Throughout the offseason, there have been some not-so-subtle hints that the makeup of the Minnesota Vikings roster is going to experience big changes.
On Friday, the Vikings terminated the contracts of veterans Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph, which created $18.5 million in salary cap space ahead of free agency. Minnesota is now more than $20 million under the cap, according to ESPN's roster management system.
Despite concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, the NFL is operating with a business-as-usual mindset, meaning the start of the new league year is still scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
The topics the Vikings will address in free agency begin to get sorted out when the legal tampering period opens at noon ET on Monday. Here's a look at the most pressing items on Minnesota's to-do list.
A Kirk Cousins contract extension: Extending the quarterback would provide significant cap space for the Vikings to be active in free agency, which is why they aimed to get an extension done ahead of March 18. But at this rate, that's not likely to happen. Multiple sources told ESPN that Minnesota has brought offers to the negotiating table but both sides have yet to agree on a number. Could an extension happen down the road? Sure. But it's more likely that Cousins, who created substantial leverage for himself with a strong 2019 season, is going to wait to see what other quarterbacks make in free agency -- particularly Dak Prescott -- before agreeing to anything. And if Cousins chooses to forgo signing an early extension and waits until he's set to hit free agency next year, he'll probably be in line to make a lot more on a new deal.
You've heard the term "team friendly" deal. As it pertains to Cousins, signing an early extension would prohibit him from earning at market value. The NFL is a business. Cousins has earned the right to fight for what he believes he's worth. Another fully guaranteed deal that could put him in the $33 million to $35 million per year range is probably not going to come by agreeing to an extension now.
How different will the defensive line look? Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said at the NFL combine he "expects" Everson Griffen to return for the 2020 season. Last month, Griffen voided the final three years of his contract, which created $13 million in cap space and made him a free agent. While sources have indicated that Griffen wants to remain in Minnesota, the money he could earn on the free-agent market, say in a place like Seattle where he could reunite with his college coach Pete Carroll, could be too much to pass up. But if precedent is anything, it points to Griffen staying in Minnesota. Last year when faced with the possibility of being cut, which would have allowed him to hit the open market, Griffen opted to take a pay cut to stay with the Vikings. It's possible he does that again.
How the Vikings handle Griffen in free agency might determine if they have the resources to keep another defensive end. Minnesota would like to bring Stephen Weatherly back, but he is further down the priority list for now. Weatherly's position flexibility could be a draw to teams looking for a rotational defensive end and earn him a second contract elsewhere if he doesn't fit in with the Vikings' plans.
The Vikings left the door open when they released Joseph, saying general manager Rick Spielman and the personnel staff "will stay in communication" with him during free agency. It means the 11-year veteran could return to Minnesota for a reduced price, which sources have indicated is a possibility. But for now, Joseph is free to test the market.
However, in today's NFL, nose tackles like Joseph carry less market value than players like Chris Jones, whose position flexibility is greater. Joseph has played a critical role in stopping the run in Minnesota (which benefits players behind him, much like Eric Kendricks), but the Vikings struggled at times last season to stop the run. Should they not re-sign Joseph, the Vikings could delegate his duties to Jaleel Johnson and/or Armon Watts or draft his replacement.
What will the Vikings do at safety? Another bit of foreshadowing is Anthony Harris' possible departure. The former undrafted free-agent-turned-fill-in starter -- who became the league leader in interceptions at his position -- set himself up for a sizable payday. That could mean a price tag anywhere from $12 million to $14 million per year. Minnesota isn't in the position to carry two expensive safety salaries.
This is a position the Vikings could target in the draft. In the meantime, they still need depth at safety. Re-signing Andrew Sendejo, who is well-versed in Zimmer's defense, or looking for another cost-effective veteran might be the way to go.
How are they prioritizing their free-agent CBs? The free-agent market isn't overwhelmed with cornerbacks, which bodes well for Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander in earning big paydays. Minnesota will need to decide if it can afford to bring back either of them.
The Vikings already lost one of their starting cornerbacks when they cut Rhodes, which long felt inevitable. Losing all of their starters at the position feels unlikely. Using the salary-cap space they created Friday allows Minnesota to prioritize keeping some of its own free agents. If the Vikings start with Waynes, who could be one of the top earners on the cornerback market, and decide to let Alexander walk, they could then find a veteran slot corner at some point in free agency and turn the page to Mike Hughes or Holton Hill at the other starting outside spot.
Is a Stefon Diggs trade possible? Spielman said all the right things when asked whether the Vikings are looking to trade the wide receiver. Minnesota has all of the leverage in this situation and is not going to unload an uber-talented player who is pivotal to the success of the offense.
But given how bleak the free-agent wide receiver class is, the Vikings could be in a position to entertain the idea of a trade. The value they could get for a player like Diggs, a top-10-15 receiver in the beginning of his prime, might fetch pivotal draft capital. If teams are calling about Diggs and have something substantial to offer in return, this is the right time for Minnesota to listen.