The Vikings’ Most Lucrative Cap Moves are Also Their Most Obvious

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Put together a canvassing crew and start collecting signatures among Vikings fans for a Justin Jefferson extension. How many would put their name down in support of the move to lock up the Vikings’ most important weapon? Gotta think things would be close to 100%.

The 24-year-old receiver has made a habit of smashing records since jumping into the NFL. Were it not for an injury that kept him sidelined for seven games, Jefferson had a real shot at 2,000 yards. True, a ton would have needed to go right and the Kirk Cousins Achilles may have torpedoed the quest, but he was doing very little to short circuit the 2K hype in the initial weeks of the season, piling up 150 yards, 159 yards, 149 yards, and 85 yards leading into the Week 5 game where he hurt his hamstring.

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the ball is Harrison Smith. Like Jefferson, he was an opening-round selection from Minnesota, but he joined the NFL back in 2012. At 34, Smith is a bit more than ten years older than Jefferson.

For a time, Smith was the standard bearer for safety play in the NFL. Elite versatility: that’s what Mr. Smith brought to the table. He was the queen on Mike Zimmer’s chess board, moving all over so that he could do damage at all levels of the field. The issue is that his advancing age is coinciding with declining play and a beefy cap hit, meaning a cut is a distinct possibility.

Vikings’ Most Lucrative Cap Moves:
The Decisions Surrounding Justin Jefferson & Harrison Smith

Right off the top, the basics.

Minnesota finds itself with roughly $26.3 million in cap space. Keep in mind that that’s a number that will be moving a ton in the coming weeks and months. In a lot of ways, that’s the whole point of these thoughts about Jefferson and Smith: the decisions surrounding the pair are going to majorly impact the Vikings and the moving target that is their cap space.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) celebrates a sack during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at the potential cap ramifications of an extension for the receiver and a cut for the safety:

PlayerMoney Saved
Justin Jefferson$14,894,400
Harrison Smith$11,384,116

Go ahead and look at the potential savings again. What do you notice?

The pair of moves basically double Minnesota’s current cap room. Now, extending Jefferson doesn’t necessarily mean Minnesota will be pushing things to the max for 2024 savings, but the potential is there. These two almost expected decisions could take Minnesota’s $26,328,244 in cap space and kick it up to $52,606,760.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

2 Former Vikings Defenders Find New Teams
Sep 19, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, the conversation surrounded Eric Kendricks and Adam Thielen. Everyone could see that the budget needed a boost; everyone could see that the chance of these two remaining was very small. Predictably, Minnesota decided to move on, making way for increased financial freedom but also for a pair of young fellas to slide into more prominent roles: Ivan Pace at linebacker and Jordan Addison at receiver.

And, of course, we think of the decisions to cut Dalvin Cook while letting Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson sign elsewhere. Minnesota has been moving further and further away from the Spielman/Zimmer days, as the personnel decisions suggest.

When it comes to Smith and this year’s cap crunch, one wonders about a hearty pay cut possibly allowing him to stick around. The secondary, as a whole, is remarkably young. Camryn Bynum, Jay Ward, Lewis Cine, Mekhi Blackmon, Akayleb Evans, NaJee Thompson, and Andrew Booth Jr. are all operating on their rookie deals. Josh Metellus and Byron Murphy are just getting into their second NFL contracts (the safety turns 26 tomorrow; the corner turned 26 on Thursday).

Just as tossing a Gandalf into the Fellowship certainly has it merits, so too does it make a lot of sense to keep the safety wizard in town (if the price is right).

Nov 6, 2022; Landover, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings players celebrate after an interception by Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) against the Washington Commanders during the fourth quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are a couple years left on Smith’s deal, but the guaranteed money has come to an end. The dead money that would get left behind in a cut would be the result of his signing bonus accelerating into 2024.

Of course, there could be a restructure (possibly saving $6,670,000) or an extension (possibly saving $10,672,000). Or there could be a mutually agreed upon pay cut, similar to Jordan Hicks and Chris Reed last offseason. Maybe the veteran would welcome some guaranteed cash over the next couple years even if it meant lowering the overall pay.

Or, perhaps, even a post-June 1 cut, trimming the dead money hit in half for 2024 by pushing money into 2025.

The most obvious solution is a simple cut, but all of the options need to be considered when thinking about the best course of action for a franchise legend. Someday, Smith will get tossed into the team’s Ring of Honor and he’s a fringe Hall of Fame candidate. The decision to move on is one that shouldn’t be done hastily.

NFL: New York Jets at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 4, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) breaks up a pass intended for New York Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson (17) during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Already a Minnesota legend, Justin Jefferson doesn’t offer nearly the same degree of conflictedness. The trade theories are foolish and should be dismissed. Until Mr. Jefferson demands a trade, expect the Vikings to do everything in their power to keep him around. A massive extension is the way to do so, folks.

Minnesota’s GM is going to be considering a variety of moves to liberate more cap space, but some of the most glaringly obvious contract issues — the massive hit for Harrison Smith, the unsigned extension for Justin Jefferson — look like the places to start.

Simply moving into the expected outcomes could result in nearly doubling the team’s budget ahead of free agency.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.