When cap returns, so do roster decisions

The Vikings have managed their salary cap well over the last decade, but when the cap returns, there are a couple veteran players who may have to prove their worth before the roster cuts are due.

While the world of the NFL remains is frightening limbo, one of the primary driving forces of NFL news is what in baseball terms is called "The Hot Stove League."

What energizes a fan base is the signing of big-name, big-time players. Vikings fans still cringe at the recollection of the Chicago Bears calling a press conference hours after the start of free agency to announce the signing of Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor. I'm still wondering how a contract with a player of Peppers' stature could get finalized so quickly without at least cursory conversations taking place beforehand, but that's a job for the NFL's CSI crew to solve. What happened in Chi-town in the days following the Peppers' signing? A lot more fans bought season tickets and those who had been on the fence made a point to renew their commitment to Da Bears.

The same happened when Brett Favre signed with the Vikings. The same happened when the Vikings traded for Jared Allen. The same happened when the team drafted Adrian Peterson. Fans wanted to see those guys play live and were willing to pony up the dough to do it. Only teams that have the salary cap room to accommodate somebody who is going to take a significant chunk of that 53-man pie are able to pull off those signings.

For years, the Vikings and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski have been able to work the cap limitations as well as any franchise in the league. The Vikings have never had to have a Black Friday type of day where they let players with big contracts go in bunches. A lot of NFL teams have. San Diego cut loose Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson last year for just that reason. One can only wonder if the Vikings' 2010 season would have been different had L.T. signed on, but, in the big picture, it would only add to the problem.

The salary cap is a major component in what has made the NFL the pre-eminent sport among fans. Regardless of where you live, there is a level playing field among all 32 teams. Baseball used to be the Big Kahuna, but those days have passed in part because they don't have a level playing field. Fans in Green Bay, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Seattle can relate. MLB doesn't have a team in Green Bay, and of those other four cities, their respective teams' postseason drought leaves fans without much hope. Fans of the Kansas City Royals haven't seen their favorite team even in the postseason in 25 years. Pirates fans have waited 18 years. Orioles fans have experienced an unlucky 13-year drought and Mariners fans have waited nine long years to watch a meaningful October game.

Ironically, sports fans in all four of the cities above that have both NFL and MLB all saw their teams go to the NFL playoffs last season. The ability for teams to rise and fall and come back in the NFL is there because the salary cap allows the worst of teams to lure free agents to help them rise from the abyss. In the other three major sports, if you stink in the current season, chances are you will stink for years. NFL teams can rebound from the bottom to the top in a hurry. A big hurry. The cap is the main reason.

Teams have had different approaches to the salary cap. Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has annually thrown away millions of dollars on players he signed years after they had their best days – Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb. The list goes on and on. The Vikings, by contrast, have been able to work the cap to their advantage, always able to open up money through contract incentives to even make a boffo signing of Brett Favre in 2009 possible.

Those days may be reaching an end. Either that, or there are going to be some hard decisions made concerning some key Vikings veterans. If the current labor dispute has taught us anything, it's that money is root of the argument for both sides. There is a ton of money available and both sides want as big a piece as they can get. The Vikings are nearing a point of critical mass with a few players taking up a big portion of the team's bottom line. Some are worth the investment. Quite honestly, some are not.

In 2011 salary dollars, which don't include signing-bonus cap bumps, the Vikings have more than $58 million – more than 45 percent of the last salary cap number the league had $128 million in 2009 – locked into nine players – less than 17 percent of the 53-man roster.

Those numbers were more out of whack when Favre was with the Vikings, but who makes up such a lion's share of the Vikings salary pie? Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen account for almost $20 million of that. Antoine Winfield, Steve Hutchinson and Kevin Williams accounted for almost $20 million more. While those numbers are big, all five of them have Pro Bowl credentials to back it up.

The other four? Safety Madieu Williams (slated for $5.4 million in 2011), Bryant McKinnie ($4.9 million), E.J. Henderson ($4.7 million) and Bernard Berrian ($3.9 million). You can give McKinnie and Henderson a pass – teams are paying more than that for blue chip rookie offensive tackles than what McKinnie is due, and Henderson has earned his money with the titanium rod that is permanently going to cause problems for him at airports. But Madieu Williams and Berrian? Neither has shown anything worthy of earning that kind of money. If both were to become free agents, neither would get as sweet a deal as they currently have.

When the current labor dispute is settled, it's hard not to imagine the salary cap will be reinstated. It not only provides a ceiling that can be spent, but, more importantly to the players, it provides a league-wide floor that must be spent.

When that happens, the Vikings are going to be faced with a dilemma. The NFL is a performance business. A league where L.T. can be cut because his cap number is too high is proof of that. The Vikings will likely find a way to work the cap to their favor. Few teams are better at it. But, it could come at a price – Williams and Berrian had better be concerned and ready to perform if given the chance in the offseason and preseason, before the Vikings are facing with assembling a 53-man roster.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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