The here-and-now marks the designated portion of the calendar when the Minnesota Vikings will enact roster cuts to increase room under the salary cap. This prepares the organization for free agency in two weeks, and the Vikings are underwater on the financial ledger this offseason.
On Tuesday, Kyle Rudolph was released, freeing up about $5 million in the budget for general manager Rick Spielman to spend elsewhere. Rudolph can now sign anywhere in the NFL and continue his impressive career. Teams love handsy tight ends, so the Notre Dame alumnus should have no problem finding employment.
Rudolph’s exodus won’t be the end for roster trimming. In fact, it should be considered the start of roster finagling. Rudolph was the first domino because he deserved the fanfare of a standalone announcement. He was a franchise stalwart as an on-the-field performer and an off-the-field leader. Rudolph and Harrison Smith are the only two players from last year’s team bridging the Leslie Frazier era with Mike Zimmer’s tenure. Now, Smith takes the title of longest-tenured Viking.
To be clear, the Vikings depth chart will not require a flurry of cuts. Instead, a few noteworthy transactions will transpire to give Spielman some cap flexibility.
Shamar Stephen (DT)
That maneuvering will continue with defensive tackle Shamar Stephen’s release. The only question is when. Stephen’s cap hit is around $5 million for 2021, and to put in plainly, that is too expensive for his services. Stephen is an ideal role-playing commodity in a defense behind a robust 3-technique defensive tackle or nose tackle, but he is not a player [at this point of his career] that should command $5 million and start 16 games per season.
The team has employed Stephen as a starter for the last two seasons – at 3-technique in 2019 and nose tackle in 2020 when Michael Pierce opted out for coronavirus concerns.
Stephen is a wonderful player to have on a roster as a DT2 but not as a startable DT with a $5 million price tag. Minnesota’s pass rush in 2020 was abnormally puny, so sliding Stephen back to 3DT does not feel like a blueprint for improvement. Again – he is best suited for reservist work, and that could even occur with the Vikings, albeit at a smaller annual salary.
Dan Bailey (K), maybe
Any matter regarding Vikings kickers provokes immediate and violent eye rolls among fans. Rightfully so.
Dan Bailey had a tumultuous year in 2020. As a result, it is not ironclad that he will return to the Vikings. Spielman signed journeyman kicker Greg Joseph in February, presumably to create competition for the roster spot – or pave the way for a Bailey release.
If Bailey is waived, that will take place in the next two weeks. $1.8M of his salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 19th. What does or does not happen before that date is breadcrumb evidence for starting kicking duties in 2021. The Joseph era has a decent chance at fruition if Minnesota drops Bailey. If March 19 passes and Bailey is still on the roster, get ready for a kicking competition this summer. And Vikings enthusiasts know all about this process, for better or worse.
The coronavirus ravaged the NFL’s bottom line, and the league decided to slice a bit off the 2021 salary cap for all teams as a result. In an ordinary season, no surprise cuts would be on the agenda for the Vikings (and the cuts probably still won’t happen).
Yet, with the necessity for enhanced cap mobility, a move like the release of Riley Reiff or Anthony Barr is not out of the realm of consequence. Barr would be especially odd because he is one of the thick straws that stir the drink. The team played miserably on defense without him during the pandemic season. The statistical merits of his play are often debated, but Barr is a staple of Mike Zimmer’s defense – whether one cares to admit it or not.
Should Spielman have offensive line on the brain for this April’s draft, Riley Reiff is wee a bit expendable. But cutting a good pass-protecting asset when the team poorly protected Kirk Cousins in 2020 would be borderline feckless.
“If there was ever a time” for stunning cap casualties, 2021 is it. That’s why Vikings enthusiasts should keep an eye on Barr and Reiff. Too, if the team jettisons Reiff, it is strongly indicative that offensive line is forthcoming in the 1st Round of the 2021 NFL Draft.