The Minnesota Vikings have made it known they want embattled running back Adrian Peterson back next season, despite an expected suspension from the NFL after he was charged with child abuse last year. Several Vikings executives, including team president and owner Mark Wilf, have said they would like to see Peterson back in uniform next season, so it appears the 29-year-old will return to the roster at some point in the near future.
However, Peterson’s actual return to the field will loom over Vikings general manager Rick Spielman as he tries to retain last season’s leading rusher and addresses the team’s needs along the defensive and offensive front lines. Spielman has all that on his plate while he eyes free agency in 2016, when a number of major contributors on both sides of ball are up for new contracts.
With very few players on high-priced deals, the Vikings have a good amount of salary cap space to work with when free agency begins next month. They can also opt to go younger at a few positions in May’s NFL Draft. Thanks to promising quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entering the second-year of his bargain rookie contract, the Vikings have a solid $18.5 million in cap space and the No. 11 overall pick, with six more picks in the later rounds.
Coming off a surprising 7-9 finish last season sans superstar Peterson, the Vikings could be poised for a special year in 2015 thanks to a well-managed salary cap and very few free agents to fret over when the league’s new year begins on March 10.
Only two starters from last season’s squad will be unrestricted free agents, fullback Jerome Felton and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who together represented a little more than a $3 million cap hit. Even with Peterson sidelined, Felton was rarely used in the offense. Brinkley, however, was fourth on the team with 75 total tackles.
There is the question of how much the Vikings are willing to pay restricted free agent and last year’s leading rusher in Peterson’s absence, running back Matt Asiata. The Vikings have the right of first refusal should any team offer Asiata a new deal, and they might be willing to pay a significant premium if they believe Peterson won’t be back until the middle or late into next season.
Asiata rushed for 570 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and he’s the healthiest active back on the roster with Jerick McKinnon currently recovering from back surgery.
The Vikings also could have some depth issues at defensive end and tackle, as well as on the offensive line. Defensive tackle Corey Wootton, defensive end Tom Johnson, center Joe Berger and guard Vladimir Ducasse are all eligible for new contracts, while reserve right tackle Mike Harris is a restricted free agent.
Deals for those players will likely be on Speilman’s mind as the Vikings decide whether or not to add a fifth-year to the contracts of cornerback Harrison Smith and left tackle Matt Kalil. Smith charged back from an injury-shortened 2013 season to lead the Vikings No. 7 secondary with five interceptions, and added nine passes defended and 93 total tackles.
Kalil, a massive 6-foot-7, 308-pound tackle, was the Vikings No. 4 overall draft choice in 2012 and he struggled much of last season on an offensive line that allowed 51 total sacks, the fifth-worst mark in the NFL.
The cost of a fifth-year for either Smith or Kalil will be determined once the NFL comes out with its salary cap figure for 2015, but as Fox Sports North reports its possible Smith’s will run about $5 million and Kalil’s a whopping $10.75 million. The Vikings have until May 3 to make their final decision on Smith and Kalil. If they pass, both will be unrestricted free agents in 2016.
As of right now, Spielman and the front office are more likely to extend Smith’s deal, and wait and see how Kalil plays next season while finding another option for the offensive line in May’s draft. Paying Kalil a figure that high, which is comparable to the most expensive current salaries for the NFL’s top offensive lineman, sets a dangerous precedent should he play better next season and demand a similar wage when he’s up for free agency.
Looking forward to 2016, the Vikings may have some difficult decisions to make. Top defensive players like outside linebacker Chad Greenway, cornerback Josh Robinson and safety Robert Blanton will be up for new deals, as will guard Charlie Johnson and last year’s second-leading receiver Jarius Wright
Greenway was third on team in total tackles and contributed another three passes defended, but he will turn 33 at the end of next season and the Vikings already have versatile linebacker Anthony Barr to fill in.
Robinson was third on the team with eight passes defended, and Blanton was tops with 106 total tackles. Johnson enters the final year of the two-year, $5 million contract he signed before last season at a $2.5 million cap hit, and at 30 the Vikings are likely to play out his current deal and again seek some youth on the line in the draft.
Wright, 25, racked up 588 yards and two touchdowns off 42 receptions and had a solid chemistry with Bridgewater last season. Assuming he plays at the same level or better, Wright could outplay his total compensation of $765,000 for next season and demand a new contract before he hits free agency.
There is potential for the Vikings to free up more cap space by restructuring either Peterson or receiver Greg Jennings’ contracts. The Vikings have already paid out all of the $36 million guaranteed to Peterson, and could convert some of his $12.75 million salary for next season into a bonus. Peterson said in December he didn’t think he should take a pay cut, perhaps putting Spielman in a precarious position.
Same goes for Jennings, who’s owed $8.9 million in salary alone next year. Restructuring either could add to Minnesota’s dead money total, but they current have less than $267,000 in dead money.
At No. 11 overall, the Vikings are most likely to find Kalil’s replacement in Iowa’s Brandon Scherff, LSU’s La’el Collins, or Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi. Scouts are high on Scherff, who grew up in Denison, Iowa, just 305 miles away from Minneapolis.
If Peterson refuses to take a pay cut, and the Vikings feel they can chase some top-line free agents to help a rush defense that was No. 25 against the run last season, then selecting a running back can’t be ruled out. Cutting Peterson outright would only cost the Vikings $2.4 million in dead cap, a miniscule figure considering the $44.25 million he’s owed in salary until 2017.
The top running backs in this year’s draft are Georgia’s Toddy Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Gurley suffered a torn ACL late last year, but prior to the injury was tabbed as the most NFL-ready back in the draft. Gordon was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014, and shown a keen ability to break tackles and find holes. Both Gurley and Gordon are expected to be available by No. 11, and one could possibly slip into the second round.