MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The stability and related success the Minnesota Vikings enjoyed on defense during coach Mike Zimmer’s first six seasons will face a big test in 2020.
The inevitable turnover of an experienced-and-expensive unit began Friday when the Vikings terminated the contracts of two long-time starters: nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
The moves cleared more than $18.5 million off the team’s salary cap, with the free-agent market scheduled to open Wednesday unless the NFL decides otherwise due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Vikings entered the offseason as one of the teams with the least amount of space in the league. Accounting by OverTheCap.com had them ranked 25th in the NFL in cap room as of Friday afternoon with about $19.9 million.
Both players were scheduled to carry a salary-cap hit of nearly $13 million in 2020. By releasing them, the Vikings will have dead money charges of $4.8 million for Rhodes and $2.4 million for Joseph based on the remaining prorated portions of the signing bonus in their last contract.
Joseph played six of his 10 seasons in the NFL with the Vikings, after leaving the New York Giants as a free agent in 2014. He was picked for two Pro Bowls, playing in 88 of a possible 96 regular-season games as one of the league’s best run-stoppers. Defensive end Everson Griffen, the team’s longest-tenured player, previously voided his contract to become a free agent.
Rhodes, a first-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2013, became a full-time starter in his second year. He was picked for three Pro Bowls and was an Associated Press All-Pro in 2017, but his performance fell off sharply over the last two seasons. With Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander also on expiring contracts, the team’s top three cornerbacks will be free agents.
Zimmer said last month he expects Griffen to re-sign with the Vikings. In statements distributed by the team, Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman left open the possibility of re-signing Rhodes and Joseph at discounted rates.
“We are all grateful for their hard work and all they’ve done to help build our culture here in Minnesota,” Spielman said.
Both the front office and the coaching staff have a strong track record with developing under-the-radar prospects into reliable players. They’ll have plenty more work to do in that area this year on a defense that had nine starters in 2019 who had been with the Vikings for at least five seasons.
After the Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs, Zimmer acknowledged changes were coming.
“At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man’s game. The more that we as coaches can help develop these young guys, the quicker that we can help develop them, the better it is,” Zimmer said.
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