Zulgad’s four-and-out: Now that Eric Kendricks is gone, who might be Vikings’ next cap casualty?

There was little upheaval to the Vikings’ roster in the days leading up to the beginning of the NFL’s league year in 2022. The only significant subtraction came six days before free agency opened when defensive tackle Michael Pierce was released.

Otherwise, new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell brought back many of the starters from Mike Zimmer’s final team. The gamble paid off as the Vikings won 13 games and their first NFC North title since 2017 before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

With just more than a week until the 2023 league year opens, it’s clear the Vikings have a different strategy. That became clear on Monday morning when one-time standout linebacker Eric Kendricks was released, saving the Vikings $9.5 million in salary-cap space and creating $1.93 million in dead money.

The Vikings are still $14,931,007 over the 2023 salary cap and will continue to target some longtime veterans in working to get below that number before free agency opens at 3 p.m. on March 15.

So who might be next? Here’s a look.

Adam Thielen

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Thielen appears destined to end up in the Vikings’ Ring of Honor. The 32-year-old joined the franchise as an undrafted free agent from Minnesota (Mankato) State in 2013 after growing up a Vikings fan in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

The two-time Pro Bowl selection has had a fairy-tale career in Purple but it looks as if it’s coming to an end. Thielen battled injuries last season and it’s clear he’s no longer the same player — in large part because he lacks the ability to create separation and get down the field.

Thielen, however, made it clear during interviews he did the week of the Super Bowl that he still feels he has plenty left to give and wants to remain a big part of the offense. The Vikings almost certainly want a more speedy No. 2 receiver to pair with standout Justin Jefferson, and are unlikely to promise Thielen the type of role he wants.

Combine that with the fact that Thielen’s salary cap hit of $19.968 million for the coming season has to come down significantly and you have to think a separation between the Vikings and the veteran is a good idea.

The issue is that cutting Thielen without a post-June 1 designation means the Vikings would absorb $13.6 million in dead money and only save $6.4 million. Those figures basically reverse themselves if Thielen is cut with the post-June 1 designation. But that would end up putting dead money on the books in 2024.

The verdict: Thielen will be playing elsewhere next season.

Harrison Smith

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This one is more interesting because its seems possible that something could be worked out to restructure Smith’s contract and make him an important part of new coordinator Brian Flores’ defense.

Smith, 34, will be entering his 12th season and appears to be a far better fit for Flores’ 3-4 scheme than he was for Ed Donatell’s. Donatell liked to play shell coverages, leaving his safeties deep, but Smith’s savvy means he could do far more with Flores’ moving him around more.

Smith also could help 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine, who almost certainly will get a chance to win a starting job after he barely played on defense last season before suffering a broken leg.

Smith, who tied his career-high with five interceptions in 2022, will need to be willing to accept a pay cut. He is scheduled to count $19.1 million against the cap in 2023.

If he’s cut before free agency starts, it would save $7.4 million but there would be $11.7 million in dead money. The cap savings would increase to $15.2 million with only $3.9 million in dead money with a post-June 1 designation.

This is different from Thielen because Thielen wants to make sure his role remains substantial. Smith would need no such promise and, thus, it makes more sense to restructure his contract.

The verdict: Smith remains in Minnesota.

Za'Darius Smith

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After missing almost all of the 2021 season with Green Bay because of a back injury, Smith returned with the Packers’ arch-rival and had 9.5 sacks in his first nine games.

But Smith suffered a bruised knee in the Vikings’ win on Nov. 13 at Buffalo and wasn’t the same thereafter. He only had half-a-sack in the final nine games of the season, including the playoff loss.

Smith, who will turn 31 next September, will count $15.5 million against the cap in 2023, making it probable he either will be asked to rework his contract or be jettisoned within the next week. The Vikings would get major cap savings ($12.2 million) by releasing Smith and only take a dead-money hit of $3.3 million.

The decision on Smith likely will be influenced by what the Vikings decide to do with fellow outside linebacker Danielle Hunter. The 28-year-old battled injury issues in 2020 and ’21 but played in every game last season and finished with 10.5 sacks.

Hunter will be entering the final season of his contract, has no guaranteed money left, a base salary of $4.9 million and his cap hit will be $13.1 million. It makes sense to give Hunter one more multi-year contract extension and make him the priority of the two pass-rushing linebackers.

The verdict: Smith’s time in Minnesota is done after one season.

Dalvin Cook

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The running back played in every game last season for the first time since being taken in the second round by the Vikings in 2017. He rushed for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns on 264 carries, but his 4.4-yard average on a team that struggled in the run game (27th in the NFL) means the Vikings almost certainly have to be exploring their options with Cook.

Cook has three years remaining on his contract and a salary-cap hit of $14.1 million in 2023. Releasing Cook would put $8.2 million of dead money on the books, but also free up $5.9 million. It’s worth noting that $2 million of Cook’s salary for 2023 becomes guaranteed on March 17.

Cook will turn 28 in August and it’s no secret the running back age cliff comes at 30. He underwent surgery on his shoulder after the season and there has to be concern about the wear and tear on his body.

Backup running back Alexander Mattison will be a free agent, meaning that if Cook is jettisoned, the Vikings could look to 2022 fifth-round pick Ty Chandler and maybe a free agent as more inexpensive options in the backfield.

This makes sense if Adofo-Mensah decides the smart play is to invest in a different position and try a running back by committee approach.

The verdict: This is the toughest one to predict, but we’ll go with Cook’s days as a Viking being finished.

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire