Assessing the thinking of NFL general managers is no easy task. In fact, they probably prefer it that way, allowing them to operate with intentions shielded from not only the public but also their NFL counterparts.
Assuming that because the Minnesota Vikings signed Alex Boone and Andre Smith in free agency – as well as re-signed Mike Harris and restructured Phil Loadholt – means they won’t draft an offensive lineman early might be a fool’s approach. Sure, the Vikings have more pressing needs, but Rick Spielman, Rob Brzezinski and the crew appeared to have a mission in mind with those signings.
Indeed, they appear to have shored up the offensive line for 2016, but look beyond the roster and depth chart and into the future and you’ll find that being on the roster in April or May 2016 is far from guaranteeing employment beyond the 2016 season.
Boone was the surest bet the Vikings could find in free agency and therefore was signed to a four-year deal. After that, however, the Vikings gave themselves plenty of “outs” if they want to move in a different direction.
Loadholt’s restructuring not only reduced his salary-cap number from $7.75 million to $3.75 million, it continued to schedule him for free agency after the 2016. Reducing his salary might have bought him another year in the NFL, but that year is 2016, not 2017.
Smith was signed to a similar deal. He is signed for only the 2016 season with a cap number approaching $3.5 million.
Harris? One year, $2 million cap hit.
Matt Kalil is in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, meaning he is scheduled for free agency in 2017.
The pattern is clear to see. While the Vikings created plenty of competition for some starting spots, especially on the right side of the offensive line if Brandon Fusco moves back to right guard, they also created urgency within those competitors.
Loadholt vs. Smith and perhaps Harris at right tackle? May the most effective man win (and incumbent starter T.J. Clemmings isn’t even included in that scenario). The winner may have earned another contract with the loser likely to have to search elsewhere for employment in 2017.
Fusco vs. Harris and perhaps Clemmings at right guard? Same situation, with Harris needing to earn playing time if he wants to increase his stock heading into free agency in 2017.
But the battles for NFL survival and paychecks beyond 2016 aren’t just on the offensive line.
Cornerback Terence Newman and linebacker Chad Greenway are both on one-year contracts, as well. Greenway has said this is his last season. That could be true for Newman, too, and safety Michael Griffin.
So why are the Vikings doing all the one-year deals?
For one, it keeps them from having much “dead money” – money that counts against the salary cap for players that are no longer on the roster. In fact, the Vikings have under $500,000 in dead money, fourth-best in the NFL. Only six teams have under $2.4 million in dead money. Only 11 have under $5 million, while seven have over $10 million, topped by the New Orleans Saints’ $24.9 million cap issue.
While the focus has shifted to the draft for the Vikings, their free-agent moves and how they structured those contracts will keep their salary cap in good shape as they face decisions on bigger contracts in the coming years for recent draft choices. Patterson, Floyd and Rhodes are among them with decisions on fifth-year options due in two weeks, and then the same thing next year with Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater.
The Vikings’ priority in free agency has been keeping their own free agents, and wise cap management – even with their free-agent moves – gives them the flexibility to do that.