Kendricks Release 1st Domino to Fall with More to Come In Next 7 Days + Lamar Jackson Tagged

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The 2023 NFL league year opens next week on March 15, and that’s when teams must be under the $225 million salary cap. No problem for teams such as the Bears, who lead the league with $100 million of cap room. 

The Vikings are among the teams who need to clear cap space by next week, and they were at $23 million over the cap when they began the reduction process by releasing veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks this week to save $9.5 million against the cap (while absorbing a $1.9 million dead money hit to this year’s cap). 

Kendricks Release 1st Domino to Fall with More to Come In Next 7 Days + Lamar Jackson Tagged

I would call the release of Kendricks a mild surprise as I expected the team to cut linebacker Jordan Hicks (with a $5 million cap savings), keep Kendricks with a restructured deal, and insert last year’s third-round pick Brian Asamoah into Hicks’ spot, adding a speedy young backer in the 4.5 range in the 40 to the mix. Asamoah looked good in limited play time last season (17 tackles and one big forced fumble and fumble recovery to stop a Giants drive in the regular season Vikings win). 

Be a Negative
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports,

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hicks also is released to open a starting spot for less costly 2020 fourth-rounder Troy Dye, second-year man William Kwenkeu or perhaps a player to be drafted next month. 

Kendricks was in his first season as a 3-4 linebacker in 2022 after lining up as the Vikings middle linebacker in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 defense for his first seven seasons. He was a terrific player at his peak when he was an all-pro and Pro Bowler in 2019 and was a force for the top-ranked Vikings defense in 2017 when the team went 13-3 and made it to the NFC title game. 

Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles seven times and was excellent in pass coverage (nine career interceptions) until last year’s scheme change. He still made 137 tackles to lead the team again, but he struggled at times in coverage along with the entire Vikings pass defense. 

The Vikings also lost one of their leaders as a team captain and a player dedicated to community service as a former NFL Man of the Year nominee and a vital member of the team’s social justice committee. 

This is unlikely to be a situation where a veteran player is cut and returns. Not when Coach Kevin O’Connell said, “I know he and Ally (his wife) will have an immediate positive impact on their next team and community.” 

1st Domino
Eagles’ Wendell Smallwood (28) is brought down by Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks. © Jerry Habraken, The News Journal.

Kendricks should find a good opportunity elsewhere at a reduction in pay. There are some intriguing free agent inside linebacker options for the Vikings to pursue, including David Long (26-year-old former Titans sixth-rounder), Drue Tranquill (28-year-old who played for the Chargers), and a more expensive wild card in 33-year-old two-time Pro Bowler Lavonte David who had 124 tackles and three sacks for the Bucs last season.

What’s the next domino to fall as the Vikings get their cap situated by next week? Certainly, an extension for QB Kirk Cousins is likely to lower his $36 million cap number, so he stays around for at least a couple more seasons after he had his best year as a Viking with eight game-winning drives (until his last pass short of the first down marker in the playoff loss to the Giants).  

At the Combine last week, there was plenty of discussion between Vikings management and agents for players such as Cousins, Danielle Hunter, Brian O’Neill, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Za’Darius Smith,  Dalvin Cook, and Hicks on contract extensions, restructures, reductions or pending releases to gain salary cap relief.

We’ll hear more about several of these players in the coming days, and of course, the looming extension for superstar Justin Jefferson is a big factor for the Vikings salary structure moving forward, but J.J.’s deal will likely be finalized after the draft and before training camp.

GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah also is talking with agents for the Vikings’ pending free agents who can hit the open market next week, including starters Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, and Garrett Bradbury, along with players the team would probably like to keep at the right price such as Irv Smith Jr., Alexander Mattison, and Greg Joseph. 

The next week or so will be most interesting to see how the 2023 Vikings are taking shape entering free agency and draft season.

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. After Derek Carr signed with the Saints, the next QB domino to drop was Baltimore placing the non-exclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson with a one-year tender attached at $32.4 million. The Ravens decided not to utilize the $45 million exclusive franchise tag that would tie up too much cap room and hamper their efforts to add a free-agent wide receiver to help Jackson. 

By going the non-exclusive route, it will be interesting to see if another team (Jets, Panthers, Falcons, Commanders, Bucs, or Titans?) negotiates a deal with Jackson — who is unwisely acting as his own agent — and presents an offer sheet that the Ravens can match or take two first-round picks by letting Jackson leave.

I don’t remember a team ever giving up two first-round picks for a franchise-tagged player, but a premier quarterback such as Jackson could be the exception. Another team also could structure the offer sheet with a large signing bonus that the Ravens may not want to match on a player who has missed 11 games over the last two seasons (including last season’s wildcard loss at Cincinnati).

NFL Analyst Hints
Lamar Jackson celebrates at midfield as his jersey number is officially retired Saturday afternoon at halftime of the U of L and Syracuse game. Nov. 13, 2021. © Alton Strupp/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK.

I don’t see Baltimore budging on Jackson’s demand for a fully guaranteed deal (as Deshaun Watson received from Cleveland that made the Jackson negotiations much more difficult). We’ll see if another team is willing to go that route.

If Jackson does not get a good enough offer elsewhere for the Ravens to match or not, and he doesn’t finalize a new long-term deal with the Ravens by mid-July, it sets up a messy offseason and possibly into training camp with Jackson unlikely to participate in the Ravens offseason program. And would he hold out from training camp before signing the tender if no long-term deal is reached? It’s not a good team-building situation when your starting QB is absent. 

The Ravens surely would like Jackson to prove he can stay healthy for a full season and lead a long playoff run (his career playoff record is 1-3), so they may be quietly pleased if it winds up being a one-year deal. So many questions about the Jackson situation, and the Ravens answered the first one with their decision on his non-exclusive vs. exclusive franchise tender. 

2. With the news that the Packers have permitted the Jets to talk with/recruit Aaron Rodgers, it seems inevitable that Jordan Love will be the Green Bay QB next season. I think the Packers brass is ready to move on, and Rodgers realizes that, so it makes sense that he will want to go to a talented team such as the Jets and play in the biggest media market, which would feed his huge ego. But Rodgers still may think playing for the Raiders with ex-teammate Davante Adams is more desirable. 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports.

It’s good news for the Vikings and the rest of the NFC North if Rodgers is traded to the Jets or elsewhere for several high draft picks, which certainly appears to be where this is headed. Love is talented, but it’s unlikely he will play at the elite level of Rodgers in his first year as the starter. 

3. The Giants accomplished their goal in signing Daniel Jones to a four-year deal (for a reported $160 million plus incentives to raise the deal further), thus allowing the G-Men to place the non-exclusive franchise tag on running back Saquon Barkley. Now they will almost certainly keep their top two offensive players.

No surprises among other players given the non-exclusive franchise tag around the league: running backs Tony Pollard (Dallas) and Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas), tight end Evan Engram (Jacksonville), and defensive tackle Daron Payne (Washington).   

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl