Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Report: Vikings set to re-sign Anthony Barr: where do they go from here?

Photo: Vikings.com

After a crazy twist of events, linebacker Anthony Barr is reportedly re-signing with the Vikings. How will Minnesota create cap space and what impact does this have on their offseason strategy? Daniel House takes a closer look. 

During NFL free agency, you simply never count anything out. The latest madness is proof.

On Monday night, it appeared Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr was heading to the "Big Apple." The New York Jets were set to pay him premium edge rusher money on the open market. Barr was about to play a prominent role as a pass rusher in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme. It likely meant he would be featured in a system similar to his playing days at UCLA. Barr intended to join the Jets, but hadn’t signed the contract yet, according to NFL Network. He thought about the decision overnight and changed his mind. The Vikings offered Barr a five-year, $67.5 million deal and it will reportedly become official at the start of the NFL's new league year, according to Ian Rapoport. The deal also includes $33 million in guarantees and can be worth $77.5 million with incentives.

Despite a tight cap situation, head coach Mike Zimmer and the front office managed to retain one of the most important pieces of his defense. Barr’s speed, length and mental awareness gives Zimmer so much flexibility from a scheme standpoint. All of the physical tools blend with his football intelligence and ability to make in-game adjustments to the Vikings’ defense. His range and tackling skills also limit an opponent's yards after the catch numbers. When Barr’s effort is consistent, he can be the most impactful player on the field.

Despite those inconsistencies, it’s clear Mike Zimmer values his skill set and is only beginning to tap his full potential. There were a few moments last season where Barr was used in a pass rushing capacity. One can expect him to continue increasing this role in seasons to come. With his rare build and athletic ability, he has the versatility to play off the edge in pass rushing downs. There were many moments in training camp where he was working in drills with the defensive linemen to master the technique. 

In 13 starts last season, Barr posted 55 total tackles and three sacks. He battled a hamstring injury for a portion of 2018, which put a damper on his overall productivity. As Barr transcends the money normally allotted to off ball linebackers, the expectations for his performance and versatility will continue to increase. Also, if the Vikings are forced to part with defensive end Everson Griffen, Barr could play more off the edge on pass rushing downs.

One of the most underrated aspects of retaining Barr is the continued continuity that will occur in Minnesota’s defense. Most players knows the intricacies of each other on the field and can make adjustments on the fly. It's something that makes scheming against the Vikings a little more difficult.

This signing also helps the Vikings continue to build upon their young core. Over the past two years, they’ve now retained Barr, defensive end Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Stefon Diggs. Despite signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a large, fully-guaranteed contract last March, they managed to still re-sign key players. With Barr returning, Sheldon Richardson is the main defensive contributor the team lost this offseason. They replaced him with former seventh-round pick Shamar Stephen. Stephen, a defensive tackle, started all 16 games for the Vikings in 2016 and can help the team restore some of the leaky aspects of their run defense. Minnesota finished fifteenth against the run last year, but chunk plays put the defense in less favorable late-down situations. Stephen can help in this area, has familiarity with the scheme and possesses versatility to also backup Linval Joseph at nose tackle.

Before factoring in Barr's cap hit, the Vikings have invested the most cap space (48.1%) into their defense in the NFL, according to Spotrac. This number will increase once Barr is factored into the equation. It means adding contributors to the offense via the draft will be extra important.

Nonetheless, the Vikings’ top-ten players in average salary per year are under contract for at least the next two seasons. Many of them are under club control until 2024. After signing Shamar Stephen to a three-year, $12.45 million deal on Monday, Minnesota entered Tuesday with a little more than $8 million in available cap space. After signing Barr, the Vikings will need to release or restructure one of those top-ten contracts. The most logical guess is defensive end Everson Griffen. 

If he is outright released, the Vikings will free up $10.5 million in salary cap (includes $1.2 million in dead cap). They could also search for a trade partner to alleviate the same amount of cap space, while getting a draft pick in return. The decision will have to come soon, as Griffen’s contract becomes fully guaranteed at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon. According to Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune, Griffen has been offered a restructure. If that’s the case, they could offer him more up front bonus money to lower his overall per year clip/cap hit. KSTP’s Darren Wolfson also posed the idea that they could eliminate years left on his deal, allowing him to hit free agency next season. One way or another, it feels like Griffen will not be returning at his current cap hit.

Outside of Griffen taking less money or getting traded, there are two other moves that make sense to give the Vikings necessary breathing space.

With the team’s growing depth at the cornerback position, they could look to trade Trae Waynes. Waynes is in the final year of his contract and it is unlikely Minnesota can afford to bring him back next season. By moving him, the Vikings could free $9 million in cap, while possibly gaining a second round pick in return. They would not only receive cap space, but gain draft capital to fill important needs, such as the offensive line.

The Vikings could also approach tight end Kyle Rudolph about a contract restructure. His current cap hit sits at a little more than $7 million. If the Vikings could stretch out his deal or convert some of the per year hits to bonuses, they could receive important cap relief. On Sunday, Rudolph’s agent said the team hasn’t approached them about a restructure and expressed interest in keeping him into the future. It doesn’t mean they won’t approach him now, especially since they managed to re-sign Anthony Barr below the estimated output.

In addition to these moves, the front office could approach other players about restructures. Wide receiver Adam Thielen is likely to receive an extension and more overall money. Perhaps they can work out a deal to increase his compensation, while shuffling some of his cap hits to future seasons (more up front bonuses). I’m not sure that would provide much help at this point, especially considering he is signed to such a team-friendly deal at the moment.

The most logical scenarios seem to involve either restructuring/cutting two veterans or trading a player like Trae Waynes at a position with current depth. If they move a few of these pieces or restructure other deals, they can potentially make at least one mid-tier signing after the first wave of free agency begins.

It all comes down to how aggressive the Vikings want to be with the roster. After signing Barr, will they clear just enough space to have breathing room? That feels most likely, but could they make several moves to possibly complete one additional mid-tier free agent signing? Those questions will be answered soon.

For now, it’s all about getting under the cap and that starts by making at least one difficult decision.

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