How the Vikings can mitigate their tough salary-cap situation and still compete in 2024


One of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s priorities as the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager has been to lift the team out of the salary cap muck.

When he accepted the job two years ago, the Vikings were in the red. With the help of vice-president Rob Brzezinski and manager of football administration Emily Badis, the team has moved into the black.

Cutting veteran players like Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Cook got the Vikings salary cap compliant, but a lack of influx of young talent on the defensive side has left Adofo-Mensah in a precarious position. The impending decision at quarterback further complicates the next phase of the plan.

To consider the Vikings’ potential path forward, I thought it would be valuable to examine the cap situation for nine key players on the 2023 team. I also thought it’d be fun to conclude the exercise with a mock set of decisions.

Using Over the Cap as a resource, here is where I came down:

The quarterback will affect the Vikings’ salary cap space in 2024 whether he’s on the team or not.

Last spring, Minnesota restructured Cousins’ contract. The move lowered his cap hit for 2023 — to provide the team wiggle room — and moved money into the future. Cousins’ contract is scheduled to void in March. When a contract voids, all of the money pushed into the future accelerates onto the team’s cap as a “dead-cap” hit.

Cousins’ dead-cap hit is projected to be $28.5 million.

The only way the Vikings can decrease that number is by signing Cousins to an extension. That type of move would mirror a strategy Minnesota used in the past: stashing money in the future for relief in the present. If the Vikings believe they can compete for an NFC North title, an NFC championship or even a Super Bowl, this would be a sensible option.

Reducing Cousins’ cap hit for 2024 would allow the team to allocate more resources to shore up a talent-deficient defense. The drawback lies with how that would hurt the team in years to come.

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Only Cousins has a larger cap hit for 2024 than O’Neill’s total of around $22.9, which will rank fourth highest among right tackles. This is the result of O’Neill entering the third year of a five-year, $92.5 million extension signed in 2021.

The Vikings don’t want to part with O’Neill, nor would there be a major benefit to that. The team can, though, lessen O’Neill’s cap hit for 2024 by converting some of his base salary to a signing bonus.

This could save around $9 million for 2024, but it would increase O’Neill’s cap number in the future.

The superstar wideout is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, which is projected to pay him around $19.7 million. That stands as the Vikings’ third-largest cap hit behind Cousins and O’Neill.

An easy path to shrink that number is an extension. As long as the Vikings do what’s right, and as long as Jefferson believes in the trajectory of the organization (which he has confirmed publicly), this deal should happen. If/when it does, the two sides can creatively align the dollar figures with the team’s competitive window.

If Minnesota extends Cousins, signaling its plans to contend for the next couple of seasons, the team can weigh Jefferson’s heaviest cap hits on the back end. If the Vikings opt for a rookie quarterback, they could leave room on the tail end of the contract for more flexibility.

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Even if Smith returns for his 13th NFL season, don’t expect him to be playing on his projected cap hit of around $19.2 million. That number would be the fifth largest among safeties in 2024. Even though defensive coordinator Brian Flores raved about Smith’s presence at the end of the season, that cap hit does not align with Smith’s production.

Last offseason, Smith accepted a significant pay cut to remain in Minnesota. A similar approach makes sense in the event Smith seeks another season, and that could save the Vikings upwards of $10 million of cap space for 2024.

Hunter’s situation is similar to Cousins’. He, too, will affect the Vikings’ salary cap space in 2024 whether or not he’s in purple. His dead-cap hit would be around $15 million. An extension before his contract voids in March could shift money into the future and give Minnesota more room to work with in 2024.

When the Vikings signed Murphy last offseason, they backloaded the deal to provide themselves additional salary cap space for 2023. Murphy’s cap hit this past season was about $3 million; in 2024, it’s projected to be around $11 million.

Before the middle of March, when $4.5 million of Murphy’s contract becomes guaranteed, the team must make a decision. Should the Vikings cut Murphy, which could save about $5.3 million on the 2024 cap? Should they extend Murphy, which could save a comparable amount for 2024 (but tack on more for the future)? Or should they ride out Murphy’s contract, which will void at the end of the 2024 season and pay him top-20 cornerback money?

Murphy was the Vikings’ best corner this season, but that’s a fairly low bar. His missed-tackle rate (22.4 percent) was the highest among 75 qualified corners, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed 715 receiving yards on 56 catches, which ranked 57th among the 75 qualified corners.

Stopping the run is not as sexy as rushing the passer, but it’s important. PFF tracks the percentage of a player’s run-defense snaps where they’re responsible for the stop, and Phillips ranked 11th in this metric among 74 qualified defensive tackles.

How much is that worth? That’s the question the Vikings must answer. Phillips’ cap hit is projected to climb to around $8.8 million in 2024, not expensive by any means but significant enough to mention. Cutting Phillips could save the Vikings $6.5 million in the 2024 season.

An extension would also ease the burden for 2024, and it might even make sense to pair him with a more pass-rush-centric option on the interior.

Davenport has the ninth-largest cap number on the Vikings’ books for 2024 ($6.8 million).

How? Last offseason, the Vikings signed him to a one-year prove-it deal with void years to keep the 2023 cap hit minuscule. He only played in four games and recorded two sacks. Ankle surgery ended his season after Week 6.

Unless the Vikings extend Davenport, the voided contract will leave the entire $6.8 million on the Vikings’ 2024 cap in dead money.

Lowry ranked 142nd among 142 qualified interior defensive linemen in run-stop percentage (1.7 percent), according to PFF. Lowry did rush the passer 109 times and amassed four quarterback hurries.

His 2024 cap number — around $4.5 million — is the 13th largest among Vikings currently on the roster. By cutting him, the Vikings could save around $2 million.

Other players whose release would provide cap relief

Garrett Bradbury, Alexander Mattison, Nick Mullens, Patrick Jones II and Kene Nwangwu

What would I do?

Well, it depends on whether or not they believe this team is close to contending.

If they think they’re close, then the optimal path appears to lie in pushing money into the future. Extending Cousins fits with this approach, although moving on from him wouldn’t necessarily force them to reverse course. There’s always a chance they draft an immediate-impact quarterback or sign a bridge QB (like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season with Baker Mayfield) who could give them a fighting chance. Restructuring O’Neill, coming to terms on a pay cut for Smith and cutting players like Phillips and Murphy would provide money to spend at key positions defensively. Over The Cap indicates the Vikings could generate upwards of $40 million in cap space for 2024 if they wanted to (though, again, that would have ramifications for the future).

If the answer to the overarching team-building question is that they’re not close to contending, extending Cousins wouldn’t make much sense. Backloading Jefferson’s extension wouldn’t fit as a strategy, either. Taking this route would leave a perfectly clean slate for 2025. It might even make it easier to draft a high-end quarterback (in 2025) without having to allocate premium future assets. The only question is whether or not ownership could stomach this step back. Would Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell be on board with it entering their third seasons at the helm?

None of this is to say the Vikings face a binary decision. They could, for example, absorb Cousins’ dead-cap hit, draft a quarterback in 2024, try to compete (so as not to jettison Jefferson) and move into 2025 with ample flexibility. It is, however, to say that being realistic matters in terms of what we should realistically expect in 2024 and beyond.

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(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)





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