this offseason. Last week General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was asked about the worrying situation.
“Every team has these limitations,” said Adofo-Mensah. “We have a lot of tools at our disposal to help us get below the cap and move on.”
He, Vikings vice president Rob Brzezinski, and other front office staff will be hard at work over the next few months examining what tools to use for the different players in the roster.
To further explore some of the upcoming decisions for the Vikings, I found it valuable to chart the cap situation for 10 key players on Team 2022. I also thought it would be fun to end the exercise with a mock series of decisions.
This group laid a strong foundation this season. pic.twitter.com/dx6mKt14BA
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 18, 2023
Using Over the Cap as a resource, here is the analysis:
Last week, at the Vikings’ season-ending press conference, Adofo-Mensah said, “We’re expecting[Kirk]to be our quarterback.”
But is that only for 2023 or next year and beyond? This question is worth asking because it affects not only decision making in the NFL draft, but also cap flexibility. Cousins is only under contract until the end of the 2023 season. Minnesota could allow him to play last year as is. The team could also extend him further and turn some of what’s owed him for 2023 into a signing bonus. That would lower Cousins’ salary cap for 2023 and give the Vikings additional flexibility.
Will Adofo-Mensah be ready to commit to Cousins beyond another season? This off-season’s decisions will go a long way towards the answer.
The 32-year-old wide receiver has been hitting career lows on numerous stats. Specifically, in terms of man coverage, Thielen’s average yards per target (4 1/2) was halved year over year.
We can debate why. Thielen struggled with several injuries. He was also essentially the Vikings’ No. 3 or No. 4 pass-catching option at several games, particularly after Minnesota added TJ Hockenson.
The context is important, but so is the reality of Thielen’s contract. His 2023 cap number is the second highest on the team.
Two options seem the most likely. If Thielen wants to stay in Minnesota — and if he still thinks he can achieve what he wants with this franchise — he could work with the team to restructure his deal. The other option, which would be a little jarring given what he means to this franchise, would be to shorten him. By calling it a post-June cut, the Vikings were able to save about $13.5 million in cap space.
The emergence of Christian Darrisaw may have overshadowed how good O’Neill was in 2022, but right tackle has been impressively consistent. O’Neill ranked 3rd in the NFL for pass blocking win rate, how often offensive linemen and defensive linemen win their respective reps. For that reason – if his health allows after his partially torn Achilles tendon – he should be a reliable starter next season.
However, the Vikings could convert part of his salary into a signing bonus and save about $10 million.
Assessing Smith’s season is difficult. The potential Hall of Famer, who will soon be 34, adapted to a new system. One of his greatest strengths – rushing the passer with an incredible take off – was effectively taken from him. According to the PFF, Smith rushed the passerby with just 14 snaps in 2022, compared to his average of about 40 from 2014-2021.
He and the Vikings must make a decision. You could restructure his contract and save about $9 million. Or, similar to the options with Thielen, the Vikings could cut Smith and save up to $15 million in cap.
For the first eight weeks of the 2022 season, Smith ranked first in the league for sacks (8 1/2) and fifth for pressure rate (18.1 percent) among 157 qualified pass rushers. From Week 9 through Week 18, he recorded just 1 1/2 sacks (112th) and a pressure rate of 15.6 percent (16th).
Is the discrepancy between these production levels enough for the Vikings to move on? Or will they consider Smith’s knee injury and decide their best way forward is with Smith in the herd?
Minnesota could generate around $13 million in cap space by cutting it. It could also restructure its deal to put money on the street. A third option is to pay the 30-year-old a salary that will be partially guaranteed in mid-March.
Cook’s 2023 cap number is expected to be the sixth-highest among running backs. Is he worth this commitment?
The stats say Cook had his second-best season in yards after contact in 2022. However, according to Next Gen Stats, he ranked 42nd out of 48 qualified running backs in rushing yards above expectations. When decision time comes, the Vikings will need to weigh those advanced metrics as well as the reality of running back value, especially for a 27-year-old back.
Cutting or trading Cook is possible. If they did this before June, they could generate about $8 million in cap space. Or, if they felt they would be better off with him holistically, they could restructure his deal and keep him.
First, the Vikings need to assess Kendricks’ season. Do they feel that, as the eye test suggests, he has slowed down physically? Or was it the Vikings’ defensive system under former coordinator Ed Donatell that prevented Kendricks from playing at his trademark speed?
Once these questions are settled, the Vikings can make their decision. Should they keep him for the final year of his contract, extending the soon-to-be 31-year-old for the future, or cut him and save about $9.5 million in cap space?
The options are simple: lengthen the tight end, which essentially became the Vikings’ No. 2 pass catcher this season, or hold on with his roughly $9.3 million salary. Since Irv Smith Jr. is a free agent, an extension seems the most likely.
Among tight ends who ran at least 150 routes after Week 9, when the Vikings took over Hockenson, he ranked second in the NFL in goals, catches and yards — all behind Travis Kelce. An extension would not only secure Hockenson for Minnesota’s future, but could also ease some of the Vikings’ 2023 cap restrictions.
Hicks is in a similar position to Kendricks. He, too, is a linebacker in the last year of his deal. He too will be 31 this season. And he, too, is hard to judge considering this was his first year in a new system.
Hicks’ cap — $6.5 million — isn’t as high as Kendricks’. But if the Vikings are looking for ways to create space, and they think linebacker Brian Asamoah could step in at one point, they could cut Hicks. This would save Minnesota about $5 million.
Last week, Adofo-Mensah said the Vikings had an “initial dialogue” with Jefferson and his agent about the possibility of an extension. Later in the day, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the sides “have not entered into negotiations yet.” Jefferson said, “I’ll be where I’m wanted.” That’s without question in Minnesota.
So what do the Vikings need to achieve this? The Vikings have numerous tools at their disposal to create Cap Space. Once that happens, Jefferson’s extension will likely be a priority. The 23-year-old superstar Wideout will likely attempt to dominate the market in some way, whether from a total value perspective, an average annual value perspective, or a fully guaranteed figure. Should the sides agree, the Vikings could convert part of the new contract into salary bonuses to cover near-term cap hits.
Other players whose release would provide cap relief
Harrison Phillips, CJ Ham, Ezra Cleveland, Cam Dantzler, Chris Reed, DJ Wonnum and Ross Blacklock.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell plan their way into the off-season together
what i would do
To best explain the choices facing Adofo-Mensah, Brzezinski, and the Vikings’ front office, it seems useful to outline how this might play out.
The Vikings’ 2023 salary cap situation is bleak. They’re down about $24.5 million, according to Over the Cap. The first task is to clear Cap Space.
I would start by turning O’Neill’s salary into a signing bonus, which would save about $10 million. I would also extend Hockenson and save about $5 million more of what is owed for the 2023 cap.
I’d still be about $10 million in the red, so now comes the hard part. Should I expand veterans like Cousins, Kendricks, and Hicks? Should I scrap franchise cornerstones like Harrison Smith and Thielen? What about Cook and Za’Darius Smith?
For the purposes of the exercise, I would release Kendricks, Cook, and Thielen, restructure Harrison Smith’s deal, and allow Cousins and Za’Darius Smith to play their current deals in 2023. Calculated in full, using Thielen and Cook as post-June cuts, this should free up about $30 million in cap space for 2023.
Some of this will help me keep Jefferson locked up for the long term. Then more questions need to be asked. Should I sign Garrett Bradbury, Patrick Peterson or Alexander Mattison? Or should I better explore other free agents?
Each decision feels like a domino affecting the next. That pretty much sums up the Vikings’ prospects for this off-season.
(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)