This week, the Minnesota Vikings coach staff and scouting staff will descend on Mobile, Ala., for Senior Bowl practices at the college all-star game. Last week, the scouting staff had some duties at the East-West Shrine Game practices on the East Coast and some likely attended the NFLPA Bowl on the West Coast.
But back at Winter Park in the cold climes of Minnesota there were other preparations going on last week. A new offensive line coach, Tony Sparano, was hired; a strength and conditioning coach, Evan Marcus, was released; a running backs coach, Kirby Wilson, was lost; and an offensive coach, Pat Shurmur, was added. Even more important to the future of the franchise was the in-house evaluations being performed since the end of the season.
The Vikings are positioned decently with the salary cap, with a projected estimate around $21 million in cap space, assuming about a $154 million cap for 2016. They have 14 unrestricted free agents, including five regular starters from 2015 – LB Chad Greenway, CB Terence Newman, S Andrew Sendejo, G Mike Harris and TE Rhett Ellison.
If they wanted to re-sign all of them, that $21 million likely would shrink quickly, along with signing another draft class. But that $22 million is also likely to grow and give them more than the league average they have now if they decided to make some tough decisions to free up salary.
Three of the top-five salaried Vikings for 2016 could be salary-cap considerations, either for outright release or restructuring.
The top dog on the salary ledger for 2016 is receiver Mike Wallace, whose contract that was acquired from the Miami Dolphins last year calls for $11.5 million in salary this year.
He won’t see that. That’s likely the easiest prediction of the offseason.
He also knows it. Even before the season began, he talked like he was going to be a free agent, knowing that his contract had no guarantees. Wallace tied for a career-low 39 catches and easily reached his career lows in receiving yards (473) and touchdowns (two).
If the Vikings release him, his contract wouldn’t cost them a dime in dead money.
Still, that decision might not be an either-or dilemma. Although releasing him is the most likely outcome, restructuring his contract to lower his cap number is a possibility and on some levels would make sense.
While his numbers never came close to justifying that salary, it’s hard to judge Wallace on numbers alone. As the proclaimed deep-threat hope last year, he wasn’t at fault for problems the offensive line had protecting Teddy Bridgewater and not allowing a deep passing game to develop. And while Wallace came to Minnesota with the reputation as a petulant player, there wasn’t even a hint of that in 2015. He continuously and publicly put the team first and maintained that the passing game was close. Of course, it never got there and Wallace is likely to feel the financial pain of that.
One of the issues for the offensive line was the absence of Phil Loadholt, who was lost before the season began with a torn Achilles. He is scheduled to make $7.75 million in cap money in 2016, but after missing the last 22 regular-season and playoff games for the Vikings, dating back to a torn pectoral muscle that prematurely ended his 2014 season, it would be easy from a football and financial standpoint to dismiss Loadholt and save $6 million in cap dollars.
From this perspective, the offensive line was easily the Vikings’ biggest deficiency last year. Sure, Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing yards with 1,485, but there have been more produced with more consistent blocking and not also leading the league with easily the most tackles behind the line of scrimmage?
When it comes to protecting the quarterback, no player is relied upon more than a left tackle and Matt Kalil has had his ups and downs in his four years with the team. Left tackles are the highest paid players on the offensive line and Kalil is No. 3 in pay among them in the NFL.
D’Brickashaw Ferguson is tops, counting $14.1 million against the New York Jets’ cap, and Tyron Smith is next, counting $14 million against the Dallas Cowboys’ cap. Kalil is scheduled for a base salary of $11.1 million on the fifth-year option the Vikings invoked last year. One can debate if Kalil is worth that, but protecting Bridgewater has been an issue and elite left tackles aren’t often available. In addition, Kalil rarely misses a down, with his first missed snaps coming this year, and he didn’t miss a start.
Would the Vikings consider cutting him before his salary counts against their cap in March? The real question is what the other option would be? Right now, they don’t have one, likely making 2016 a make-or-break year for him, not a cutting-ties time.
Wallace might be the easiest decision among them, with him accounting for the top cap hit in 2016 among the Vikings, Kalil taking the No. 2 spot and Loadholt No. 5, with Peterson ($11 million) and Everson Griffen ($8.2 million) at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.
Keeping big-time talent is imperative, but being wise with their options and financial output is important, too. Tough, and necessary, decisions are on the horizon.
Moving on from Wallace would move the Vikings from 17th in salary-cap space into the top 10. Another move among the top five on their 2016 payroll would put them in the top five in NFL cap space, but teams don’t win without talent, meaning there is a balance to be struck between financial decisions and talent retention.