MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Vikings already were up against the salary cap at the start of free agency. To make matters more challenging, they then found themselves in a race against the clock.
Coinciding with a wild turn of events last Tuesday when Anthony Barr reneged his verbal commitment to the Jets only to return to the team that drafted him on a new five-year deal, the Vikings simultaneously came up with the parameters of a contract restructure for Everson Griffen.
Griffen’s $10.9 million base salary was set to become fully guaranteed March 15, the third day of the league year. There was just one minor problem: The Vikings couldn’t afford the ninth-year defensive end at that price tag.
The bottom line was fairly cut and dry, and the ball was in Griffen’s court. The Vikings wanted him back at a reduced price. The DE had two days to agree to the restructured deal or he would have been released as a cap casualty.
What’s free agency without some last-minute drama?
“It was a matter of Everson sitting in a parking lot at 2:40 (on March 14) as I was in with Rob Brzezinski at the time trying to hammer out and finalize the deal,” general manager Rick Spielman said.
Ten minutes later, according to Spielman, Griffen put pen to paper.
The three-time Pro Bowler took a roughly $3 million pay cut to stay with the team that drafted him in 2010, to provide the Vikings some relief with their financials.
Staying in Minnesota may help prolong Griffen’s career, too.
Griffen, 31, is approaching an age at which some pass-rushers begin to see their roles change. Playing time starts to fluctuate. Oftentimes, so does production. And then, a player who was once a starter may begin to transition into a role off the bench.
Griffen already has witnessed this with some of his teammates, none more obvious than former defensive end Brian Robison.
At 34 years old in 2017, Robison signed a one-year extension, reducing his salary by $1.5 million. That season he transitioned into a situational edge rusher after playing more than 80 percent of snaps in the four seasons prior. His sack number dipped from 7.5 to 4.0, but that doesn’t tell the full story of his impact in the later portion of his career.
Robison then took a $2 million pay cut to stay with the Vikings in 2018. He was released by the team before the start of the season.
For the better part of the last five years, Griffen has cemented himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the league. His production in 2018 dipped due to a five-week absence as he addressed his mental health, and he finished the year with 5.5 sacks (4.5 of which came after he returned to the field in October).
Had Griffen wanted to go elsewhere and chase another big payday, he could have. NFL teams are always in search of pass-rushers, but seeking a big contract might have shortened his career instead of prolonging it.
Griffen already has had two major paydays in his career (in 2014 and again in 2017 via an extension). Sometimes the money chase doesn’t always coincide with career longevity.
Even a player as dominant as Jared Allen, who had 22 sacks in 2011 and averaged 13 sacks over five other seasons with the Vikings, faced a tough decision in the later part of his career. Under Spielman, Minnesota has remained steadfast to not pay market value for pass-rushers in their 30s, regardless of their production. Allen did not agree to a pay cut in 2013 (at 31 years old – the same age as Griffen), his last season in Minnesota.
After notching 11.5 sacks the season before he became a free agent, Allen had stints with the Bears and Panthers where his production decreased significantly despite remaining in a starter's role. He retired two years later.
According to a league source, the last three years of Griffen’s contract will void automatically if he plays 57 percent of snaps or gets six sacks. It’s a stipulation that benefits the organization, which isn’t committing itself to Griffen long-term. It allows the Vikings to keep one of their top defenders while keeping their eye on the horizon.
Bottom line: If Griffen plays well this season, he’ll have a shot at free agency in 2020 – his next shot to bet on himself.
More than anything, Griffen’s restructured deal allows him to stay in a place where he’s supported by a staff that has been with him throughout his career. Andre Patterson, one of the most well-regarded defensive line coaches in the NFL, has played an integral role in developing Griffen. As Griffen approaches this next phase of his career, Patterson will be there to guide him.
Sometimes, the best fit and system for a player outweighs the money he might have been able to earn elsewhere. That was clearly a major factor for Barr, who chose a defense in which he’s well versed over a much larger paycheck.
In Griffen’s case, the decision he made to stay in Minnesota may also be the key factor in determining how many years he’ll be able to stay in the NFL.