Last night, as I dozed off on the couch while re-watching the classic 2004 Denzel Washington action movie Man On Fire, I had a strange dream…
After a long day of negotiating at TCO Performance Center, Kirk Cousins was ready to go home. Moments after handing the Minnesota Vikings a fully-guaranteed, three-year, $150 million contract proposal, Cousins strolled to his Astrovan and was ready to see if the team would accept.
Suddenly, his eyes became heavy and he dozed asleep. When he woke up, he found his hands duct taped to the steering wheel and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah sitting in the passenger’s seat.
“I know you want certainty,” Adofo-Mensah said. “But I want flexibility. Do you understand me? You’re going to give me what I want or else, we’re going to make some cuts.”
“Do you know who I am?” Cousins laughed. “I led the Vikings to a 13-win season. I tied an NFL record for fourth-quarter comebacks. I have the highest passer rating of any quarterback in NFL history on fourth-and-eight in a playoff game in the fourth quarter with an exact outside temperature of 17 degrees. I’m Kirko Chainz. You don’t want to do this.”
Adofo-Mensah laughed and lit up a cigarette. He reached into his pocket for a pointed object and Cousins screamed so loud, you could hear it in downtown Minneapolis.
Woah, hang on! Did you actually think Kwesi cut Kirk’s fingers off? This is a family website!
Adofo-Mensah actually was holding a tech pen and made a few swipes on his Microsoft Surface to sign off on the release of Adam Thielen. While it wasn’t an extremity, it’s just as painful to Cousins and several other Vikings as the front office moves to get what they really want this offseason.
This time a year ago, Minnesota’s front office was carrying out a much different strategy. Whether it was an owner-driven mandate to prove Mike Zimmer wrong or just an evaluation year for a new regime, the main objective was to bring everyone back and see what they could get out of a roster that had settled into mediocrity.
The short-term gains of this decision were outstanding. The Vikings went 13-3 and won the NFC North for the first time since 2017. Although their season ended in the first round of the playoffs, the it had to be considered a success. But it also came with a caveat.
The Vikings were old and starting to come to the end of the line. Several of their aging players just happened to be the highest-paid members of the team. In a league where organizations are constantly monitoring the salary cap space, Adofo-Mensah didn’t have the money or the draft capital to forge ahead with an aging contender.
That brings us to this off-season. There is a temptation to keep building and trying to get a title with this group, but it would likely come at the cost of the long-term window the Adofo-Mensah is trying to create. In a perfect world, the Vikings would not only have a slew of household names leading the way, but they would be in a position to add to them with financial flexibility that hasn’t been seen since Cousins arrived in Minnesota.
This has led to Minnesota’s recent purge of high-priced veterans. Some of these decisions are easier than others. Eric Kendricks was aging quickly, and his release created $9 million in cap space. Za’Darius Smith has a balky knee, and his release would create $12.1 million in cap space. But in Adam Thielen’s case, it was a difficult decision for multiple reasons.
Designating Thielen as a pre-June 1 cut means the Vikings will take on $13.5 of dead cap this season. Minnesota had the option of designating him as a post-June 1 cut, which would have pushed most of that money to the next league year. But by doing it now, the Vikings are biting the bullet for more spending cash in 2024.
With this in mind, it’s possible that Thielen isn’t the only veteran who will be released or traded with the goal of being in a better spot next year. Moving on from Dalvin Cook and Harrison Smith would incur just under $18 million in dead cap this year and also clear the way for the Vikings to enjoy $176 million worth of cap space next offseason.
This will come in handy because the Vikings have more important bills due in the next 14 months. Justin Jefferson is in line for a massive extension this spring; his contract would go into effect for the 2024 season. T.J. Hockenson is also likely to receive an extension in the coming months. Christian Darrisaw will get paid in the spring of 2024 and have a much larger cap hit beginning in 2025.
All of this is great, but it could raise concerns about what the Vikings’ motives are for 2023. Getting rid of some of the top players on the team isn’t a great strategy if you’re trying to compete in a division that appears to be wide open. However, it could also be a bet on their culture and coaching staff.
Consider that the 2022 Vikings scored one fewer point and allowed one more point than the 2021 Vikings did. The 2021 Vikings finished 8-9 with a team that nearly saw Mike Zimmer come to blows with his quarterback, while the 2022 Vikings rattled off eight comeback wins on their way to a 13-3 record.
This caused many people to call the Vikings frauds. However, it also showed that O’Connell could get more out of this group than Zimmer was able to. With Zimmer griping about his deficiencies rather than finding a way to solve problems, the Vikings sank. O’Connell looked for ways to win in the margins.
If the Vikings are starting a young cornerback here and a younger linebacker there, O’Connell will likely find a way to use it to his advantage – especially with Brian Flores as the new defensive coordinator. And if a brutal schedule gets in the way of a playoff appearance, they could wind up with a high draft pick that could be used on their next quarterback.
This gets us back to Cousins. With a report circulating that an extension isn’t close, it’s possible Cousins’ camp wants the fully guaranteed deal he’s been getting from the Vikings the past five years. But such a deal would also put roughly $40 million on a payroll that Minnesota is bulldozing to throw money around in 2024.
If this were last year, Cousins would proudly strut out of TCO Performance Center with his new contract in hand. But this season, Adofo-Mensah is ready to get what he wants no matter what methods he has to use to get it.