MINNEAPOLIS -- The makeup of the Minnesota Vikings' defense changed in a major way Friday when the team announced it had terminated the contracts of cornerback Xavier Rhodes and nose tackle Linval Joseph.
The Vikings also released tight end David Morgan with a "failed physical" designation. Morgan, who missed the entire 2019 season with a knee injury, was in the final year of his rookie deal last season, and his $750,000 contract was set to toll if he was on the Vikings' roster in 2020. Minnesota could opt to re-sign Morgan beginning next week.
Five days ahead of the start of the new league year and free agency, which is set to begin at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, the Vikings created more than $19 million in salary-cap space by releasing the three players.
Rhodes, who carried a $12.9 million cap hit and was under contract through 2022, provided the Vikings $8.1 million in savings. Minnesota saved $10.55 million against the cap by cutting Joseph, whose $12.95 million cap hit made him one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league.
The Vikings entered Friday with an estimated $1.5 million in cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management System.
Rhodes, 29, was drafted in the first round in 2013 and signed a five-year, $70.11 million extension ahead of the 2017 season. The former Florida State product rose to prominence three years into his career, earning back-to-back Pro Bowl bids in 2016-17 and his "Rhodes Closed" moniker as one of the league's top shutdown corners.
A series of hamstring, foot and groin injuries in 2018 led to a decrease in Rhodes' efficiency. Ahead of the 2019 season, coach Mike Zimmer said the cornerback needed to "play up to that contract" but dismissed the notion that Rhodes had lost athletic ability.
Rhodes' struggles poured over into last season where he was flagged for 10 penalties, allowed a 127.8 passer rating into his coverage (fourth worst among all corners) and an 82% opponent completion percentage, per NFL Next Gen Stats (the second highest in the NFL among corners), and did not register an interception for the first time since 2013.
To mitigate issues with the pass defense, Zimmer no longer had Rhodes routinely shadow his opponent's No. 1 receiver and instead deployed a cornerback rotation.
Given Rhodes' struggles and the Vikings' need to create cap space ahead of free agency, moving on from the cornerback was a pressing decision for the organization.
"Xavier has been a Pro Bowl corner, you know?" general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL combine. "He maybe had not as great of a year as he's had in the past, but he still helped us win games. So he's just one of them, just like every other player. We talk about the practice squad guys. And then you take each one of those individual players and then assess where they're at in their career and where they're at financially, and then you make decisions."
Joseph, 31, was the first marquee free-agent signing for Zimmer after he was named Minnesota's head coach in 2014. Joseph won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2012 and signed a five-year deal with the Vikings as a free agent two years later. Joseph then inked a four-year extension worth $50 million ($31.5 million guaranteed) in 2017.
Known for his strength against the run, Joseph had been a staple along the Vikings' defensive line for the past six years. He underwent surgery on his right knee last November to repair a meniscus and returned to action for a Week 13 game at Seattle.
Joseph's playing time decreased in 2019 due to injuries, which made way for an increase in snaps for backup nose tackle Jaleel Johnson and rookie Armon Watts. Minnesota finished the regular season ranked 13th in rushing defense and struggled against the run in the playoffs.
"Both Linval and Xavier have personified what it means to be a Minnesota Viking since joining our organization, providing incredible leadership on the field, in the locker room and within the community," Spielman said in a team statement.
"We are all grateful for their hard work and all they've done to help build our culture here in Minnesota. This decision comes now to allow Linval and Xavier to enter free agency prior to the start of the new league year. We are sincerely appreciative of their contributions and commitment and will remain in communication as all parties navigate free agency moving forward."