In the first part of this series, I examined how the decline of Aaron Rodgers has coincided with the rise of the Vikings. Minnesota stands to repeat as division champs for the first time since 2008-2009, which was during Rodgers’ first two seasons as a starter – another time in which he was not an elite quarterback. Still, the recent success of the Vikings can also be largely attributed to the rise of their young defense. As a result, the Vikings stand to supplant the Packers as the great NFC North power for the next few years. However, I called into question the sustainability of the current construction of their team, as the Vikings’ defense is brimming with young talent still on relatively cheap rookie deals, complimented by some aging veterans. The modern NFL is far different from the days of the Steel Curtain, and free agency has led to a great deal of parity in today’s league. In this piece, I’ll examine the Vikings’ defense from a salary cap perspective, and try to determine if they’ll be able to retain enough pieces in order to remain one of the top defenses for years to come.
The Starting Vikings’ Defense and the Salary Cap
As of the publishing date of this article, the lineup of the Vikings’ defense looks something like this:
LE Brian Robison, 33
NT Linval Joseph, 28
DT Shamar Stephen, 25
RE Everson Griffen, 28
SLB Anthony Barr, 24
MLB Eric Kendricks, 24
WLB Chad Greenway, 33
LCB Terence Newman, 38
SS Andrew Sendejo, 29
FS Harrison Smith, 27
RCB Xavier Rhodes, 26
NCB Trae Waynes, 24
Considering that most NFL offenses run 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) for the majority of their plays, I counted the nickel cornerback as a starter. It should also be noted that Sharrif Floyd, a 25-year-old defensive tackle and former first round pick who started 12 games in 2015, has been dealing with a knee injury. Of their current starters, five are currently on rookie deals:
CB Xavier Rhodes (25th overall pick, 2013) is on a 4-year, $7.8M deal set to expire in 2017. His 2016 cap hit is only $2.48M. He has a fifth-year option for 2017 which would be $8.07M.
SLB Anthony Barr (9th overall pick, 2014) is on a 4-year, $12.74M deal set to expire in 2018. His 2016 cap hit is only $3.47M. He has a fifth-year option for 2019.
DT Shamar Stephen (220th overall pick, 2014) is on a 4-year, $2.82M deal set to expire in 2018. He does not have a fifth-year option.
CB Trae Waynes (11th overall pick, 2015) is on a 4-year, $12.94M deal set to expire in 2019. His 2016 cap hit is only $2.91M. He has a fifth-year option.
MLB Eric Kendricks (45th overall pick, 2015) is on a 4-year, $5.1M deal set to expire in 2019. His 2016 cap hit is only $1.7M. He does not have a fifth-year option.
It should also be noted that defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (22rd overall pick, 2013) is on a 4-year, $8.07M deal set to expire in 2017. He has a fifth-year option for 2017 which would be $6.75M, although it remains to be seen if they’ll pick it up with his injury concerns, as he’s missed ten games from 2014 onward.
All told, that’s five defensive starters accounting for just 6.87% of their 2016 cap space (8.12% if you were to count Floyd) and they’re all pretty good. That’s absurd.
The “Aging Defense” Conundrum
The deals of their remaining defensive starters are all set to expire when they’re 30 or older. Chad Greenway’s deal is set to expire after this season, when he’ll be 34. Terence Newman’s deal is also set to expire after this season, at which point he would be 39. Brian Robison’s deal expires in 2018, at which point he’ll be 35. Everson Griffen’s deal expires in 2019, when he’ll be 30. Linval Joseph’s deal expires in 2019, when he’ll be 31. Andrew Sendejo’s deal expires in 2020, when he’ll be 33. Harrison Smith just inked a brand new five-year contract this off-season to the tune of $51.25M.
Long story short, only two of the twelve players on the Vikings’ defense (Sendejo and Smith) are under contract for the 2019 season. And 2019 is really the year the Vikings are going to be forced to make some tough decisions. Not only do they have to re-sign Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks – who will both likely command top ten money for their respective positions – and Trae Waynes that year, but they also have to make a decision on Teddy Bridgewater, who has a fifth-year option for 2018 before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Furthermore, they’ll also have to have made some financial decisions on the likes of Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes in the meantime, who could earn sizable, albeit not insane, deals. They’ll also have to decide whether or not to extend Everson Griffen at age 30, and he would probably earn one last big contract himself.
Now, it’s difficult to project what those contracts could look like in 2019, especially considering a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is due in 2020 that could throw a monkey-wrench in things like it did in the NBA an off-season ago. But it’s safe to say the Vikings won’t be able to retain all of their talent. Either they go on a spending spree on the defensive side of the ball and retain most of their key players from this year, which would be at the detriment of the other units on the team, or they let some players walk and be confronted with the prospect of having to replace six-plus players. As good as the Vikings currently are, they’ll have to continue to hit on all their picks before they can become a new NFL dynasty. Realistically, I’d give the Vikings another two years of being a perennial contender. So, where does that leave the rest of the NFC North? In the final part of this series, I’ll talk about how the Lions and Bears fit into the equation moving forward. Specifically, what Detroit needs to be a contender in the near future.