Harrison Smith takes pay cut to stay; status of other Vikings’ veterans unclear
The secondary the Vikings will use under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores continued to take shape on Thursday: safety Harrison Smith agreed to a restructured deal for a 12th season in Minnesota, while cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. spent part of his introductory news conference talking about how much he enjoys playing the man coverage schemes Flores has frequently used.
For now, Smith and Murphy are the two most experienced members of a Vikings secondary that figures to be more aggressive under Flores than it was under Ed Donatell. Murphy, who counts former Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson as a mentor from the season the two spent together in Arizona, said Thursday how excited he is to play with Smith, as well.
"I saw that news, and I was like, 'Man, that's a great player,'" Murphy said of the six-time Pro Bowler. "Knowing the type of leader he is on this team, that's a big thing to have someone like that. I can't wait to get on the field beside him."
Thursday's events, though, also served as a reminder the Vikings' defensive arrangement for 2023 is far from finished. They first delayed by an hour the news conference that was supposed to introduce their three free-agent acquisitions, then brought out only Murphy and former Ravens tight end Josh Oliver while postponing former Saints pass rusher Marcus Davenport's appearance.
The Vikings, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, were still working on the details of Davenport's one-year deal. While Smith's restructured contract saved the Vikings $6.7 million of cap space for 2023, reducing his base salary from $14.7 million to $8 million and including up to $2 million in incentives, the team could still have work to do to fit Davenport's contract, reported to be worth $13 million, under the salary cap.
They made no moves on Thursday with edge rusher Za'Darius Smith or running back Dalvin Cook, a day before both players have salary guarantee triggers in their contracts. Smith, who posted what appeared to be a farewell to the Vikings on social media earlier this month and reportedly asked for his release, would have $5.05 million of his $9.45 million base salary guaranteed on Friday. Cook would have $2 million of his $10.4 million base salary fully guaranteed, though the amount was already guaranteed against injury and could be coming to the running back anyway, given the fact he had shoulder surgery last month.
Cutting Smith would save the Vikings $12.16 million in cap space for 2023. If the Vikings can work out a trade for Smith, they could clear the same amount of cap space while receiving something in return for the 30-year-old, who posted 10 sacks in 2022.
Releasing Cook would save $5.9 million, while trading him would save the Vikings $7.9 million. The fact the Vikings and running back Alexander Mattison agreed to a two-year deal on Wednesday night could indicate a bigger role for Mattison in 2023 and put Cook's future into some question. But his shoulder injury could make Friday's deadline moot and give the Vikings more time to explore trade possibilities, if they can find other ways to clear cap space.
The Vikings kept some depth at center and guard by agreeing to terms with Austin Schlottmann on Thursday, a league source confirmed. Schlottmann started four games last season for center Garrett Bradbury, who also agreed to return on a three-year deal this week. The Vikings have retained six other internal free agents: Mattison, kicker Greg Joseph, long snapper Andrew DePaola, quarterback Nick Mullens, tight end Ben Ellefson and outside linebacker Kenny Willekes.
The move the Vikings made with Harrison Smith helped their salary cap situation, while ensuring their longest-tenured player would stay with the team.
Smith had spent the week weighing the option of a restructured deal with the Vikings against interest from a number of other teams; the Bengals were believed to be a possible landing spot for the 34-year-old if he had reached the open market.
In the end, Smith accepted a pay cut with the Vikings, the team that made him a first-round pick in 2012. He ranks fifth in team history with 34 interceptions, and needs three to match former Vikings safety Joey Browner for fourth place.
He relished his diverse role in the eight years he played for Mike Zimmer, who frequently stationed him near the line of scrimmage either to blitz or bail to a deep coverage alignment at the last second after showing pressure before the snap. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith had rushed the quarterback at least 35 times in each of his eight seasons under Zimmer; in Donatell's defense last season, Smith rushed just 14 times.
Flores' defense, though, could give Smith a chance to do some of the things he enjoyed under Zimmer, while the Vikings continue to prepare 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine for a larger role after he suffered a compound fracture in his left leg last October.
As Smith prepares to learn a new scheme in Minnesota, the Vikings continue to work on the configuration of a defense that now includes Murphy, doesn't yet officially include Davenport and could still go through a number of changes in the near future.
Staff writer Andrew Krammer contributed reporting.