On Monday, Ndamukong Suh went on national television and caused a stir over his market. He confirmed two details: One, that Suh wasn’t going to retire at the ripe age of 35. And two, he wouldn’t return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Let the games begin. Suh basically shouted from the rooftops that the bidding war could begin, that he was open to offers. But surely, the Minnesota Vikings, with their albatross quarterback contract and (gasp) a market-rate running back, could not possibly be in the running, right? The plot thickens:
Whether the Vikings land him or not, they clearly think they have the space for a Suh-sized move. At 35, he’ll be much less expensive than he was in his prime. Still, the Raiders seemed to have the most steam, with Suh even seeming to enjoy the idea on that same NFL Live segment:
But then, the plot thickens further. On Tuesday, Josina Anderson reported that the Raiders were out of the running. Suh could still have plenty of suitors, but as of this writing, that makes the Vikings the front runner. There’s a long way to go. It’s like having a 7-point lead in the middle of the first quarter. But it’s real enough that we should probably talk about if signing Ndamukong Suh is a good idea.
What Suh offers
Age is but a number. Suh may be 35 years old, but we’re not interested in what 35-year-old defensive tackles typically can do. We’re interested in what Ndamukong Suh can do.
If you weren’t watching Tampa Bay closely, you may not have noticed that Suh still has plenty of juice. Doug Farrar laid out the film at USA Today, showing that Suh can still defeat double teams, be a weapon on stunts, and punish offenses who set him up one-on-one. His propensity to beat double teams was an especially important part of Todd Bowles‘ Super Bowl defense in 2020. Pretty much any defense can use that set of skills. If it can’t, that team needs a new defensive coordinator.
In Ed Donatell’s defense, specifically, Suh can fill one of the last holes the Vikings don’t at least have some plan for. They currently figure to start Armon Watts next to Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips in their base package. That’s more of a rotational spot than “base” implies, but if a superstar like Suh came into the building, the Vikings would likely adjust.
Suh took 717 snaps last season, about 62%. The year before that, he took 787, or about 73%. He’s not a guy who can only show up for a drive or two then go onto the bench and rest. It’s also noteworthy that he hasn’t missed a single game due to injury in his 12-year career. 35-year-old players might often be durability or stamina concerns. There’s not much reason to believe that Suh is one of them.
Base defense could become a weapon instead of a necessity with Suh. In their current state, the Vikings could fall victim to bigger, more physical teams that want to line up with two or three tight ends and run for eight yards a pop. Phillips and Tomlinson are good run defenders, but the Vikings appear to be eschewing run defense in favor of pass defense. That’s a fine idea, one Sean McVay and Raheem Morris just rode to a Super Bowl, but an exploitable one.
Imagine if a team, wanting to keep the Vikings’ speedy yet physical three-safety package off the field, decided to bring out their beefy package. Minnesota’s opponents used that strategy to prey on an aging Chad Greenway six years ago. Imagine if, instead, they found Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter, Ndamukong Suh, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Harrison Phillips with Eric Kendricks playing as a read-and-react hammer? It wouldn’t be an option.
In a strange way, the more snaps Armon Watts (or whoever ultimately wins that job) plays this year, the worse that is for him. If Watts could be replaced with Suh, and teams want to keep him off the field, that means they’re playing right into the strength the Vikings built in the first place. If their job is to try and tire out Ndamukong Suh at 35, well, good luck.
What Suh costs
All that is well and good, but how on earth can the Vikings afford this? They have some space. Right now, they’re sitting on almost $11 million in raw cap space. Some of that is set aside for the yearly costs of finalizing the 53-man roster, including practice squads. That will run them somewhere around $9 million of that, leaving about $1.9 million left over. It’s not a lot, so how can the Vikings even be in this conversation?
Suh has already earned most of the money he’ll earn over his career and hasn’t commanded the gigantic salaries like the one he got from Miami years ago. Suh signed a one-year deal last season and ultimately took home $3.2 million. That’s not too far off. Suh could simply agree to take a small, back-of-career deal that fits comfortably in the Vikings’ cap plans. If he doesn’t, there are two fairly easy options.
First, the Vikings could make extra cap space in a number of ways. A simple restructure on Dalvin Cook‘s contract could make up to $5.8 million in cap space this year, though it’s unlikely they’d need all that. They could simply make three dollars in space for each dollar they are willing to put into the next three years (with 2025 as a void year). They may only need to make an extra million or two, which places negligible cost into future years.
Second, they could give Suh a longer deal with a backloaded structure. This is functionally the same thing — placing money into future years instead of this one to sneak more players under the limit. But instead of sacrificing flexibility on Dalvin Cook, they sacrifice flexibility on Ndamukong Suh. Who would you rather be more attached to? No matter your answer, there’s a solution that works for it.
I prefer to think of costs practically instead of getting bogged down in liquid cash amounts. What would the Vikings have to sacrifice to sign Suh, and is that worth it? They’d sacrifice a bit of contingency in the case of injury issues throughout the season. They may have to sacrifice a minuscule bit of the efficacy of the option to release Cook later. They may have to accept that they’d be stuck with Suh, or some dead cap, if he doesn’t work out. These are all pretty small costs.
This all lands on a pretty lukewarm “low risk, why not” opinion on signing Suh. If it works, and there’s a lot of reason to believe that it would, he’s obviously well worth the cost. If it doesn’t, the Vikings likely won’t be punished too badly. It’s not as easy as pulling a lever, of course. Suh will likely have a lot of other suitors who might be able to throw more weight around or offer a better chance at a Super Bowl. But as far as it is in the Vikings’ power, it’s pretty clear that they should go for it.