The $7.625 million cap hit Rudolph carries in 2019 is an issue. Minnesota has less than $1.3 million in cap space and can't afford to pay him at that price while accounting for other areas of need on the roster.
The Vikings drafted tight end Irv Smith Jr., which further put Rudolph's future in question, and tabled and then subsequently resumed talks over working out an extension.
Rudolph, 29, has said he's "too young" to take a pay cut, and it doesn't appear the Vikings have asked. During the first week of voluntary OTAs, which Rudolph is attending, he confirmed a report by Pro Football Talk that claimed the Vikings offered him a five-year extension. The report said the deal would give Rudolph “a new-money average among the highest-paid tight ends in the league" and is expected to lower his cap hit this season.
"That’s what they’re working at," Rudolph said on Wednesday. "We’re in a tough situation. Everybody knows that. That’s why we have the best salary-cap guy in the NFL and I believe I have one of the best agents. They’re working really hard."
Many questions have to be answered on the way to the Vikings deciding Rudolph’s future. Let's begin with the basics.
How did we get to this point?
Rudolph signed a five-year extension in 2014 with $18.5 million in guaranteed money. His yearly cap hits did not become an issue until 2019, when he accounts for just under 4 percent ($7.625 million) of the Vikings' salary cap in the final year of his deal.
The Vikings have just $1,255,486 in cap space, and a major reason for their financial conundrum is the three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract quarterback Kirk Cousins signed in March 2018. Cousins' $29 million cap charge makes things difficult for the Vikings' front office, which cut offensive lineman Mike Remmers ($2.7 million in savings), declined safety Andrew Sendejo’s option ($5.5 million) and restructured defensive end Everson Griffen ($4.3 million) and linebacker Eric Kendricks ($1.72 million) to create space to pursue free agents and sign their draft class.
Why do they have to reduce Rudolph’s cap charge?
After Kendricks’ contract was restructured, which allowed the Vikings to sign first-rounder Garrett Bradbury last week, it seemed like things might work out. The Vikings can technically afford to keep Rudolph at his current salary because they’re under the cap.
But that would make things extremely tight. At the end of the preseason, Minnesota will need to allocate anywhere from $1.5 million to $2 million for its practice squad. Having little to no spending money is a dangerous situation during the regular season when injuries force teams into trades or to sign players on the open market.
Minnesota also needs to plan for the next few years, particularly 2020 when it is projected to be $8 million over the estimated $200 million cap. If the Vikings and Rudolph agreed to an extension that awarded him new money and more years, his cap hit could be reduced considerably for 2019 and any additional space could be rolled over to the following season.
When does this need to get resolved?
Rudolph would like to know as soon as possible where he’s going to be playing next season but said during OTAs that he doesn't anticipate talks lingering into training camp.
"It’s not a bad situation to be in," Rudolph said. "I get to come out every day and practice with my teammates. A bad situation would have been getting cut back in March and trying to find a job. I have a job. So that’s the good thing. I get to come out here each and every day and practice with my teammates, and whatever happens, happens."
Rudolph wants to finish his career in Minnesota. The Vikings could save $7.625 million against the cap if they cut Rudolph at any time (all they would owe him is $100,000 for a workout bonus), but it doesn’t make sense to do that just yet.
The Vikings aren’t up against a stringent timeline. If they’re eyeing a trade for Rudolph, finding a partner and the right compensation could take weeks to months depending on what happens during OTAs and mandatory minicamps (i.e. injuries, other teams needing to find better fits among their personnel, etc.).
What if they can't agree on a deal?
Rudolph has said that he’s not going to take a pay cut, and the Vikings don’t want to pay him what he’s set to earn. The only likely option of him staying in Minnesota is with an extension.
It's critical to figure out Rudolph's market now and in the future. He has been consistent, ranking in the top 10 among tight ends in receptions and yards and was in the top 15 in touchdowns last season, but finding the appropriate price range could get tricky. For the sake of this argument, slating Rudolph in the Dwayne Allen ($3.25 million per year) to Tyler Eifert range ($4 million per year) seems like a safe bet.
If Rudolph's base salary was reduced somewhere in that range over the reported five-year deal, along with more guarantees in the form of a sizable signing bonus, both parties would make out well. Rudolph gets what he believes he's earned and the Vikings get to keep a top offensive asset and earn back cap space. Given what PFT reported about that five-year deal containing "a new-money average among the highest-paid tight ends in the league," Rudolph could make even more than that.
The Vikings could cut or trade Rudolph if neither side agrees to the restructured terms.
Why don’t the Vikings restructure other deals?
Kendricks converted $2.15 million of his base salary into a signing bonus to create $1.72 million to sign Bradbury last week. He did not have a choice in restructuring because it was the team’s decision.
A handful of players -- Cousins, Kendricks, Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Xavier Rhodes, Stefon Diggs, Anthony Barr -- have "automatic conversions" clauses written into their deals, per a source with knowledge of the language of the contracts.
That is a mechanism teams use to get some salary-cap space for the current year. Teams don’t always evoke this action because it pushes more cap pressure to the following year, so it’s not a method for long-term planning. If teams don’t have it do it, there’s no reason to. This measure is usually used in a pinch because it’s usually better to absorb more of a player’s cap hit in the current year than pushing it down the line. If teams start doing this with multiple players (like the New Orleans Saints), there will be a day of reckoning when the prorated money adds up and the players’ values don’t equate. That forces teams to either pay much higher cap hits or release the player.
What will it mean if they part with Rudolph?
Rudolph and Smith are two different types of tight ends, both of whom are necessary for this offense to be successful.
But rookie tight ends typically aren’t plug-and-play pieces on offense. According to Pro Football Focus, only eight rookie tight ends in 2018 saw more than 20 targets, while some of the worst blocking grades belonged to first-year tight ends.
Rudolph’s scoring efficiency, particularly in the red zone, declined in his first year with Cousins, but he was also used heavily as a blocker with mixed results. Without Rudolph, the Vikings' tight end depth chart looks pretty thin with Smith, David Morgan and Tyler Conklin.
Being able to utilize two-tight end sets is critical for this offense to achieve some of its goals.
"It’s something, an element that we’ve never had here in my nine years being here," Rudolph said. "It forces defenses to play with three linebackers, and that allows us to control the game. When we go out there in three-wide sets. People always talk about creating mismatches, well, now they have five DBs on the field and, yeah, there’s still mismatches, there’s size mismatches, but now we can kind of control and do things how we want to do them."
How does this end?
Best-case scenario: Rudolph and the Vikings agree to a multiyear contract extension that will allow him to remain in Minnesota for the rest of his career.
If that doesn’t happen, the chances of Rudolph being on the roster for Week 1 are slim.
Minnesota has time to sort this out. If the Vikings can find a trade partner and garner proper compensation (sources told ESPN the idea of a third-round pick for Rudolph has been shopped), they can get needed salary-cap relief. Then the Vikings could look to sign a cheaper veteran tight end and Rudolph can start the next phase of his career in a place where he’ll get his money and the chance to hit free agency in 2020 or lock up a long-term deal before then.