Tom Dahlin/Viking Update

Sunday slant: Planning for future has risks for Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have plenty of salary-cap space, but most of that is likely to be allocated for extensions.

The key “cover your assets” phrase in financial planning is “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

The Minnesota Vikings found that out the hard way over this past season when it came to exercising the fifth-year options on their three 2013 first-round draft picks.

When Rick Spielman worked his way to the podium toward the end of the first day of the 2013 NFL Draft, after the Vikings made their second selection, and was addressing the media, he was alerted to something that required his attention. His lieutenants working the phones for a potential trade back into the first round found a taker – the New England Patriots – and Spielman couldn’t have felt more fulfilled. He was getting a third first-round pick and used it to select Cordarrelle Patterson, a raw but speedy receiver and return man, to add to the selections of Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.

One of the reasons Spielman was so happy to get Patterson in the first round was because of a paragraph in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that ensured teams could assign a fifth-year option on the contracts of all first-round picks. When it came time to do that last May, the Vikings exercised the options on Floyd and Rhodes, but not Patterson.

Three years after those picks, times had changed. Last spring, the Vikings were waiting to see if Patterson could develop into a reliable receiver and declined to pick up his option. They were more convinced they had worthy investments in Floyd and Rhodes. Turns out, Rhodes has been living up to his first-round billing while Floyd’s injuries not only derailed his 2016 season but also forced the Vikings to guarantee his option – a double-whammy.

More recently, head coach Mike Zimmer revealed that Floyd is still dealing with “this thing in his leg” and the Vikings are “waiting for him to get healthy,” as they were after Week 1 and were continually disappointed throughout the rest of the 2016 season.

Patterson is gone to Oakland, Floyd is a question mark and Rhodes appears well worth it. So, 1-for-3. That’s actually about what the batting average was for all the teams with their 2013 first-round picks, where Rhodes has turned out to be one of the best selections, despite being the 25th overall pick and coming two spots after the Vikings had selected Floyd.

On the other hand, the Vikings have gotten great production out of many of their mid-round defensive ends – Everson Griffen and Brian Robison in the fourth rounds and Danielle Hunter in the third round. Robison just signed a restructured contract that reduced his guaranteed money in 2017 but added another year that essentially makes up for the lost portion of guaranteed money this year.

The Vikings also gave an extension to Adam Thielen, who was a restricted free agent, keeping the former undrafted rookie who nearly hit a thousand yards receiving in 2016 on board for four more years.

The Robison move saved the Vikings $1.4 million in cap space this year and the release of Scott Crichton put the Vikings around $19.5 million under the cap.

So why all the finagling of contracts at a time when free-agent signings are dwindling and when Minnesota already has nearly $20 million in cap space? It’s all about the future.

The team likely will be looking to get several of their players with expiring contracts after the 2017 season into new deals before the end of the season. 

QB Sam Bradford’s deal is up after this year, as is the contract of injured Teddy Bridgewater. With uncertainty surrounding Bridgewater’s status, Bradford is the likely target for the future.

The Vikings could live without Floyd, given all the injury issues he has been dealing with, but clearly they will want to keep Xavier Rhodes beyond 2017 and it likely will cost more than his $8 million salary for this year.

Anthony Barr could warrant a fifth-year option for 2018, but that could cost about $12 million because he was a top-10 pick. Better to get him into a longer deal that would average less.

Then there are older players Terence Newman, Joe Berger and Tom Johnson to consider, along with guys like Emmanuel Lamur, Jerick McKinnon, Shamar Stephen, Datone Jones, Marcus Sherels – all with contracts expiring after 2017.

None in that last cluster is a must-sign, but having the flexibility to do so helps in the ever-churning world of NFL rosters.

For many of those players – Rhodes being the exception – the best approach could be a wait-and-see tactic. Can Bradford stay healthy? How is Bridgewater progressing from injury? How will Barr respond after a down season compared to his potential? How much longer can the guys approaching membership in the AARP hold up? What will the new batch of rookies bring and who will they make expendable?

If past performance on top picks, big signings or fifth-year options has taught us anything, it’s that there is no guarantee of future, comparable results. 

Still, at some point, NFL teams have to take an educated gamble, which is why having plenty of cap space and not spending it frivolously is a wise approach.

There is roster-building ahead, especially through the draft, but for now the key concentration should be exploring a couple of extensions on the most talented guys that drive the engines.

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