Looking Ahead to the Vikings 2020 Salary Cap

Following the Vikings extension of tight end Kyle Rudolph a few days ago talk jumped to the Vikings salary cap situation in 2020. Currently the Vikings have in the ballpark of $213 million committed to 2020, the second highest total in the NFL (the Jaguars are at the top around $215 million) which sounded the offseason alarm among Vikings fans and some media outlets looking ahead for what was a non-playoff team in 2018 which did not exactly add a lot of new parts for this season. So let’s take a look and see if the panic is warranted.

The $211 million number floated around last week is accurate and if anything is a low ball number. The average rookie pool per team will result in about a $3.5 million loss in cap space per team. The team has one player, Pat Elflein, whose salary will escalate by $1.25 million next year.  Per our records, the team should have five restricted of free agents of whom probably two, backup QB Kyle Sloter and LB Eric Wilson, have a chance of being tendered. The tender for next year will be slightly over $2 million per player so that is probably another $3 million or so (each replaces a player in the top 51 so it is not a full $2 million lost) in lost cap space. So realistically we are playing with a number in the range of $220 million for next year.

That number does not account for free agents. Upcoming free agents include CB Trae Waynes (67% pt), S Anthony Harris (60% pt), CB Mackensie Alexander (54% pt), WR Laquan Treadwell (52% pt), DE Stephen Weatherly (50% pt), T Rashod Hill (50% pt). Of those players Waynes is an outside candidate for a tag and they have already been linked to discussions to extend Weatherly now. In any event it is not an offseason with no free agents to consider.

The cap has grown around $10 million a season so the ballpark cap figure for next year should be $199 million, assuming no new CBA is ratified between now and next March. Teams should benefit from the fact that if the CBA is set to expire the league should conduct some type of true up from their estimates which could add (or I guess subtract but that is hard to imagine) from the cap. Last time this happened the cap grew by about $5 million from the estimated number. So I would work under the assumption of $204 million as the unadjusted cap. That leaves the Vikings, who won’t have much carryover to 2020, about $16 million over the cap.

While this may sound concerning, much like the Eagles salary cap issue of last year, it probably is not. The Vikings have been one of the best run organizations in the NFL when it comes to contract negotiations and salary cap planning. One of the first things that I do when looking at a team in a future year is to immediately look at the cap savings that can come from releasing a player. If you go to the Vikings cap page and look at the last column of the main cap table for 2020 you will see that there is not a lot of “red” which would mean the cap hit for releasing a player is bigger than the player’s actual salary cap hit.

In my opinion, players with big savings numbers are either in danger of being cut if they have a mediocre year or can be asked to renegotiate to a lower number. That list should include T Riley Reiff ($8.8M cap savings), DE Everson Griffen ($13.1 million cap savings), and CB Xavier Rhodes ($8.1M) as well as some players with lower cap saving numbers in the $2M range.

The fact that there are so many players with salary cap savings generally also means that the team was smart in the way they have allocated their signing bonus money (which accounts for most dead money) as part of the total contract.  In general that means that restructuring player contracts for cap relief doesn’t have a major negative impact in future years relative to the rest of the NFL. WR’s Adam Thielen ($12.8M cap number) and Stefon Diggs ($14.5 million cap number), and DE Danielle Hunter ($14M cap number) all fit into this category. So there is plenty of room for relief.

There are two difficult things I believe for the Vikings navigating their cap next year. The first should come from emotional attachments. There were two moves this offseason that surprised me to some extent this year. The first was the re-signing of linebacker Anthony Barr to a five year $67.5 million contract. Barr was a decent player at a relatively replaceable position. Minnesota failed to extend him in 2017 and 2018 more or less throwing away $14 million in old money guarantees and two years of proration that they could have used in this contract had they just re-signed him then. Barr actually agreed to terms with the Jets on a contract that paid him slightly more than this deal with the Vikings, but Barr got cold feet and went back to the Vikings to see if there was an option to return. The Vikings agreed.

The second was the “extension” of Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph had a very good season in 2018 but the team drafted a tight end and is already in at a high number on two wide receivers. Rudolph, whose release would have saved the team $7.6 million on the cap this year, was instead reworked. While the numbers were eye popping at over $9 million a season, the reality is more that the team just needed a way to push money out of 2019 and into the future. They only guaranteed him about $2 million extra to sign the contract and they could release him next year and save over $3 million on the cap. So this was really as much about salary cap accounting as really buying into a player.

While neither move is inherently bad I think they do bring to light one of the issues that often plagues front offices in the NFL and that is the inability to sometimes let go until the wheels fall off either the team as a whole or the player. Had neither player been back the Vikings would have had an additional $8.2 million in cap space this year and $21.15 million, if Rudolph is on the team ($18.5M if he is not) removed from next year’s books. That basically means, without touching any other deals, the Vikings would have had an extra $30 million in cap room in 2020. While still a low overall cap number that would have ranked in the bottom third of the NFL there would be no issues with conformance to the cap. Are those two players really worth that?  I guess we will see but my guess is they could have used those cap dollars next year to strengthen the team more in 2020 than what those two will bring them in 19 and 20.

That is the one concerning thing when we talk about releasing players. Some of us are probably considering some of the players mentioned above to be gone, but what if the Vikings finish 8-8 or 9-7 and none are dismal even if their play doesn’t match up with the salary or the cap number? It’s one thing to double down on a player like Hunter. Its something entirely different to double down on someone who would really is a replaceable player that is well liked within the organization and city. Teams sometimes can not say good bye and that can be a big problem.

The other thing that concerns me is timing. As I discussed the other day there are issues with a rule called the 30% rule when it comes to new contracts. Those same rules should apply to restructuring contracts for salary cap relief which will make it difficult to use a signing bonus, which does not count toward the 30% calculation, to just dump the cap charge down in 2020 which keeping a large charge in 2021 and beyond. While there are creative ways around this those require real negotiations with a player (salary conversions to bonus are generally automatic) and those can be tricky. So while I mentioned players like Diggs and Hunter for easy cap relief, those deals, assuming my rules interpretation is correct, may not be simple to rework.

What I would do, assuming this is the case, is to be proactive with my cap and convert 2019 and whatever 2020 salary is allowable for those or other players to save cap space in 2019 that can be carried over to 2020. This would allow for similar levels of cap relief while maintaining 30% compliance. It would also probably be better long term for the salary cap.

The negative to this approach is that the Vikings truly are in the middle of a three year window. They signed Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed deal that runs from 2018-2020 and if the bottom falls out this year certainly would not want to over commit to players, even good ones, if the team looks like they will be in a position to draft a QB in 2020. Even if the bottom doesn’t fall out they may need to draft a QB. Cousins was for the most part mediocre for the Vikings last year. Is mediocre good enough?  Do the Vikings want to extend “mediocre” at $33-35 million a season in 2021?

So for the purposes of maintaining flexibility I do believe that they would like to wait and see on how Cousins looks this year. The problem is that every week you wait in 2019 to convert salary to bonus is 2020 cap savings that could be lost. If you wait on Cousins’ performance then that leaves you more with with the option of extending Cousins for cap relief as his deal expires in 2021 so there is room to play with the numbers. Again though do you want to buy deeper into a mediocre QB?

Using voidable contract years with Cousins for cap relief I don’t think is a possibility for a team with salary cap issues. Void years, often used by the Saints and Eagles, let you add dummy years and prorate money into the future. For someone like Cousins, with a $31 million cap charge, you could defer well over $20 million in cap if you wanted. This would comply with the 30% rules, but the end of CBA rules complicate issues. Normally any player whose contract voids or is terminated after June 1 has the cap charge accelerate to the following year (2021 in this case). The rules for next year are different in that there is no June 1 rules change. So if the contract voids five days before the end of the league year (the day the CBA expires), which is a common date to void, all that money should accelerate back to 2020. That doesn’t work if you only have $5 million in cap space. So my assumption is the NFL will not allow teams to run with cap space lower than the void years and may just add such cap charges to the 2020 cap with adjustments if extensions are reached and the void does not occur. I guess they could void a contract after the start of the league year but that would disqualify you from a compensatory pick and the ability to tag a player.

So are the Vikings cap issues overblown?  Probably, but they are somewhat more complicated than a team like the Eagles last year. I tend to think a lot of their decision making may hinge on how Cousins and the team performs this year but they would be better off probably deciding sooner rather than later as to how much they believe in Cousins. They probably, under any circumstance, will not be able to be a major player in free agency in 2020, though you can never rule out adding a player or two, and are likely locked into what they have on the team unless they can explore the trade market to bring in low salaried veterans or make a play for disgruntled rookies at the tail end of their contract (think the Rams with Fowler and Peters).