The Vikings turned heads over the weekend by cutting one of their highest-rated offensive linemen of 2016. Alex Boone, who signed a four-year deal with the Vikings last March, was released by the team after just one season in Minnesota.
According to multiple reports, Boone refused a pay cut as the Vikings trimmed their roster to 53 players. The team then attempted to trade Boone before waiving him. There were reportedly multiple reasons why the team parted ways with the veteran, but the one-year stop raises questions as to whether the team did its due diligence before signing Boone to a long-term deal.
“I was trying to find out the best for our football team.”
— Mike Zimmer on cutting Alex Boone —
Vikings forced to eat $3.4 million in dead money
Boone’s was set to make $6.6 million in 2017. $3.4 million was guaranteed. Because it was guaranteed, that money will still go to Boone and count against the Vikings’ salary cap. That’s called dead money. Dead money is money that does not earn a return for an investor, or in the case of the NFL, money that is still owed to a player after he has been cut. Simply put, it’s the money the Vikings will pay Boone to NOT play for them this season. Cutting Boone next offseason would have resulted in zero dead money.
Did the Vikings just release the best left guard on the roster?
Here’s a look at the Vikings offensive line this season. Comment below when you find someone who’s started a full season at guard at the NFL level. Still looking? Thought so… there isn’t one!
At an area of weakness, the Vikings lack an experienced presence at guard.
According to Pro Football Focus, Boone did just fine in pass blocking last season. But, he struggled mightily as a run blocker. His overall season grade of 72.8 was slightly lower than his career average of 76.8. Both are considered “average” using PFF’s grading scale.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, Easton also struggled against the run in 2016. If Easton’s struggles against the run are exploited by opposing defenses, Jeremiah Sirles would be the next man up at left guard.
Helping the Vikings in this case is the money the team will save long-term by releasing Boone. Lets take a look at the contracts:
Boone: Owed $6.6 million in 2017
Easton: Owed $615K in 2017
Clearly, Easton’s contract is much more affordable, and he will become a restricted free agent after the season.
Although the Vikings must pay Boone $3.4 million in dead cap money, the move will also save the Vikings $3.3 million against the cap.
All-in-all, the return on investment with Boone was quite putrid, but not catastrophic.
After the recent contract extensions of three defensive studs (Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Xavier Rhodes), the team needs all the cap room it can get its hands on, especially if an extension is planned for Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater after the season.
Change in Scheme
It’s not too often the Vikings release a player only one year after signing him to a long-term deal. However, Boone no longer fits the Vikings blocking scheme. The team has changed from a power-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, to a zone-running scheme under Pat Shurmur. The former requires powerful, hulking linemen to force people around. The latter requires agile, quick athletes to work together to open up holes for the offensive play-makers. Boone is certainly capable of playing well in a zone-blocking scheme, but so can Easton, who fits the mold of a zone-blocker.
There were reportedly concerns that Boone wouldn’t be able to stay healthy throughout the entire 2017 campaign. Playing a 25 year-old over a 30 year-old veteran could pay dividends later in the season.
Another long-term benefit of cutting Boone is the Vikings now have five new starters on the offensive line. Aside from Berger, who is likely playing his last NFL season, the move gives the Vikings linemen a chance to gel together for the long haul.
With Boone, the Vikings offensive line had one of its worst seasons of all-time. Without Boone, the offensive line has a chance to grow and improve.
Easton, his replacement, struggled against the run when he played at center last season. However, his play has been quite solid this preseason, and he meshed with rookie center Pat Elflein when the two played as a combo.
“I thought they did a really good job. They came off the ball low, they got to the second level. They did good job in pass protection.”
— Zimmer on the performance of LG Easton and C Elflein in the third preseason game against Seattle —
As a result of the significant amount of dead money in Boone’s contract, as well as the concerns about depth and performance, should the Vikings front office get a black mark for their handling of Boone?
No one could have predicted the events that unfolded for the Vikings last season. In a rapid turn of events, the Vikings lost their franchise quarterback, switched offensive coordinators, missed the playoffs after starting 5-0, and released the leading rusher in franchise history. After a season plays out like that, no one’s job is safe. In this case, the entire scheme of the offense changed. Boone was no longer a good fit for the team.
That being said, the Vikings handed out a large contract to a player that lasted only one year. It was a clear swing and a miss. Rick Spielman and his staff have not been able to fortify the offensive line for years now. That’s justification alone for another black mark on the resume of the Vikings front office.
Despite the red flag, or black mark, or whatever you wanna call it… the Vikings are in a better long-term position to succeed with Easton. This play says it all:
Boone agreed to terms with the Arizona Cardinals shortly after he was waived by Minnesota; the Vikings will pay their former offensive guard $3.4 million this season.