The Athletic‘s Michael Lombardi can be a polarizing writer. Many readers like to bring up his misevaluation of Doug Pederson, citing it as evidence of Lombardi’s idiocy. I’m in no real position to say whether Lombardi actually is an idiot or a genius, but I do recall one insightful takeaway from reading his articles: teams don’t get in trouble when they pay elite money to elite players, they get in trouble when they pay elite money to average players. There’s a lot of wisdom here, people. As they evaluate their salary cap, the Minnesota Vikings ought to keep Lombardi’s wisdom in mind.
Let’s look at a couple examples. Patrick Mahomes, per OTC, makes $45 million per season, the highest number in the NFL. Jared Goff, in contrast, is averaging a mere $33.5 million per season. Which contract gives their team the best value? Anyone with at least half a brain in their head will see that it’s Mahomes even though he makes $11.5 million more. Indeed, Dan Campbell’s knee-biting Lions have a bad contract on their hands. Why is this the case?
Well, it comes down to on-field performance. Mahomes gives Kansas City the edge at the game’s most important position in literally every game they play. Put simply, Mahomes is the best football player on planet earth (can’t say anything definitive about the other planets; Mulder and Scully need to get back to me on alien football). Goff is such an underwhelming option that the Rams were willing to part with a ton of draft capital to move him in exchange for a QB who is about to turn 33 (Goff is only 26). Goff is getting borderline elite money to be a low-end starting QB; he just didn’t provide the Rams with good value. As South Park would say, if you pay top-dollar to a poor player, you’re going to have a bad time.
We can confidently say that paying elite money for elite production is desirable. Unless there is an extension or a cut, Harrison Smith is going to account for $10.25 million on Minnesota’s cap next season. He is worth every penny. Even as he ages, Smith continues to be one of the NFL’s preeminent safeties. Elite money for elite production is no problem at all. In fact, it’s the desired outcome. The Vikings and their fans should be thrilled that Smith is on the team for this number.
That being said, the best case scenario – at least from the front office’s perspective – is to sign players who outperform their contract. Let’s look to the hated New Orleans Saints for an example here.
Trey Hendrickson cost them just over $1 million. He had 13.5 sacks and 12 TFLs. Now that’s value. If the Vikings (or any team, for that matter) sign a player who performs so well that his next contract will likely be around 10X more expensive, then the front office did an unbelievable job of getting value.
I recognize that sacks aren’t everything. At the end of the day, even 13.5 sacks means that Hendrickson had 13-14 really nice plays. He played 558 snaps this season, so there are more than 500 snaps that the sack numbers don’t tell us about.
Even still, we can safely assume that every single NFL team would pay $1 million for 13.5 sacks (especially if it also involved getting a dozen TFLs). Why? It’s just tremendous value. In 2020, Hendrickson was the 147th most expensive edge rusher; he was tied with some guy named Aaron Donald for second most sacks in the league.
The Vikings, like every NFL team, is therefore asking: who is this year’s Trey Hendrickson? Answering that question accurately can determine whether a team succeeds or fails.
What should the Minnesota Vikings do with their salary cap? Pursue value at every turn. Ensure the players who are making elite money actually give the team elite play on the field.
From there, pursue players who will outperform the money they’re making. Folks, there’s a reason why I’ve been stubborn about the need to pursue Shelby Harris. It isn’t just the fact that he fills a massive need at 3T, it’s that he can do so for such a great deal. This past season, Harris was a top-10 DT (per PFF) and yet he only had the 64th most expensive contract for his position.
As he prepares his free agent wish list and checks it twice, Rick Spielman’s emphasis on value needs to be at an all-time high.
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