MANKATO, Minn. -- As they mapped out a plan to maintain the core of their talented defense, and avoid salary-cap doom in the process, the Minnesota Vikings made a notable concession. It might seem subtle to the outside observer, but in fact represented a significant philosophical shift.
For the first time in their history, the Vikings extended the contract of a player -- actually, two -- who had more than one year remaining before expiration. Most teams hold a hard line on the one-year mark, hoping to avoid a precedent that would prompt other players to line up for early re-negotiations.
In this scenario, however, the Vikings approached defensive end Everson Griffen and nose tackle Linval Joseph with early offers. Both players would have been under contract through the 2018 season, but both are under 30 and the Vikings knew their prices would only rise if they waited until next summer. In exchange for the premature deals, the Vikings received early cost certainty and a discount off what each player was likely to command next year.
It's impossible to know exactly how much money the Vikings saved, but even Joseph acknowledged he could have waited until next summer for a bigger payday -- as unnerving as that might have been. Former NFL executive Joe Banner is among those who have pointed out the consequences when players and agents take lesser deals now rather than waiting for the additional leverage of an approaching expiration.
Saturday night, I asked Joseph why he signed rather than waited. Ultimately, he was swayed not so much by the actual numbers -- up to $50 million in new money, including $31.5 million in some form of guarantees -- but the implication that his work had been so exceptional that it was worth rewarding early.
"This game doesn't last forever, at the end of the day," Joseph said Saturday of his decision to sign. "It was a great opportunity. I felt like I had outplayed my contract. For the Vikings to come to me and try to get something done, I was happy with that."
The Vikings followed a similar path with Griffen, who received $58 million in new money -- including $34 million in some form of guarantee -- in exchange for tying himself up through 2022. In total, the Vikings have committed nearly $135 million in guarantees to four defensive starters: Griffen, Joseph, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Had their interest ended with those four players, the Vikings might not have been compelled to step from beyond the one-year marker. But they also have three other young defenders to think about -- defensive end Danielle Hunter, along with linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks -- who will all be eligible for new deals next spring.
On top of that is the team's looming quarterback decision. Will the Vikings re-sign veteran Sam Bradford, at presumably $20-million-plus annually? Will Teddy Bridgewater, like Bradford a pending free agent, somehow find his way back onto the field this year and do enough to convince them to commit to him for 2018? (Bridgewater's contract will "toll," or carry over to next year, only if he remains on the physically unable to perform list for the entire 2017 season.)
No one knows how all of the pieces will fit together. The Vikings know it will be tight, which is why they took a chance on early extensions. The savings could be the difference between keeping part of this team together and preserving most of it.