New Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah won’t have much time to get his new office organized before he’s asked to make some franchise-altering decisions.
After adding input on the team’s next head coach, a huge decision in its own right, Adofo-Mensah will step into the inferno that is the Vikings salary cap situation. Kirk Cousins’ minefield of a contract skyrockets to the top of Adofo-Mensah’s priority list, but the new GM also has a half dozen other contracts to contemplate as he looks to put his stamp on the Vikings roster.
Let’s dig into his biggest upcoming decisions:
1. Kirk Cousins
It all starts with the quarterback and trickles down from there.
Consider the options facing Adofo-Mensah. On one hand, he can double down on an expensive quarterback with a low local approval rating and only one playoff win in his career. To do so, he’d likely have to commit more guaranteed money to Cousins and extend the life of his contract while still having to pinch pennies in 2022. The last time the Vikings restructured Cousins’ contract they lowered his cap hit by 32 percent. Doing that for his current $45 million number would save $14.4 million, enough to get the Vikings close to cap compliancy but not enough to sign all the free agents needed to field a competent roster.
Door No. 2 is using his first weeks on the job to pursue a Cousins trade that allows Adofo-Mensah to enter free agency and the draft knowing what cards he’s holding. If he knows Cousins’ money is cleared from the books, he’ll have fewer veterans with whom to haggle over contracts in March (we’ll get into those shortly) and more money to spend on building out a roster. If he has extra Day 1 or Day 2 picks from the deal, he’ll have the assets to start finding future pieces that his coaching staff wants in the building.
The reality is that keeping Cousins around ties Adofo-Mensah’s hands from a roster-building standpoint, even if Cousins offers a higher baseline of performance than a mystery rookie or bridge quarterback. Investing in Cousins would have massive ramifications elsewhere on the roster, which is an awfully binding decision for a new GM to make.
If Cousins sticks around, even at a reduced cap number, Adofo-Mensah will have pressure to audit the contracts of numerous key veterans.
2. Danielle Hunter
For a second straight offseason, the Vikings could be looking at a contract standoff with Danielle Hunter.
The Vikings star defensive end is set to make an untenable $26.12 million against the cap, a number higher than Myles Garrett’s league-leading $25 million per year at the edge rusher position.
While Minnesota could lower Hunter’s cap hit through an extension, he would still shape up as the team’s second-most expensive asset behind Cousins. That’s a risky proposition for a player that’s only played seven games in two seasons, but then again, you’ve gotta pay for pass rush, and Hunter proved to be one of the league’s best through seven games in 2021. Extrapolate his pressures over a full season, and he would’ve finished tied for fourth in the NFL.
That’s the type of production that will pique the interest of the new GM. Adofo-Mensah’s run in San Francisco saw the 49ers invest at a league-high rate in defensive ends, and their pass rush has been no small factor as to why they’ve two deep playoff runs with Jimmy Garoppolo as their quarterback.
Hunter is one of the few defensive veterans on the Vikings roster still in his physical prime. His age and production suggest he’s worth building around; his price, though, will be steep. That counts for trade value, too, so if Adofo-Mensah is interested in pick hoarding, he could likely get a haul for Hunter, who has an $18 million roster bonus kick in on March 20.
3. Dalvin Cook
Adofo-Mensah has recently only been around offenses that rely on a robust rushing attack, so he’d likely appreciate Dalvin Cook’s impact. He was also a part of a 49ers team in 2019 that spent a league-high dollar figure on the running back position and a Browns team last year that was fourth, so it’s not as if Adofo-Mensah is automatically the grim reaper for Cook.
Presumably, if next year’s quarterback isn’t Cousins, the Vikings will appreciate a strong rushing attack that can operate around a younger or less experienced QB. Cook obviously enhances that. His cost, of course, is the primary concern at $12 million against the cap.
Cutting Cook after June 1 would save the Vikings nearly $9 million… or the Vikings could convert his salary to signing bonus and deal with his dead money in future years, which the previous regime usually opted to do.
Either way, Adofo-Mensah doesn’t need to spend $12 million on Cook next year. It’s just a matter of whether he wants to rip the Band-Aid now or kick the can down the road. Keeping Cook around seems like the likeliest outcome, but if Cousins stays and forces Adofo-Mensah’s hand, Cook’s lack of positional value puts a target on his back.
4. Michael Pierce/Dalvin Tomlinson
If you’re trying to find the most likely cap casualty at cut day next year, you may have to look to the big men in the middle of the defensive line.
It was redundant to sign Pierce and Tomlinson in the first place, and their presence had little impact on the run defense as teams simply decided to avoid challenging them. If Adofo-Mensah wants to save money up front, he could cut Pierce early in the offseason to save $6.5 million, or he could wait and let the coaches figure it out as Pierce and Tomlinson duke it out next August.
Pierce has a $2 million dead cap figure as a post-June 1 cut, and Tomlinson has $2.5 million dead as a post-June 1 cut.
An argument could be made for either to stick around.
Pierce has two years left on his deal versus Tomlinson’s one year and likely demands more attention from offensive lines. He’s also a terrific locker room presence and even showed some pass-rushing chops in Week 1 last year with two sacks.
Tomlinson is a bit more versatile on the inside and doesn’t have as many health concerns as Pierce.
Both have good qualities to offer, but will the new coaching staff want dual nose tackles on the roster?
May the best big man win.
5. Harrison Smith
Harrison Smith almost certainly won’t see the end of his four-year contract extension in 2025 without some kind of intervention. But how many years will he see? The contract starts with a somewhat reasonable $13.4 million cap hit in 2022 and escalates quickly from there.
There’s probably no need to act on Smith’s deal yet, but that day could come as soon as next year when a restructure looms. For now, Adofo-Mensah should appreciate having a plug-and-play safety that makes the defense better.
6. Eric Kendricks
As I speculated in Tuesday’s “future of the Vikings” piece, Kendricks is still extraordinarily useful because of his coverage skills, which ranked in the top 10 league wide for a third straight year. He did, however, regress badly in run defense and missed 17 tackles last year.
It shouldn’t be a hard decision to keep the heart and soul of the Vikings defense, but Kendricks hits a decision point after 2022 when he has just $1.93 million of dead cap. As I wrote in Tuesday’s piece:
The 2022 season may have the feel of a prove-it year for Kendricks, who becomes extremely cuttable if he regresses further under a new coaching staff. If he returns to his 2020 form, he’ll probably have grounds for extension talks.
Kendricks’ ability to make a strong first impression on Adofo-Mensah will be critical.
7. Adam Thielen
Despite his late-season injury, only five receivers in the NFL had higher passer ratings when targeted than Adam Thielen. The guy is still good.
Thielen’s contract is pricey at almost $17 million against the cap this year, but it’s also not unfair for his performance. The soon-to-be 10th-year Viking has the 12th-highest average salary amongst receivers, which feels about right. And if Adofo-Mensah ever needs to play hardball with Thielen, it’s possible Thielen would accept a team-friendly restructure down the road to help him retire a Viking in his home state.
Prioritizing a deep room of receivers is a must for either Cousins or the next quarterback, so there’s no sense considering cutting ties with Thielen before he shows any real signs of decline. If the Vikings’ next offense spreads the field more than previous years, they’ll need as many pass-catching threats as possible.