A competitive free agency allows for a rebuild in the draft
As Vikings’ new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah makes his way through his first free agency in that role, it’s been all about the ‘competitive’ part of a competitive rebuild. He’s extended or restructured the contracts of Vikings’ core players- Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, and Danielle Hunter. In doing so, he’s freed up salary cap space this year by pushing it into future years to make room for several key additions to help make the Vikings more competitive now. Those additions include Za’Darius Smith, Jesse Davis, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, Chandon Sullivan, Chris Reed, and Patrick Peterson, parting ways with Michael Pierce who was replaced by Phillips. Adofo-Mensah had, prior to the Reed signing, $5.5 million in available cap space after accounting for draft picks, so not much if you also assume some amount of an emergency fund for in-season injuries.
But all those free agency moves go a long way toward covering all the holes in the Vikings roster prior to the draft and maximizing his flexibility in managing the Vikings draft. He may need that flexibility to better pursue the ‘rebuild’ part of his competitive rebuild.
Rebuilding Through the Draft
The main concern facing Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings in considering their roster over the next few years, is replacing a number of aging veterans- some with expensive contracts. Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen, and Eric Kendricks are three of the most prominent players on the wrong side of 30, but even newly signed players like Patrick Peterson and Za’Darius Smith will need to be replaced in the not too distant future.
And those considerations, along with how the draft falls and Adofo-Mensah’s draft board, may lead the Vikings new GM to take his processor’s well-trodden path in managing the draft- namely trading down. As an analytics guy with Ivy League degrees in economics, and a former Wall Street trader, Adofo-Mensah will be well versed in trading to capture value in mispriced assets.
In the NFL Draft, the Jimmy Johnson draft pick value chart remains the commonly used compensation guide for draft pick trades, even though numerous studies find that it overvalues the first 50 or so picks in the draft relative to historical performance of players drafted in those slots and undervalues later picks.
Given the Vikings have the 12th pick in the draft, one of the more overvalued picks, it wouldn’t be surprising for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to trade down with the pick, perhaps even dramatically so. Of course part of the reason to trade down would be based on how the draft fell to that point, and the Vikings own draft board, but even a move to trade with the Chiefs or Packers (overcoming a division-rival rule not to) for their two late first-round picks is a possibility- particularly if one or both of those teams are motivated to do so- perhaps for a wide receiver. One can imagine if the right cornerback falls to the Vikings at #12, Kwesi seizes that opportunity. But if not, selecting an Andrew Booth Jr. later on and gaining another pick may be the best way to rebuild the roster in the coming years.
Beyond that, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if Kwesi is willing to trade in either direction The makeup of the Vikings roster- which includes 26 draft picks in the last two drafts, 24 still with the team – suggests the Vikings don’t need a ton of Day 3 picks to fill out depth/special teams spots on the roster. The Vikings have 8 picks in this draft, but 5 of those are in the last three rounds. Given that, and how the draft unfolds, it wouldn’t be surprising for Adofo-Mensah to make a trade up at some point to land a player the Vikings feel could make a bigger impact, foregoing one or more picks on project/speculative/role players.
Looking at the current Vikings roster, there is a clear need for a starting caliber outside cornerback; a safety that can replace Harrison Smith in the next year or two and provide good depth now in the event of injury; a linebacker that can fill the same role vis-a-vis Eric Kendricks; a wide receiver to replace Adam Thielen; and a center to replace Garrett Bradbury. Beyond a cornerback, not all these needs need to be met in this year’s draft, but ideally at least half of them would be. But given that Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Adam Thielen will be a combined $50 million cap hit for the Vikings next season, and all of them are past 30, the need to arrange for their replacements is the most acute.
Trading back and landing CB Andrew Booth Jr. and WR Treylon Burks, for example, while also drafting safety Jalen Pitre, for example, could go a long way toward building the Vikings roster for the eventual departure of some core players in the next year or two.
On the other hand, taking a top cornerback at #12 – Derek Stingley Jr. or Ahmad Gardner – could provide the Vikings with a potential shut-down corner that could prove more valuable to the defense, while still potentially landing Jalen Pitre with their 2nd round pick, and maybe WR Jalen Tolbert with their 3rd round pick. Where the Vikings put their emphasis in the draft will also likely be determined by their evaluations of the depth players in those key position groups. Another reason behind this approach is if they feel strongly that an available player will give them another elite playmaker on defense. At present, really only Danielle Hunter could be put in that category. There are other good players who occasionally make big plays, but using a high first-round pick to add (hopefully) another legit playmaker at an impact position makes some sense too. Of course drafting a player at #12 doesn’t ensure he’ll become an elite playmaker, and the draft may not fall as the Vikings would like, with a top CB available at #12, so there are risks with that strategy as well.
So far Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has done a pretty good job, given his salary cap budget and future considerations, available free agents and roster needs, of filling the holes in the Vikings starting lineup in advance of the draft. His free agent signings have come at good value- he doesn’t appear to have overpaid for any of them.
What may have raised an eyebrow or two is how he has restructured some contracts- pushing cap hits further down the road- to make room for the free agents he signed. But that too may have been thoughtful- a word he likes to use in describing his philosophy and process. The reason pushing some salary cap a couple years down the road is thoughtful- rather than short-sighted- is that by 2024 the NFL salary cap is likely to spike higher given the NFL’s new media contracts- bringing an estimated $110 billion in revenue over 11 years – nearly double the previous contracts. Those begin in 2023 and run through 2033. With double the media revenue- which the NFL CBA requires that 48.5% be given to the players- that means salary cap limits will increase more than usual. From $208 million per team today, Jason Fitzgerald with Over the Cap estimated it could increase to $260 million in 2024, and $300 million by 2027. Given that, it may not be so short-sighted to push a little more salary cap space a couple years down the road. Adofo-Mensah has even been a little conservative in that regard, if you look at what the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers or the 49ers and other teams have done with their contract restructurings. Clearly NFL GMs are aware of the upcoming larger increases in the salary cap and are making plans accordingly.
But at the end of the day, most of what Adofo-Mensah has done so far is to make the Vikings more competitive this season, with the thought that older, declining players can be replaced over the next two drafts. The Vikings are fortunate that most of their offensive starters are fairly young and appear to have several good years ahead of them. But defensively there are a few older players that will need to be replaced in the next couple years. This has the advantages of lower rookie-contract salaries, and hopefully ascending play from younger players. The key, as always, is to hit on their draft picks.