EAGAN, Minn. -- Ten players remain from Mike Zimmer’s first Vikings team of six years ago. Some of them aren’t expected to be around much longer.
With the Vikings projected to be over the salary cap before free agency starts in March, they are expected to release or look to reduce the salaries of some core players who have been around since Zimmer’s first game as a head coach, the Vikings’ 34-6 road win over the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 7, 2014.
“It’s definitely hard because I really respect these players, (including) the ones that have been with me for six years now,” Zimmer said this week. “They’ve busted their rear ends and done everything I’ve asked them to do.”
Veteran players, though, often come with outsized salaries, and the Vikings will need to trim the payroll. They will need to create cap room for some younger players they want to re-sign and have some money to at least bring in a few free agents.
Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the site OvertheCap.com, projects the Vikings will be about $10 million over the salary cap as free agency approaches. The cap is projected to be about $200 million, and Fitzgerald said no NFL team has more money on the books for 2020 than the Vikings, whose season ended with a 27-10 divisional playoff loss at San Francisco last weekend.
“They’re going to have to do some things with the roster to get that number more manageable,” Fitzgerald said. “But they do have flexibility. They’re not like some teams that are screwed by the cap. They have a lot of players that they can move on from.”
Defensive end Everson Griffen ($13.9 million), nose tackle Linval Joseph ($12.95 million) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes ($12.9 million) are in line to have three of the seven biggest 2020 cap numbers on the team, and none has any guaranteed money left. All are holdovers from Zimmer’s first Vikings team.
Rhodes, 29, whose play has slipped significantly since being named all-pro in 2017, likely won’t return. Griffen, 32, won’t be back unless he takes a significant pay cut. Joseph, 31, also might need to restructure his deal to return.
Left tackle Riley Reiff ($13.2 million cap number) also doesn’t figure to return at his same salary. The Vikings could release Reiff, 31, who arrived in 2017, and move right tackle Brian O’Neill to left tackle or perhaps Reiff might be shifted to left guard. He said last year the Vikings had considered that move.
Those on the books with big 2020 cap numbers who appear to be safe are quarterback Kirk Cousins ($31 million), wide receiver Stefon Diggs ($14.5 million) defensive end Danielle Hunter ($14 million), wide receiver Adam Thielen ($12.8 million), linebacker Anthony Barr ($12.7 million), safety Harrison Smith ($10.75 million), linebacker Eric Kendricks ($10.03 million) and tight end Kyle Rudoph ($9.45 million). Thielen, Barr, Smith and Rudolph are holdovers from Zimmer’s first Vikings team.
The other three holdovers from the 2014 team are defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, 28, safety Andrew Sendejo, 32, and cornerback Marcus Sherels, 32. All three were gone from the team at some point before returning. Sendejo and Sherels are lower-salaried players who might not be back; Stephen ($5.03 million cap number) could stick around.
“We had plenty of young guys step up (in 2019),” said defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo, himself being one of them. “The front office, they’ve got a lot of work to do to decide our cap, but that’s not my expertise. I’m just a player.”
Zimmer said the Vikings will “have to make some tough decisions in a lot of areas.” Griffen, for one, has said he wants to return for an 11th Vikings season, but hasn’t said what sort of pay cut he might be willing to take. If he hadn’t agreed last year to cut his base salary from $10.9 million to $6.4 million, he would have been released.
Griffen can opt out of his contract and become a free agent, a move Fitzgerald expects him to make since the Vikings obviously won’t pay him the base salary of $12.9 million he is on the books for in 2020. Griffen’s contract calls for $4.3 million of it to be guaranteed if he is still on the roster on March 20, the third day of the league’s new year.
“I would imagine he’ll void the deal because he controls the narrative that way with the ability to talk to other teams,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s always a pretty robust market (for pass rushers) and you can get yourself some guaranteed money. But I imagine the door would be open for Griffen to return (under a lower salary).”
Joseph contract calls for $5.3 million of his 2020 base salary of $11.15 million to become guaranteed on March 20, so a decision on him likely will be made by then.
With the possibility of Griffen and Joseph not returning, the Vikings have a group of talented young linemen who could play a bigger role: Odenigbo, Stephen Weatherly, Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts. Weatherly is bound to be a free agent after making $720,000 in 2019, but he won’t command huge money. Fitzgerald predicts Weatherly could get a deal worth about $3 million a year.
Minnesota’s two most important impending free agents are safety Anthony Harris and cornerback Trae Waynes. The Vikings could face stiff competition to keep Harris, who tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s second-best safety.
“He’s going to get a lot,” Fitzgerald said of Harris, who signed a one-year, $3.095 million deal last year as a restricted free agent. “Eddie Jackson (of Chicago) got $14.6 million (per year), so I would think he’d at least get that much.”
Waynes made $9.069 million last season. He was ranked No. 46 out of 119 cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, but there is always a need at that spot. Fitzgerald expects him to command a similar salary, perhaps on a short-term deal.
The Vikings have another notable defensive back bound for free agency in nickel cornerback stalwart Mackensie Alexander, who made a base salary of $1.038 million in 2019. Fitzgerald considers him in line to get a “couple million” per year.
As the Vikings figure out their salary-cap situation for 2020, they also will look into addressing two key offensive players in line to become free agents in 2021: Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings and Cousins, who signed a three-year, $84 million deal in 2018, have been mum on the chances of the quarterback signing an extension before the start of next season. If he doesn’t sign, Cousins could become a free agent in March 2021; his potential franchise tag would be an astronomical $45 million.
“That’s too much money, so he’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to any type of contract extension talks,” Fitzgerald said. ‘But they would obviously like to lower his cap number (for 2020).”
Fitzergald could see a scenario in which Cousins signs a three-year extension worth about $100 million, with money pushed down the road to lower that $31 million cap number for 2020. Cousins, who struggled in the playoff loss against the 49ers, still hasn’t shaken the rap for not stepping up in big games. But he did finish fourth in the NFL in 2019 with a passer rating of 107.4. And he engineered a 26-20 overtime upset at New Orleans in the playoff opener.
Rushing for 1,135 yards in 2019, Cook became Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard back since Adrian Peterson in 2015. But signing him to a huge extension could come with a risk. The Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley ($14.375 million per year average), Arizona’s David Johnson ($13 million) and Dallas’ Ezekial Elliot ($15 million), to a lesser extent, have so far not played up to the huge extensions they signed.
“He’s going to look to get $14 to $15 million a year, but that is tough one,” Fitzgerald said of Cook, who will make a base salary of $1.33 million in 2020. “All of those big-money running backs who signed flopped. … He’s obviously a big part of that team, but I think the Vikings will have to be very careful about they do (with Cook).”
The Vikings, with their cap situation, will need to be careful with many moves during the offseason. When next season rolls around, it appears likely there will be a good bit of change, especially on defense, on a team that has had some stability since Zimmer took over.
“They’re in a position to have a bit of a different roster,” Fitzgerald said. “I think they’ll start to get a little bit younger. They’ll try to keep the guys they want to keep while keeping an eye on the future.”