On October 19th, during the Minnesota Vikings bye week, I wrote this article about how the Sam Bradford trade was an enormous win-win for both the Eagles and Vikings. Remarkably, both the Eagles and Vikings were undefeated through 5 weeks and the week 6 matchup looked to be a possible NFC playoff preview. Well, including the road loss to Philadelphia, Minnesota went an impossibly bad 3-8 to close the season. A historically bad stretch that will go down as one of the worst collapses in NFL regular season history. (Philadelphia didn’t fare much better, going 4-7 in the same stretch) Today, I will focus on attempting to project what the Vikings will and should do going forward into this offseason. Is it time for Vikings fans to panic? Or is this just one incredibly unlucky season with a roster that is fixable before Week 1 in 2017?
The Elephant (Contracts) In The Room
Adrian Peterson made $12 million this year and is set to make $18 million in the final year of his contract with Minnesota. Peterson’s cap hit this year was about $2.5 million higher than the next highest RB (which is, shockingly, Jonathan Stewart). In 2017, Peterson is set to make over $9 million more than LeSean McCoy, who holds down the #2 spot at $8.8 million. Obviously, there is no way Peterson plays on this contract. The big positive here is that not a penny of that contract is guaranteed until the 3rd day of the league year in March. It is an obvious trigger for renegotiation, but after Peterson’s past two years in Minnesota, I think it’s time to part ways. Minnesota has spent $40 million in cap space for Peterson the past 3 years, and they’ve been rewarded with an average season of 532 yards and 3.6 TDs rushing. In reality, the suspension and injury that makes his last 3 years so incredibly inefficient aren’t what has hurt Minnesota the most, it has been his on-field inefficiencies. Terrible ball security, pass blocking, and pass catching ability combine to decrease his ability to impact the offense on every play. Peterson can’t even stay on the field on 3rd down and medium or longer to go, which makes it hard to argue making him the league’s top paid back even if he hadn’t lost a step as a pure runner, which he certainly has. The vision that used to set up 2nd and 3rd level defenders and generational combination of athleticism and size to make defenders miss at the 1st are simply not there anymore for Peterson. Peterson will go down on as the greatest RB in franchise history when it’s all said and done, but unfortunately his time should be up in the purple and gold.
Shariff Floyd is set to make $6.7 million in 2017 on his 5th year option that was picked up by Minnesota before the 2016 season. 100% of that contract is guaranteed only for an injury that prevents Floyd from playing in 2017. Floyd is set to have the 12th highest cap hit of any 4-3 DT in the league, despite not playing a snap after Week 1 of the 2016 season. Overthecap.com lists 17 teams that run the 4-3 defense, and 41 DTs are set to make less than Floyd in 2017. In comparison, Linval Joseph has the 11th highest cap hit and is generally considered one of the elite nose tackles in the NFL. I can’t envision the Vikings making the same mistake they did with Matt Kalil last year when they paid him an astonishing $11 million in lieu of chasing a free agent LT in his place. While Kalil had never missed a game as a Viking, he was rarely totally healthy, and his poor play stuck out like a sore thumb. Luckily for Floyd, he is a much better player than Kalil when healthy, but he also plays a position where the Vikings have good depth. Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson proved to be serviceable replacements for Floyd this year at a combined cost of $3 million. I think it’s unlikely Minnesota pays Floyd $6.7 million, but if he takes a pay cut on an extension that is team friendly I would be happy to have him back as a Viking.
Brandon Fusco was ranked by PFF to be the 65th best guard in the NFL this year out of 77 eligible players. He also has a cap number of over $4 million in 2016, and $4.8 million in 2017. If designated as a post June 1st cut, the Vikings stand to save $4 million in cap space with only $800k in dead cap. I don’t know how the Vikings view Fusco, but from the outside looking in he has been a huge bust since signing a 5 year $24 million deal in 2014. He is the 10th highest cap hit on the Vikings roster in 2016 and is set to be the 11th highest paid Viking in 2017. If I was General Manager Rick Spielman, I would cut my losses and look for a new RG with my savings. This would be in addition to targeting a young player in the draft with one of MIN’s first 5 picks in the top 4 rounds.
Brian Robison was rated as the 91st best edge defender in the NFL in 2016 but in 2017 he is set to be paid the 26th highest contract for an NFL edge defender or the 13th highest for a 4-3 DE. He only has $1 million of that contract guaranteed, and has recently stated himself that Danielle Hunter is ready for a starting role in 2017. He seems aware of his contract situation and I would expect him to take a significant pay cut to stay with Minnesota. He does seem like a team leader and a key member of the locker room, so Minnesota must find a balance between on and off the field criteria when considering how much money to offer. Chad Greenway played for $2.75 million in 2016, I would expect a slightly higher number for Robison despite being the same age as Greenway due to his effective pass rushing ability and leadership value.
Jarius Wright is set to make $3.1 million in 2017, and spent almost all of the 2016 season on the inactive list. The big problem with this contract is not that its cost is so high, but that it seems designed to keep Wright from being cut. Even if he is designated as a post June 1st cut, he will still cost the Vikings almost $1.7 million in dead cap space over 3 years. A trade would cost Minnesota $1.7 million in dead cap immediately, which would be no better than a pre-June 1st cut as far as the cap is concerned. With Diggs, Thielen, Treadwell, Charles Johnson, and even Cordarelle Patterson ahead of him, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings rostering him next year. However, if Minnesota lets Charles Johnson walk, it’s possible the Vikings keep Wright as their last receiver instead of signing or drafting a replacement with half his contract being dead money. Alternatively, if Adam Thielen is offered a contract on a 1st or (more likely) 2nd round tender and Minnesota decides to let Thielen walk, Wright could see his roster spot saved again.
Sam Bradford played the 2016 season for the Vikings at an absurdly low cap hit of $7 million due to the Eagles paying the guaranteed portion of his deal as is required for players who are traded. Next year, Minnesota is not so lucky and is on the hook for $17 million. The good news, is that only $4 million of that is guaranteed to him and that 16 QBs make more money than Bradford. After his elite start to the year and his pretty-good-but-not-great finish, I think 16th is right about where Bradford deserves to be paid. In free agency, he would certainly fetch more. The rub here is Teddy Bridgewater’s presence and the picks that Minnesota paid to get Bradford.
Teddy Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic knee injury on August 30th 2016. An ACL tear added to a knew dislocation meant he was not only lost for the year, but his return at all to football was not guaranteed. Even if his injury is totally healed in 12 months, which may be optimistic, Bridgewater would be getting fully healthy until midway through the preseason. That is precarious position to be without a solid backup plan. Luckily, the Vikings have Bradford who is a capable replacement, even with his faults. The Bradford trade did leave Minnesota without a 2016 1st or 2017 4th round pick, but as mentioned in my first article, those picks won’t be taken until after a full season of football has been played. As a rule of thumb in the NFL, picks are downgraded one round for every year you must wait to use them when assessing their value. So, the real cost of Bradford on draft day would be the equivalent of trading a 2017 2nd and 6th round draft pick. If Bridgewater had a normal ACL injury and his recovery was a foregone conclusion, I think it would be fairly easy to get that return from a QB needy team. If they did, they would have gotten a full season of good QB play for free. In reality it is far more likely to me that Bradford is kept by Minnesota as kind of a semi-insurance policy for Bridgewater. In fact, it’s an almost certainty. Still, if they wanted to do it, Bradford’s contract would not be prohibitive.
If Bridgewater is healthy, Bradford can be traded before the season or if the Vikings can extend him he could be kept through 2017 and traded right before the 2017 Draft. At minimum, if Bradford were to walk in free agency after 2017, Minnesota would receive a 2019 3rd round compensatory pick.
Another big decision to be made will be what to do with Adam Thielen, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason. Minnesota will likely offer Thielen a 1st or 2nd round tender, which should ward away other teams from offering long-term deals that the Vikings might not be able to match. If Minnesota has to decide between re-signing Thielen and getting a 2nd round pick for him, that will be an emotionally tough decision for the fan base and the staff, but that would likely be too much to pass up for GM Rick Spielman, who is already down a 1st round pick in this draft. I don’t think any teams will be desperate enough to offer Thielen a deal on a 2nd round tender, so my prediction would be Thielen plays for the 2nd round tender at around $2.3 million or is extended to a longer-term deal close to the season.
Cordarelle Patterson is the best kick returner in the NFL, and had been making some strides this season at WR, but I think he’s likely gone in the offseason. I wouldn’t mind getting him back at all, but the price tag he will fetch on the open market is likely more than Minnesota will want to spend on a 4th option at WR and a special teams player. Spielman hates to bite the bullet on high draft picks but the Vikings front office is equally judicious with their spending, so I expect Patterson to move on in 2017. Tavon Austin’s ghastly deal shows a decent window into the value of a similar player, and if Patterson gets anything close to that, his days in Minnesota are over.
So where does that leave us? As it stands, Minnesota will have about $24 million in cap space entering the 2017 league year. If they were to outright cut Peterson, Floyd, Wright, and Fusco they would gain an additional $30 million in cap space. In addition, a restructure of Robison’s deal to $3.6 million would save $3 million more. That would put them at $57.3 million, good for a jump from 26th in the league to 9th. And in a fairytale world where Teddy Bridgewater is known to be healthy, and Minnesota trades Bradford for picks, Minnesota saves an additional $13 million and would hypothetically move up to 5th in the NFL in cap space. (I did say a fairytale world) Of course, these numbers are not counting any cuts for other teams, but it does show you the incredible amount of flexibility Minnesota has this offseason thanks to Spielman and company’s strategy of leaving little guaranteed money at the end of long contracts, their ability to draft impact players and play them on rookie deals, and their eye for mid-level free agents who make a contribution larger than their salary would indicate. It also is a slightly depressing fact that shows just how great Minnesota’s cap situation would be if Teddy was never injured. Since cap space rolls over, they would have an extra $25 million in space if they didn’t have to pay Bradford in 2016 and 2017.
So Much Space For (Free Agent) Activities
In free agency, Minnesota will almost certainly be looking to replace both OTs and Fusco at RG. Since we’ve already hypothetically cut Fusco, that need will be assumed from here on out. It has also been reported that Mike Harris is planning a return for 2017, but I am assuming he will not be able to based on him missing all of this year and having no information on his injury. Boone and Berger figure to be kept and assumed starters, although Berger is going to be 35 in May. Berger was one of the top centers in the NFL for the 2nd straight year and while drafting a swing C/G to back him up could be an option, it will depend on the Vikings evaluation of Zac Kerrin and Nick Easton.
FA OT Targets: Andrew Whitworth, Ricky Wagner, Riley Reiff, Sebastian Vollmer, Possibly Russell Okung
FA G Targets: T.J. Lang, Ron Leary, Kevin Zeitler, Austin Pasztor, Tim Lelito, Ted Larson, Jahri Evans, Menelik Watson, Possibly Nick Mangold
The other obvious spot that Minnesota will need to fill is RB. Jerick McKinnon finished the season out strong against Chicago, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can be a feature back in the NFL. He is a standout athletically even in the NFL, but that comes with a small frame and some trouble to stay healthy. All in all, there is no question McKinnon can shoulder at least half of the load of an NFL offense, but it’s very possible Minnesota could benefit from spending a little capital on getting some thunder to McKinnon’s lightning.
FA RB Targets: LeGarrette Blount, Latavius Murry, Christine Michael, Eddie Lacy, DeAngelo Williams, Danny Woodhead, Lance Dunbar, Joique Bell
Drafting for the Best Player Available (That Minnesota Needs)
I don’t claim to be an NFL draft prospect evaluator, so I will keep the prognostication on specific prospects to a minimum, but one important thing to me is the positional makeup of this draft class. Minnesota absolutely needs to be as OL heavy as possible. In my ideal world, they would sign 3 veteran FAs and then draft 3 rookies as depth and insurance to develop under those vets. Minnesota is not just depleted in their starting 5 OL, but the next 5 as well. Also, RB looks to be the only other major need for Minnesota right now. The best strategy at this point for the Vikings is not a reckless, hard and fast “best player available” strategy, but a strategy that would be closer to “best player available at a position of need for most of the premium picks”. I don’t think Minnesota should force their way in to take an OT with their first pick no matter what, but with their 2nd, two 3rd , and two 4th round picks Minnesota must take two or three offensive linemen and a running back. This leaves a couple premium picks of leeway for accommodating a great value dropping to them or not having a player available that they like. Looking for the best player available across 4 positions and with a free pick to take a flier on a great talent at another spot should give them a player pool to choose from that is plenty deep enough to avoid any issues with reaching. After the 4th round I think it is safe to say a truer BPA approach can be taken, as these players will likely be developed over time and/or long shots to make the roster instead of being expected to compete for playing time right away. I wouldn’t mind a couple of these later picks being spent to improve our earlier draft picks if need be, as no rookies last year even played significant snaps, let alone any late round picks. Still, the idea of hitting on a Stefon Diggs type gem is hard for GMs to pass up.
The Pipe Dream Offseason
So, what is my ideal offseason that is within reason? Without getting into really cap specific planning, my overall optimistic priority list would be as follows:
• Cut Peterson, Floyd, Fusco, Wright, and restructure Robison, to save $34 million and have $57 million in cap space
• Sign 3 premium FA linemen using $30 million of that cap space
• 4 of 5 top draft picks on OL/RB where they can compete for playing time or develop under veterans
• Sign Adam Thielen to a 2nd round tender and Charles Johnson to a minimum tender as RFAs
o If Thielen is offered a $6-7 million per year deal on a 2nd round tender, Minnesota will have to strongly consider taking that pick and keeping the cap space, and promoting 1st round pick Laquon Treadwell or Jarius Wright back into the #2 WR position.
• Let Kalil, Patterson, Long, and Andre Smith walk while cutting Clemmings and Beavers
The Minnesota Vikings have one of the biggest off seasons in franchise history coming up in 2017. A roster that is, if not for its league worst OL, an absolute Super Bowl contender is returning. Above average to good QB play can be expected from Bradford and the defense is not only elite but young. If the Vikings can use the overall depth of their roster to focus in on their real key needs in both free agency and in the draft, the sky is the limit. Another off season like 2016, with no draft contribution and only one free agent OL target panning out, and Minnesota will be in the same spot as they are now, watching from home in mid-January. If they spend their capital wisely, the Vikings may be at home in a much different way come February 2018, when US Bank Stadium hosts the 2018 Super Bowl.
*All cap figures come from overthecap.com