Breaking down the Vikings salary cap with Brad Spielberger

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This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Spielberger, Salary Cap Analyst at Pro Football Focus, to discuss the Minnesota Vikings salary cap outlook and gather his thoughts on the team’s offseason.

Spielberger, originally from Chicago, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Tulane law school. In 2018, he got his start in the NFL salary cap world. He began working with Jason Fitzgerald for the well-known cap and contract site (OTC).

Together, they authored a book called “The Drafting Stage: Creating a Marketplace for NFL Draft Picks” which is an in-depth analysis of the NFL Draft since the advent of the rookie wage scale.

In the summer of 2019, Spielberger earned an internship with the Vikings in their legal department. A year later, he began working for the popular NFL analysis site Pro Football Focus. He still contributes to OTC.

Q: I saw the report from PFT stating the salary cap figure could be in the range of $180 million. What does that mean for the Vikings?

A: Like many other teams, it’s not great news for the Minnesota Vikings. They kinda went all-in on this window a little bit. They traded for Yannick Ngakoue and obviously have moved on from him but they made a bunch of moves that took on some money in the short-term. That might make things a little bit more challenging for them moving forward in this upcoming offseason.

Q: It looks like the first challenge will be making some moves to get under the cap before the new league year. Who can you see as potential cap casualties?

A: I think Kyle Rudolph is probably a cap casualty at this point. I think they’re going to go ahead and make Irv Smith Jr. their number one guy. They’re different players; Irv’s more of a move tight-end, Rudolph can block a little bit better on the line. Rudolph didn’t have a ton of usage. They really just don’t involve him in the offense all that much at this point… He’s a guy they’d probably go with a post June-1st route.

I also think a guy like Shamar Stephen, he’s a guy that jumps off the page as a cap casualty, especially with Michael Pierce coming back from an opt-out. It’s a bit redundant with those two guys. Pierce is a far superior player and offers pass-rush upside, he’s not just a run-stuffing nose tackle like Stephen… I think Stephen is a luxury more than somebody you can afford in a year when you have cap constraints.

The last one is maybe Riley ReiffReiff is a serviceable left tackle. He’s a good player but obviously there’s Ezra Cleveland taken in the second round. He’s not a guard and I’m sure they’re excited to stop playing him at guard. He was not stellar there – not that we should expect him to be stellar – it’s not his position. So, I think for the second season of a second-round left tackle you’ve got to get him some play at left tackle. As for Reiff, it probably makes sense for both parties to just move on this offseason. They’d save $11.75 million there.

Q: Now, when it comes to the free agents on this list, who do the Vikings NEED to bring back?

Player Pos. 2020 Team 2021 Team Type Snaps Age Current APY Guarantees
Anthony Harris S Vikings   UFA 100.0% 29 $11,441,000 $11,441,000
Eric Wilson LB Vikings   UFA 96.3% 27 $3,259,000 $0
Rashod Hill RT Vikings   UFA 11.1% 29 $1,047,500 $887,500
Ameer Abdullah RB Vikings   UFA 6.6% 28 $1,047,500 $137,500
Sean Mannion QB Vikings   UFA 0.0% 29 $1,047,500 $137,500
Dakota Dozier LG Vikings   UFA 100.0% 30 $1,000,000 $90,000
Todd Davis LB Vikings   UFA 26.1% 29 $910,000 $0
Brett Jones C Vikings   UFA 12.7% 30 $910,000 $0
George Iloka S Vikings   UFA 4.2% 31 $910,000 $0
Hardy Nickerson LB Vikings   UFA 9.5% 27 $825,000 $0
Jaleel Johnson IDL Vikings   UFA 60.9% 27 $769,590 $678,360
Chris Jones CB Vikings   ERFA 25.3% 26 $750,000 $0
Ifeadi Odenigbo EDGE Vikings   RFA 64.8% 27 $677,500 $125,000
Mike Boone RB Vikings   RFA 2.9% 26 $572,500 $7,500
Chad Beebe WR Vikings   RFA 29.0% 27 $570,000 $0

A: The one thing working in the their favor is that they really don’t have anybody that must be brought back. Obviously Anthony Harris is a very good player. But again, he’s not even the best safety on the Vikings’ roster.

Side note: Harris is listed 7th on PFF’s top-100 free agents, projected to receive a salary ~$14/M/year

Harrison Smith is an all-world player and has been for a long time. He’s obviously a bit older and could maybe fall-off a little bit going forward. Smith is probably looking for a new contract himself. He only has one year left on his deal.

Side note: Spielberger estimates a potential extension for Smith, who has no guaranteed money left on his deal, could be in the range of 2-years, $22-25M, depending on how things shake out with the cap

There’s no one on this list that they cannot live without, which makes things a bit easier for them moving forward.

Q: Without any expensive players to re-sign, will that have an impact on Danielle Hunter‘s contract situation?

A: That was a very interesting thing that played out. I do think a piece of that was the fact that they brought in Ngakoue before they had given Hunter new money, and I think he might have been concerned that when the offseason came they were then going to extend Ngakoue and basically that money could not go to him.

Hunter is a far superior player to Ngakoue. If he was making less money than him on the Vikings, he would have been very unhappy. His current deal is probably one of the best value contracts in all of the NFL for the team.

I do still think that he’s going to ask for more money on a new contract, even though he has three years left on his deal. None of that is guaranteed.

So, here’s what I think happens…

There is a path forward where they can extend him and potentially keep his cap hit at the same number or maybe even lower it. He has a $12 million base salary in 2021. $3.3 million of that will become guaranteed right before the new league year.

They could basically drop that number down all the way to a minimum base salary, and then of course push a lot of money into future years. So, give him another signing bonus, which puts more money into a prorated bonus that they could spread out over several years. And then guarantee him money in 2022 and beyond.

I’m sure the team is apprehensive because he has three years left. It’s kind of a precedence thing for the Vikings, and for every team. It’s tough because he is deserving. He’s that good of a player. He’s worth it and he’s earned it. Even coming off a neck injury I would say that if they’re willing to come to the table they’ll give him a big-time extension and it shouldn’t raise his cap hit in 2021.

Side note: In this scenario Spielberger said the Vikings may not be willing to make Hunter the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL because they’re buying out three years of his contract, but could offer him a deal in the range of $24 million per year if he’s healthy

I think the neck injury is, for the most part, in the rear-view mirror. 

Q: Is there any chance he holds out? If so, what are the implications?

A: I mean, I suppose so, right? When you come out and say four years before hitting free agency that if I don’t get a new contract then I’m not going to play, then yeah there could be a holdout situation and he refuses to report.

Working against that is, at the same time, there’s economic instability. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to earn money going forward and there’s no guarantee teams will be willing to shell out big-time money.

So, with the $180 million salary cap number coming in, it’s going to be tough to find a team that’s willing to part ways with significant draft capital (probably a first-round pick or maybe even two first-round picks or a combination of picks) and then pay him a gigantic contract on top of that.

I’m not sure if a holdout would totally work in his favor. He could go that route, of course. He has that right. But the Vikings would get a cap credit for his salary that he doesn’t earn because obviously he’s not there to collect it. They probably wouldn’t want that to happen either, but I wouldn’t say he has a ton of leverage in a holdout.

Q: With that in mind, do you see the Vikings making any trades this offseason?

A: That’s interesting. I think the big one that we mentioned, depending on how the saga plays out, is Hunter. If the two sides just can’t agree to a deal then I think it’s probably good business to try to get as much as they can for Hunter. I still think he garners at least a first-round pick. He’s still only 26 year-old. He has a lot of good football ahead of him.

They could try to move Rudolph instead of cutting him, but I’d surprised if anyone wants to take on that contract. I bet they wouldn’t.

I don’t really see anyone else besides maybe Reiff. Not to speak ill of their roster, it’s more because this offseason it’s going to be very hard to find teams willing to take players on in trades. You’re adding money to your cap which is difficult considering the constraints we’re already dealing with.

Q: To save cap space, do you think the Vikings could restructure Anthony Barr?

A: Yes. That contract is set up to be restructured. Because $7.1 million of his 2021 base salary is already guaranteed for injury (and will become fully guaranteed in March), it makes sense to push it down the line with a restructure since it’s guaranteed either way.

Q: What about restructuring Kirk Cousins again since they’ll probably look at his contract next year anyway?

A: I mean they definitely could, $21 million base salary for 2021 is pretty large and it’s already guaranteed anyway. Since it’s already guaranteed there’s no difference to them if it’s spread out with a bonus or it’s paid as a base salary. The tricky thing there is now starting to think about your future.

Kirk’s been solid there but obviously he’s shown that he needs perfect conditions around him and he’s not really the focal point of the offense. He’s not really the driver of the offense. So, restructuring might become a necessity just purely for cap reasons but I would imagine they try to avoid it if possible.

What I could see is a situation where they don’t actually extend him but what they do is they restructure and add void years, which are just fake, dummy contract years that hold prorated money. So he wouldn’t actually be under contract for those years, they would just be there as a placeholders.

Example of adding void years to a contract:

That is a scenario I could see play out, where they do that purely for cap relief. Again, the downside is of course that money doesn’t disappear. It’ll just come at a later date. But the cap will rise for 2022 and 2023, hopefully, so that could be a route they go.

Q: Okay I need to ask your opinion on something. Knowing what you know about the salary cap and football in general, what are your thoughts on Kirk Cousins? Is he a worthy investment?

A: * Audible sigh *. Probably not. I don’t think he’s a bad player. He’s not really losing you games but I think the issue is he’s not really winning you games. And when you’re paying a guy at a top-10 quarterback market level, there needs to be times where he puts the team on his back and basically wins you games in spite of everything else going wrong. It’s basically opposite.

He doesn’t mess up a win that’s already going to happen. He just does what he needs to do and if everything else around him is really good; the defense plays well, Dalvin Cook has some good runs, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen make some big plays, then things go well.

The second extension… Some people were against it, I understood it. I thought he played well in the playoff game in New Orleans and had a good season that whole year, so I understood why they re-upped him again. But, I don’t think a third contract would make a lot of sense. I think you let this play out and you look to the future.

A guy like Trey Lance would make a lot of sense.

Q: Speaking of drafting quarterbacks, some fans are concerned the Vikings haven’t selected QB’s more often over the years with the hopes of finding a long-term solution. Any thoughts on this?

A: I think it should inspire some confidence in Vikings fans that Teddy Bridgewater‘s injury was obviously disastrous. We’re seeing now that he’s not one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but for all we know if his knee was what it was back in the day, and if they had him under a rookie contract and he was able to grow and play as a Viking and continue his career trajectory, he could have turned into a guy good enough to perhaps make the Super Bowl or maybe even reach the pinnacle once-and-for-all in Minnesota. So, it’s tough. I think that just threw a wrench into everything.

What happened was the roster was so good otherwise that they felt like we have to go for a guy like a Kirk Cousins because quarterbacks don’t really reach free agency. Because if you’re a good quarterback, a team’s not going to let you go. The Washington Football Team franchise-tagged him twice and then finally let him go – and even that doesn’t happen all that often.

So, I get the frustration. I understand wondering when the next guy going to come, and why they haven’t picked anyone yet… But, I think that those days are over. I now think that when they’re looking at the draft board quarterback is very much in the conversation.

Q: * Eyes emoji *. Since we’re getting into philosophy and overall cap management, why do you think the Vikings extend players early? Wouldn’t they get more value by letting guys play out their contracts?

A: They like to take care of their guys. They’re of the belief that if you come in, bust your ass, work hard every day, are a good teammate, good locker room presence and all that, that you deserve to get paid. They would rather you be happy with your contract and play care-free, not playing worried about getting injured or your negotiations.

Like you said, there is potentially some value in letting a guy play out a rookie contract and getting those small cap hits and then maybe revisiting later. But they’re of the belief that if their guy deserves money, they’re willing to go there and willing to do it.

And here’s the counter to your point. Here’s why it’s smart business. So, with a Danielle Hunter… Yes, when they extended him early obviously they raised his cap hit for his 4th and 5th seasons. But, he signed a deal that was such an insane bargain, that that’s where the value comes in.

The risk of not signing a guy is, let’s say they didn’t extend Hunter early and he had another monster season (and he did), then instead of $14.4 million per year, which is what he’s under, he could have been asking for $17 million per year instead. So, it works both ways where you do often get value and get a discount if you extend early as well.

Q: Very interesting. So last offseason I noticed the Vikings guaranteed large portions of some fairly small free agent contracts for players like Rashod Hill and Tajae Sharpe. Why would they do that… To make the contract more attractive?

A: It could be in part to attract a player. But also what happens is, if you are a veteran and have played four or more accrued seasons it makes you a vested veteran in the NFL. If you’re on the roster for Week 1 of the season and get cut after that, you can still apply to receive your base money anyways.

Guaranteeing it really just guarantees that they would make it through training camp and be on the Week 1 roster.

It’s a good-faith move. Guaranteeing the player they will be on the roster – at least at the beginning of the season. It also goes to attracting guys there. Minnesota isn’t the least attractive destination but it’s also not the most. For guys that are outside of the building they do have to make some concessions or do things a little bit better than other buildings to get guys willing to move to Minnesota.

Q: In that same light, who are some logical free agent targets for the Vikings to try and lure to Minnesota?

A: The guards the Vikings were dealing with this season were like below replacement-level players. So, we like to talk about at PFF how, especially at offensive line, it’s kind of a weak-link proposition where basically, if you have a really bad spot it brings everyone down. So, turning a Dakota Dozier or turning a insert-Vikings-guard-name here into a league-average guard could actually have a substantial benefit and really rise the tide of the entire offensive line.

I really don’t think they’re going to be in play for a Brandon Scherff or a Joe Thuney. Those guys are not in their price range at all. It’ll be more bargain shopping.

A couple free agents Spielberger thinks could be in the Vikings’ price range:

Q: On a podcast I heard you mention CB William Jackson III as a potential fit for the Vikings. Does the $180M cap figure change that?

A: He’s a perfect scheme fit. I think Zimmer would love him. He’s a man-match corner. He’s a true number one lockdown cornerback that plays a lot of press-man. They play a similar scheme in Cincinnati as well. He probably priced himself out this season… I have him making about $40 million over 3 years, so $13.33M per year. I’m not really confident the Vikings can pull that off.

I think a great, smart thing they can do, which is a trend that happened across the league this year is – corner is a very volatile position – as you saw with Xavier Rhodes in Indianapolis, he did play a different scheme, he played a lot more zone which is more favorable to an older guy, but guys like Ronald Darby and Jason Verrett.

They’re guys coming off of some tough injuries, but really talented players. Again, they’re both guys that play a lot of man-match, press-coverage corner you can get for really cheap because of their injuries and they had some down seasons, and you just hope that they have a good season.

You hope that there’s volatility – that a new system or a new surrounding or a new building helps them get their career back on track. Those two guys were phenomenal this year – Darby in Washington and Verrett for the 49ers.

So, I think that’s the route the Vikings have to go in free agency. Look for those kinda cheap, bargain-bin guys that you take a gamble on having a bounce-back, resurgent year. I don’t think they can make a play for one of the pricier guys, like a Patrick Peterson

Q: Looking ahead to the draft… Are the Vikings’ projected compensatory picks (4th and 6th) locked into place?

A: Sometimes with the compensatory picks what can happen is they can drop in value if a player basically does not play a lot of snaps. Obviously Trae Waynes (pectoral) played zero snaps this year. He got hurt before the season started. But his contract was a good value ($14 million per year) and it usually goes by APY. 

Nick Korte of OTC followed up to a question on Twitter and he said he’s still pretty confident – not 100% certain – but pretty confident the Vikings will still get a fourth-round comp pick for Waynes and the sixth-round pick for Mackensie Alexander is probably safe as well.

Q: We talked earlier about what potential extensions could look like for Harrison Smith and Danielle Hunter. What are your thoughts on how much Brian O’Neill could make? Could he set the market for right tackles?

A: So, he’s a really good player. He’s definitely one of the better right tackles. I’m not sure if he’s market-setting good. Solid player. Second-round pick, so he has that draft status and has consistently been a good player for the last several seasons, but I think a guy like a Taylor Moton from Carolina might be the next right tackle up that maybe resets the market or comes close to Lane Johnson‘s $18 million per year.

I think Brian O’Neill probably settles in a little below that. I think he could maybe get $15-17 million a year. Again, this is all dependent on the salary cap. I think he’s just below that upper echelon, but definitely a very, very good player.

BONUS QUESTION: Is Rick Spielman a trend-setter in terms of trading down in the draft to acquire lots of picks?

A: I think trend-setter implies that more and more teams are following and for now, we really only see the true trade-down savages; himself, the Seahawks and the Patriots. Those teams trade down kind of as much as possible.

I do think we’re starting to see more teams recognize the value of trading down. It’s good business. It is, in my opinion, one of the smarter ways to add value in the entire NFL. I think that the trend may grow, but it’s still relatively small how many buildings buy into the philosophy. That being said, I think it’s something we will see expand a little bit moving forward.

You can follow Brad Spielberger on Twitter @PFF_Brad