Cap-strapped Vikings face tough choices on defensive line

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings still find themselves in a tough situation with the salary cap as free agency approaches. According to ESPN’s Roster Management System, the Vikings rank 30th in available spending with approximately $5.3 million in cap space.

The Vikings have a handful of personnel decisions that need to be made as soon as possible to free up money. Contract restructures are at the forefront for players at the risk of becoming cap casualties. There are also those Minnesota can move on from with little penalty (i.e. Andrew Sendejo, Mike Remmers) to gain back millions to spend.

Minnesota’s financial bind could reshape the way this roster looks in 2019, particularly on the defensive line. The franchise-tag window closed Tuesday without the Vikings placing the tender on defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, and he is headed toward free agency when the new league year starts on Wednesday.

Defensive end Everson Griffen is also part of the cap discussion. On the third day of the league year, Griffen’s $10.9 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed. There was buzz coming out of the NFL combine about a restructuring of Griffen's contract, but there has been no deal.

Richardson and Griffen are staples along the Vikings' star-studded defensive line. Richardson helped boost the 3-technique position with his athleticism, strength and power as a pass-rusher, allowing him to keep the quarterback high in the pocket so defensive ends like Griffen and Danielle Hunter can work the edge.

Griffen, who has been a top-10 edge rusher for the better part of the past five years, is not only the Vikings' emotional leader but a major part of the pass rush. While age certainly plays a factor (Griffen will be 32 in his 10th season), he notched 5.5 sacks in 2018 despite missing five weeks while tending to his mental health.

The Vikings have come to a critical juncture with Griffen. A restructure could work two ways: Minnesota could ask Griffen to take a pay cut or go the conversion route, taking his 2019 salary which would count against the cap and converting that into a signing bonus. Either route would take pressure off the cap and allow the Vikings to keep one of their defensive staples. If they choose to release Griffen as a cap casualty because an agreement cannot be reached, the move would free up $10.5 million in cap space. The trade rumors involving Griffen are just that for now, but his value alone could yield a handful of important picks to boost Minnesota’s draft capitol in April.

Cutting Griffen would be a difficult move regardless of the money it kicks back. Stephen Weatherly showed an ability to fill in for Griffen last season, but whether he’s the answer to take over that job on a full-time basis remains to be seen. If Minnesota has to move on from Griffen, the likelihood that the Vikings draft a defensive lineman with an early pick, especially with such a talent-rich group that will be available in the first and second rounds, increases significantly.

Richardson’s situation is also a tricky one. The 28-year-old tackle signed a one-year prove-it deal with Minnesota last season with an underlying goal of getting the sack numbers needed to earn his next big payday. Richardson, who had 4.5 sacks, is probably in line for a big contract given his age and production.

Sources have indicated that the Vikings want to keep Richardson in Minnesota, and the interest is mutual. The market for Richardson could be somewhere in the range of what Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett is set to make on the franchise tag this season ($15.2 million). It might make sense for Minnesota to work out another short-term or one-year deal with Richardson that ranks above the $8 million he made this season, but not at the peak of what he’d make in 2020 and beyond.

Between the likes of Quinnen Williams, Jeffrey Simmons, Christian Wilkins, Rashan Gary and Ed Oliver, who have all piqued the Vikings' interest, the draft might be the best place for Minnesota to address Richardson’s replacement. Even if they are able to work out a deal to keep Richardson in Minnesota for another season, the chance that one of those elite players is available when the Vikings pick at 18 could give them enough incentive to grab another tackle for now and for later.

Minnesota’s defense accounts for more than $95.6 million of the cap in 2019. While it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Vikings have to part ways with two key defensive linemen, their cap situation may force them into executing tough decisions in the coming days.