There comes a time in every great NFL player’s career when he’s still got it, but the team can no longer justify his contract. The Minnesota Vikings now face that moment with a tentpole of their defense.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell on Monday, February 20, authored a take on the No. 1 objective Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah must accomplish this offseason. His conclusion: create salary cap space. Minnesota is nearly $23.5 million over the cap for next season and will incur massive annual costs into the future when the team inevitably signs Justin Jefferson to the richest wide receiver contract in NFL history.
There are a handful of big names on the Vikings’ chopping block, though the biggest on the defensive side of the football is probably that of safety Harrison Smith. Barnwell laid out Smith’s financial situation in Minnesota, as well as the savings he represents if the team decides to strategically cut him this offseason. Barnwell also mentioned linebacker Eric Kendricks as a likely cap casualty.
“On defense, the Vikings will take a close look at two stalwarts: linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith. Both are on the wrong side of 30, although the 34-year-old Smith did manage to pick off five passes this season,” Barnwell wrote. “Kendricks is three years younger, but he plays a less valuable position and allowed a passer rating north of 100 in coverage for the second consecutive campaign.”
“Releasing Kendricks would free up $9.5 million, while Smith would create another $15 million in space as a post-June 1 release,” Barnwell continued.
Harrison Smith Has Produced Hall of Fame Career With Vikings
Moving on from both Smith and Kendricks this summer will get the Vikings back to even against the salary cap, though doing so will hurt, particularly in Smith’s case.
Smith has been one of the best defenders in franchise history, earning six Pro-Bowl selections over his 11-year NFL career and being honored as an All-Pro twice, once on the first team in 2017 and once as a second-teamer the following year.
The safety has amassed 946 tackles, including 43 tackles for loss, 83 passes defensed, 36 quarterback hits, 34 interceptions, 16.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference.
Pro Football Focus ranked Smith 37th out of 88 players who qualified at the position with an overall rating of 68.4, which slots him among the top half of NFL safeties even as he approaches his 12th professional season. The question is not whether Smith can still play at a high level or whether he can help the Vikings, but whether he is worth his contract. The answer, unfortunately, is probably “no.”
Smith Works With Vikings’ New Defensive Scheme, Kendricks Does Not
While Smith is facing a potential cut this offseason due to his contract number, Kendricks is staring at the same situation due to his lack of fit in the Vikings’ new defensive scheme.
The team moved to a 3-4 base defense when head coach Kevin O’Connell arrived prior to last season, after which Kendricks’ statistics suffered due to him being undersized at the position and facing more direct blocks at the second level of the defense.
As Barnwell noted, Kendricks’ pass coverage stats were also poor in 2022, as they had been the year prior. With the arrival of new defensive coordinator Brian Flores and an aggressive press-man coverage scheme, Kendricks no longer feels like a fit on the Vikings defense.
Considering he also represents $9.5 million in savings, the chances that Kendricks is no longer in Minnesota next season are even greater than the chances that the Vikings cut Smith in order to save $15 million.