Eighteen Vikings Prepare for Critical Contract Year

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

It is officially time to begin the countdown.

Eighty-nine days separate fans from an epic, Monday Night Football showdown between a potentially historic Mike Zimmer defense and Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints offense, which, once again, projects to be extremely dangerous behind stalwart signal-caller Drew Brees, 2016 breakout receiver Michael Thomas and, of course, the game-breaking talent of recently-acquired running back Alvin Kamara.

New Orleans’ other running back acquisition this offseason, Adrian Peterson, is indeed scheduled to attend his 11th-consecutive Vikings home opener. But, instead of donning his trademark purple and gold No. 28 jersey, Minnesota’s all-time leading rusher will take the field “funded” by his success in a down-right abhorrent and equally vile black and gold uniform — a color scheme eternally linked to the organization most individually responsible for his lack of a diamond-plated finger weight.

Peterson, of course, was canonized as a Saint following a late-February decision by the Vikings to move forward without their 10-year franchise icon. The opportunity to test his value on the free-agent market for the first (and potentially only) instance during his career was widely expected, but Peterson was never forced to play through the inherent pressure of an expiring deal — contract year.

This, however, will inevitably be an unavoidable circumstance for a handful of current Vikings. Included in Minnesota’s inflated 90-man offseason roster is a 32-man list set to reach the open market next offseason. Barring some form of contract extension, 18 of these players will have the luxury of testing unrestricted free agency — which, as the sector’s title suggests, allows for corresponding athletes to sign any offer extended by any team without restriction.

2018 Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)

Note: Primary Vikings starters in 2015, 2016 or both seasons are denoted with italics

  1. QB Sam Bradford
  2. QB Teddy Bridgewater
  3. QB Case Keenum
  4. RB Jerick McKinnon
  5. RB Bishop Sankey
  6. WR Michael Floyd
  7. OG Joe Berger
  8. DT Sharrif Floyd
  9. DT Tom Johnson
  10. DT Datone Jones
  11. DT Shamar Stephen
  12. LB Emmanuel Lamur
  13. CB Antone Exum
  14. CB Terence Newman
  15. CB Jabari Price
  16. CB Xavier Rhodes
  17. PR Marcus Sherels
  18. K Kai Forbath

Minnesota’s 2018 class of 18 unrestricted free agents-to-be includes 10 players that played “starter snaps” in either 2015 or 2016. Veterans such as Terence Newman and Joe Berger are probable retirement candidates, which — one would assume — alleviates the pressure and mental fatigue caused by a lack of job security.

In addition to the pair of senior citizens, budding superstars like Xavier Rhodes need not worry much about their inevitable pay days. A notably poor 2017 season from Minnesota’s breakout star would likely chase his opportunity to sign a record-breaking cornerback contract, but Rhodes’ unrestricted market value — barring an absurdity — has pretty much already been determine, thanks in large part to the recent flurry mega deals signed in 2016 and 2017:

  • 2016 – Darius Slay (DET): 4 Years; $48.15 Million; $23.1 Million Guaranteed
  • 2016 – Josh Norman (WAS): 5 Years; $75 Million; $35 Million Guaranteed
  • 2016 – Janoris Jenkins (NYG): 5 Years; $62.5 Million; $28.8 Million Guaranteed
  • 2017 – AJ Bouye (JAX): 5 Years; $67.5 Million; $26 Million Guaranteed
  • 2017 – Stephon Gilmore (NE): 5 Years; $65 Million; $31 Million Guaranteed
  • 2017 – Dre Kirkpatrick (CIN): 5 Years; $52.5 Million; $12 Million Guaranteed
  • 2017 – Desmond Trufant (ATL): 5 Years; $68.75 Million; $41.5 Million Guaranteed
  • 2017 – Captain Munnerlyn (CAR): 4 Years; $17.5 Million; $8.8 Million Guaranteed — STEAL

Norman’s record-breaking deal with the Washington Redskins two years ago likely represents the best ballpark estimate for the Vikings cornerback’s second deal. Rhodes may not have much to worry about contractually speaking, but he is essentially the only one of the bunch.

Sam Bradford will inevitably receive a hefty deal next offseason, but a second-consecutive breakout campaign and a trip to the playoffs could very well yield a triple-digit contract with roughly 50 percent guaranteed. Contract years are important for every player, but the lack of a “true ceiling” for quarterback contracts sets Bradford up for the most critically important season of his life in 2017.

As LeGarrette Blount (absurdly) proves seemingly every offseason, the unrestricted free agent market is borderline disrespectful to running backs — creating a real pickle for Jerick McKinnon. The former Georgia Southern triple-option quarterback is set for a low-volume 2017 season as a result of Minnesota acquiring both Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray this offseason.

Spending the majority of a contract year on the sideline — whether due to injury (Teddy Bridgewater; Sharrif Floyd) or team role (McKinnon; Tom Johnson; Marcus Sherels; Kai Forbath) — notably drains the percentage of guaranteed money offered. Grouped in with an extremely competitive, collectively young and notably versatile depth chart — barring a significant increase to his snaps on obvious passing downs — McKinnon could find himself between a rock, a hard place and Rob Brzezinski with a average-at-best résumé.

Restricted Free Agents (RFA)

Note: Primary Vikings starters in 2015, 2016 or both seasons are denoted with italics

  1. QB Taylor Heinicke
  2. OT Reid Fragel
  3. OT Jeremiah Sirles
  4. OG Zac Kerin
  5. OC Nick Easton
  6. S Anthony Harris

Restricted free agency, just like its counterpart, is self-explanatory in basic premise: teams with rights to a restricted free agents can place either a 1st- or 2nd-Round tender (collateral compensation) or simply match an offer sheet from a rival team to guarantee retainment of applicable players.

Teams restricted free agent-to-be lists are typically short with borderline 53-man roster-caliber talent. Taylor Heinicke, assuming he fends off Case Keenum, could earn a very solid contract even in restricted free agency. 2016 Vikings offensive line rejects Jeremiah Sirles and Nick Easton have a lot to prove over the next couple months to assure a 2017 roster spot — let alone a 2018 deal.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA)

Note: Primary Vikings starters in 2015, 2016 or both seasons are denoted with italics

  1. WR Isaac Fruechte
  2. WR Cayleb Jones
  3. WR Moritz Bohringer
  4. TE Kyle Carter
  5. TE Nick Truesdell
  6. OG Austin Shepherd
  7. CB Terrell Sinkfield
  8. S Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska QB: 2013-16)

Similar to the composition of teams’ restricted free-agent lists, exclusive rights free agent lists lack superstar talent 99 percent of the time. The exclusive rights window is essentially practice squad player free agency period. Players having accumulated less than three years of NFL service can be retained at the cost of a gumball by the controlling organization.

But, the brief exclusive rights free agency period has a league-imposed deadline, which, upon its strict enforcement, effectively releasing all unsigned ERFAs — like a school of fish exploding through a gaping hole in the net — are released into the unrestricted free agency pool, effectively raising the talent pool competing with them for contracts and dimming NFL futures.

Isaac Fruechte is essentially the only Vikings ERFA with NFL-caliber talent (at the present moment), a refined skill set and enough situational worth or positional versatility to warrant a 53-man roster spot. There is an arguable case for Moritz Bohringer, but Minnesota is in need of players that are ready to compete at a high level in 2017 — not 2024. Pretty much lit that 6th-Rounder on fire.

The Vikings have roughly $56 million in salary-cap space set for the 2018 season, which could lead to (hypothetically) front-loaded extensions for both Bradford and Rhodes in order to create as much room as possible to negotiate around in 2019 — the year Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs and (potentially) Trae Waynes go up for grabs all at once.

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, unless otherwise noted; Contract details, courtesy of Over the Cap; Available 2018 salary-cap space for Minnesota to re-sign all of its young studs with, courtesy of Vikings Executive Vice President Rob Brzezinski.