Zulgad: Vikings’ decision to release Adam Thielen is latest sign franchise is on the right track
The Vikings’ offseason decisions last year left many wondering whether general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell were running the show, or if it was owners Zygi and Mark Wilf calling the shots?
Despite having just been hired, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell oversaw few changes and it seemed as if loyalty to an aging group of players was put ahead of making moves that were needed to update the roster and create salary-cap room.
If that was ownership’s desire to maintain the status quo, it’s now clear that Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have been allowed to do things their way.
After releasing veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks on Monday, the Vikings did the same with veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen on Friday morning. They also waived cornerback Cam Dantzler, a third-round pick in 2020, after he started nine of the 10 games in which he played last seaosn.
The Kendricks move saved the Vikings $9.5 million to the cap for the coming season. The Thielen move was far more interesting because the Vikings elected not to make it a post-June 1 transaction, meaning they will save $6.4 million in cap space for 2023 but take a dead-money cap hit of $13.55 million. Dantzler’s removal from the roster saves $2.7 million.
There are a couple of takeaways from these decisions, as the Vikings work to get compliant, or below the salary cap, by the time the new league year starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
The first is that the Vikings literally mean business. Kendricks and Thielen both were fan favorites and had long and successful runs with the Vikings. But the NFL is a brutal business in which rewarding aging players is a bad idea and cutting a player a year early is often a wise decision.
The second takeaway is that the Vikings appear focused on making sure that a year from now salary-cap space will be plentiful. The decision not to push some of Thielen’s dead money into 2024 was a clear indication that Adofo-Mensah will take short-term financial pain in exchange for significant cap flexibility next March.
This also means more moves are likely coming. Linebacker Za’Darius Smith posted what amounted to a goodbye to the Vikings on social media on Thursday. Smith still has two years left on his contract but reportedly wants more money. It appears the Vikings are trying to trade him for a late-round draft pick. Otherwise, Smith almost certainly will be released, saving $12.2 million against the cap.
Veteran safety Harrison Smith is almost certain to take a pay cut or be jettisoned. His cap figure for 2023 is scheduled to be $19.1 million and letting him go would create $11.7 million in dead money. But the Thielen move means that it’s possible the Vikings would make the same type of decision with Smith.
Moves also could be coming on running back Dalvin Cook, fullback C.J. Ham and linebacker Jordan Hicks.
According to Over The Cap, the Vikings remain $7.4 million over the $224.8 million cap for 2023. But things are definitely trending in a positive director for next year. The Vikings currently owuld have $120.2 million in cap room with the projected cap being $256 million.
That will change in the coming weeks and months but it’s still a good start for a team that has been cap-strapped for several seasons. That available number will balloon even more if the Vikings allow quarterback Kirk Cousins to play out the final season of his contract and subtract his 2023 cap hit of $36.25 million.
These types of decisions might not be easy for some Vikings fans to accept, but Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell were hired to win a Super Bowl. That isn’t done by holding onto aging players.
So while watching Kendricks and Thielen get told their services are no longer desired in Minnesota might not be pleasant, what will be productive is the ability to sign free agents next March, and give rich contract extensions to wide receiver Justin Jefferson (this offseason) and left tackle Christian Darrisaw (next offseason).
They are the future of this franchise, just as Kendricks, Thielen and Harrison Smith were at one time. That trio, unfortunately, never got to hoist a Lombardi Trophy amid a sea of confetti and now two of them are gone and Smith soon might follow.
In the NFL, this is called progress and Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell should be applauded for embracing it.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com