Despite an inconsistent-at-best offensive unit, the Minnesota Vikings boast maybe the NFL’s youngest elite defense. While the defense is among the NFL’s elite, the oldest key piece is Everson Griffen at relatively youthful 29. The average age of their starting nickel defense is 26.6 years even if you count 32-year-old Tom Johnson as the starting defensive tackle over 26-year-old Shariff Floyd or 23 old rookie Jaleel Johnson.
The offense, while underwhelming much of the time, also has some promising young players that have been or will need paid shortly, along with some veterans who are already being paid quite generously. Griffen, Joseph, and Rhodes all signed new contracts in the past month. This begs the question that many Vikings fans have been asking: How does Minnesota keep their young core with the incredible amount of upcoming salary cap space that will need to be spent on both sides of the ball? The answer to this question is multifaceted and relies on some educated guessing, but no doubt there is a solution and it has been in motion since even before some of these talented players were drafted.
In order to understand how the Vikings are working the salary cap system, we have to understand a couple important things about how the salary cap works. Here are some of the most important factors:
• Cap space rolls over to the next year if unspent. This means that there is no benefit to paying players more money (specifically unguaranteed money) early in their deals. There is only incentive to push unguaranteed money back as far as possible so the team has the option to pay that money or to cut ties for no penalty. If a player outperforms his deal, you get a bargain. If they underperform, you can cut them for no penalty or pressure them to re-negotiate.
• Guaranteed money vs non-guaranteed money: The two most important types of payment in the NFL are salary and signing bonuses. Signing bonuses are always paid to the player immediately, 100% guaranteed, and the cap hit is spread evenly over the length of the deal. On the other hand, you have non-guaranteed salary. This is the amount that is paid to the player much like most paychecks for regular jobs. As they play that season, they are paid. The team is only on the hook for this money if the player plays and they can cut them at any time without any responsibility to pay it. Salaries can be guaranteed by the team if they choose to, however, and it is very often preferable for teams to front load guaranteed salary so the years they know they want a player are the only years where the team pays guaranteed money. There are other ways to guaranteed salary like roster bonuses and incentives, but it’s easier to stick to the basics and it gets us the information we really need.
• Injury guarantees: These guarantees are only relevant if the player suffers an injury which keeps him from playing. They are rarely realized but an important safety net from the viewpoint of a player putting his body on the line in a violent sport. For the team’s purposes, it’s probably not going to be guaranteed money. This number is often reported in initial contract releases by reporters as players’ agents are leaking the deals and want them to sound larger than they really are.
Laying the Groundwork
The Vikings have already signed some big time deals for important players, and I want to go over how the structure of these deals helps the team maintain flexibility and leverage. One tool Rick Spielman uses is the 5th year option that teams are allowed to exercise on 1st round picks. The salary on that 5th year for top 10 picks is the average of the top 10 players at his position, and for the rest of the 1st round it is the average of the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at his position. These salaries can be high or low compared to the player’s worth, but the most important thing is that this salary is only guaranteed for injury until the 1st day of that league year.
This leads to new deals being agreed to shortly before the 4th year of players’ rookie deals. We have seen this with Kyle Rudolph in 2014, Harrison Smith in 2016, and Xavier Rhodes in 2017. I anticipate the same thing will happen with Anthony Barr, and had they not been injured I’m positive Minnesota had planned to do so with Teddy Bridgewater and Shariff Floyd as well. The ability to threaten to make players play the last year on their rookie deal and risk an injury that might take away a large amount of their first big NFL payday gives the team leverage and often results in a team friendly deal. Let’s take a look at the deals for Smith and Rhodes.
You can see that in Smith’s deal his first two years of salary are guaranteed and about $15 million of his $21 million in guarantees are paid in the first 2 years of his deal. In the next 3 years he’s guaranteed a total of $6 million and his final year is completely unguaranteed. The Vikings locked him up for an additional 5 years, and he’s already only the 5th highest paid safety in the league, a steep 1.75 million per year behind Kam Chancellor at #4. By the time Rhodes reaches the end of his deal, he’ll likely be outside the top 10 in yearly salary for safeties.
Rhodes’ deal is just as friendly. $10.4 million out of the $20 million guaranteed is paid in the very first year of his deal, with $2.4 million guaranteed paid every year until his final year has none. Again, this is another 5-year extension and Rhodes’ average money per year when adjusted for cap environment makes him only the 9th highest paid CB at the time of his extension, per Arif Hasaan.
Rhodes deal also stretches 6 years, which is an additional year past what deals like this usually go for. These deals usually set a new high on the market, but the leverage of the 5th year option in part with good old-fashioned culture building by the Vikings organization led to another team friendly deal.
Let’s take a look at both Linval and Griffen’s new deals:
Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen both signed 4 years extensions in 2017, making their deals 6 years long in total. In exchange the Vikings gave up a couple million in extra salary in the next two years and some up front guaranteed money for both. Both contracts combined guaranteed just $4.8 million in 2019 or later. When the Vikings signed both players to their 2nd NFL contracts, even back in 2014, you can see the same structure that Rhodes and Harrison Smith’s deals have. Upfront guaranteed money and deals that end with little to no guaranteed money.
This structure incentivized both players, who are among the NFL’s elite at their positions, to not only pass up free agency but to do so 2 years before they hit free agency. And the extensions? Front loaded again with guaranteed money and backloaded with what amounts to unguaranteed team options.
Jason Fitzgerald at Overthecap.com goes into great detail about how team friendly these types of deals are here. These deals also ensure that the team is paying as they go. Little or none of the guaranteed salary is pushed into the future, and the books are always balanced.
This format for contracts is seen throughout the roster:
- Kyle Rudolph earned $13.8 million, 84%, of his $16.4 million guaranteed in his first two years of his extension.
- Alex Boone will earn 100% of his $13.4 million of guaranteed money in his first two years under contract with Minnesota.
- Mike Remmers makes $9.7 million, 84%, of his $11.5 million guaranteed in his first two years in Minnesota.
- Reilly Reiff will earn $19.9 million, 75%, of his $26.5 million in the first two years of his 5 year deal.
- Andrew Sendejo had 100% of his $4 million guaranteed paid out in the first year of his new deal.
These deals provide clear cut choices for the team’s front office and flexibility to clear space whenever they want for players they deem the most important. The ability to cut bait on players who are now being overpaid relative to their value is a critical component to having the space to pay young stars who are supposed to make up the core of your team for the future. That added to an active pursuit of pay-as-you-go contracts instead of mortgaging the future have created a cap environment that allows for the retention of the team’s young stars.
*All contract and cap figures taken from overthecap.com*
Stay tuned for part two of this article where I break down in detail, contract by contract, how Minnesota will enact this strategy.