Projecting the futures of Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and other Vikings veterans
Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah offered a preview of the decisions he faces over the next two weeks during a 15-minute meeting with national reporters Tuesday at the NFL Combine. It was a lot.
Adofo-Mensah brings a good-natured personality to such settings, regularly adding pop culture references to lighten the mood. (Tuesday was a nod to Seinfeld, comparing the reporters to fictional “hacky” comedian Kenny Bania.) The subject in Indianapolis, however, was tense.
Adofo-Mensah noted the volume of decisions he needs to make and repeatedly talked about the consequences if something goes wrong.
“The challenge is to build a championship team within the time window,” he said. “So yeah, if I get fired in four years and after that all my picks fall out, I can’t go back and say, ‘Hey, look at all those people I drafted. My job is to bring everything together in the same time frame, in the same horizons. there is only one right way. It’s just a lot of smart, deliberate decisions you make.”
From now until March 15, when the new NFL year begins, Adofo-Mensah must find a way to slash at least $24 million in the salary cap, leaving room for a potential record-breaking contract extension for wide receiver Justin Jefferson. He will decide the long-term future of quarterback Kirk Cousins depending on whether the parties agree to a contract extension and whether he can say goodbye to a third of the 2022 team’s starting lineup.
Let’s combine months of reports on how the Vikings will work with the players in their roster for the 2023 season, from the future of Cousins to long-term opportunities for running back Dalwyn Cooke, wide receiver Adam Thielen and a host of defensemen. and try to project the plans of Adofo-Mensah.
WR Adam Thielen
Why is this a question: Thielen is heavily capitalized ($19.97 million) after restructuring in 2022 and will receive $13.5 million in cash. Those numbers would make sense for a young 1,000-yard receiver like Thielen was at the peak of his career. While he was an exceptionally resilient player in 2022, starting in all 17 games and finishing second in the NFL, he will turn 33 in August and his on-field performance suggests a slowdown. His average of 2.27 yards after a catch ranked him 128th out of 130 qualified pass catchers in 2022, indicating no lead over rivals.
Financial implications: The Vikings would save $6.4 million by releasing him, or if he wanted to, could save about the same by cutting his $11.8 million base salary.
Reading tea leavesThielen told Sportzshala last month that he wants to leave the Vikings, but “I also want the opportunity to show that I can play at a high level.” In the last five games of last season, he was fourth among the Vikings in receiving, behind Jefferson, TJ Hockenson and KJ Osbourne. In a tight free-agent market, Thielen may be reluctant to take significant pay cuts and a supporting role, making a layoff the most likely outcome.
RB Dalvin Cook
Why is this a question: In August, he will turn 28 years old, and this is not the heyday for his position. In 2022, for example, three NFL runners aged 28 and over ran over 500 yards. He should receive $11 million in cash, third among the 2023 runners, and he should count $14.1 million towards the cap. On the other hand, last season he started every game for the first time in his career and suffered a chronic shoulder injury in the offseason.
Financial implicationsA: Shoulder surgery makes it a little more difficult. Of his base salary in 2023, $2 million is guaranteed against injury. If they let him go and he fails the physical, they owe him $2 million but save $5.9 million on the cap. If he passes the physical, his release would save $7.9 million.
Reading tea leaves: The most likely outcome before shoulder surgery was release. Now the question is whether the Vikings would be willing to eat $2 million to get exemption from the restrictions. Coach Kevin O’Connell loves Cooke’s skill set, especially in passing, and has given him more snaps than he has in his career. And the Vikings have no obvious replacement in the roster as Alexander Mattison’s reserve contract expires. But everything about Adofo-Mensah’s approach suggests he’d rather not pay and rely on an aging running back, and instead turn to a draft or free agency for a replacement. Speaking on Tuesday, Adofo-Mensah said Cooke is “a great player and a great leader” but added: “In the NFL you have a lot of restrictions, different salary caps, and we’re trying to figure out how we can work into those things.”
QB Kirk Cousins
Why is this a question: There really is no doubt about where the Cousins will play in 2023; Adofo-Mensah said he expects Cousins to become a starter for the Vikings. What’s not clear is how the team will move towards this point. Cousins’ contract has one year left, which requires him to receive $30 million in cash and set off $36.3 million towards the cap. The Vikings could lower that cap by extending his contract, but Cousins will have the leverage to request guaranteed money that will essentially cement him as a starter into the 2024 season and possibly beyond. He will turn 35 in August.
Financial implications: Depending on the length of the renewal, the Vikings could save at least $10 million off the Cousins cap for 2023.
Reading tea leaves: Appearing Tuesday on an NFL network that said a one-year extension was unlikely, Adofo-Mensah was neutral: “We’re just trying to find great solutions,” he said. The Vikings may not want to do anything other than a one-year contract, but they are shackled by the complete lack of a succession plan. Cousins missed one start in his career due to health reasons, and there is growing evidence that quarterbacks played at a high level until the age of 30. But if there is no one-year contract, the most likely scenario is that Cousins will enter the season in the last year of his current contract.
LB Za’Darius Smith
Why is this a question: There is no longer guaranteed money in Smith’s contract, allowing the Vikings to move on with minimal losses if they choose to. Smith made a huge impact early in the 2022 season with 8.5 sacks in Week 7, but a chronic knee injury slowed him down and managed 1.5 sacks the rest of the way. He turns 31 in September and, should the Vikings choose to keep him, he is currently on record for $15.5 million in cash.
Financial implications: Freeing Smith would save $12.2 million on the salary cap.
Reading tea leaves: New defensive coordinator Brian Flores plans to use a 3-4 formation that seems to match Smith’s skills and past success. But a cold-blooded tally of Smith’s age and performance in the second half of last season will serve as a wake-up call that he will remain loyal to him at his current performance. Smith is unlikely to feel compelled to take a pay cut if the Vikings offer it, given how pass rushers are typically valued in the free agent market. Smith’s release would be a clear path to opening up space above the salary cap.
LB Daniel Hunter
Why is this a question: Hunter’s contract is for one year with a relatively low base salary of $4.9 million, plus up to $600,000 in squad and training bonuses. That’s about a quarter of what he made in 2022 when he returned from two years of injury, started 17 games and recorded 10.5 sacks. But his 2023 salary cap is $13.1 million, and despite total layoffs in 2022, he hasn’t always looked comfortable as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 formation.
Financial implications: The release or trade of Hunter will speed up an additional $5.7 million towards the Vikings’ salary cap. The new deal could cut his 2023 cap by $10 million.
Reading tea leaves: Hunter is 28 and proved last season that he survived his 2020 and 2021 injury battles. Given the value of the pass rush and the potential for Smith to leave, a contract extension would be the most reasonable approach for Hunter. However, if the parties cannot agree, the possibility of trade should not be ruled out. Hunter is the Vikings’ most lucrative (and realistic) asset if they want to add to their stock of 2023 draft picks (the Vikings currently have four picks).
LBs Eric Kendricks / Jordan Hicks
What is this question: The Vikings in 2022, starting inside linebackers, are in an interconnected situation. Both will be 31 this season, their contracts are coming to an end and they have no guaranteed money owed to them in 2023. And the Vikings seem interested in seeing Brian Asamoah, a third-round pick in 2022, come to prominence in 2023. They both remained healthy enough to start all 17 games last season but struggled at times with the lighting duties they were asked to handle in former defensive coordinator Ed Donatella’s scheme.
Financial implications: The Vikings could save $9.5 million at the limit by ditching Kendricks and $5 million by letting Hicks go.
Reading tea leaves: One or both of the veterans will not be included in the roster in September. Asamoah is expected to take on one kickoff job, and it’s worth noting that Adofo-Mensah went out of his way to mention Troy Dye and William Quenkew’s 2022 backups on Tuesday at the mill.
With Harrison Smith
Why is this a questionA: Smith just turned 34, missed a total of three games last season with two separate injuries, and had no guaranteed contract money left. It seems reasonable that Flores would have been better off using Smith’s strengths, which include blitzing and getting into the backfield when holding plays, but it’s hard to imagine Adofo-Mensah appreciating this opportunity enough to justify a current contract that requires Smith to make money. $18.1 million in cash and $22.1 million against the ceiling – especially with Lewis Xing, a 2022 first-round pick, expected to make a full…