The Vikings made their latest investment in one of their own on Wednesday when they announced defensive end Danielle Hunter had signed a five-year contract extension worth a reported $72 million, including $40 million guaranteed.
This was nothing new for the Vikings.
Since Zygi Wilf bought the franchise in 2006, he has opened his pocketbook on numerous occasions so general manager Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ executive vice president of football operations, could reward Minnesota’s top young players before they hit free agency.
Last offseason, the Vikings signed Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes to a five-year, $70.1 million contract extension that included $20.026 million in guarantees. Linebacker Eric Kendricks received a five-year, $50 million contract extension in April that included $22.938 million in guarantees.
The Vikings’ approach in retaining players — defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph also have signed extensions in the past year — is based on offering very fair but not break-the-bank type deals in order to keep the key pieces of their roster together.
That philosophy likely will be put to the test when it comes to linebacker Anthony Barr and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Both are due to hit the free-agent market next offseason. Barr is due to make $12.3 million this season as he plays under the fifth-year option in his contract. Diggs will make a ridiculously low $1.9 million in 2018.
Brzezinski has done a masterful job of keeping the Vikings out of salary-cap hell for 20 seasons, and if anyone can find a way to make new contracts for Barr and Diggs work it would be Brzezinski. But there is a real chance that Barr and/or Diggs could decide they would rather try to break the bank on the open market than accept what the Vikings are going to offer.
Barr, the ninth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, has appeared to be on the brink of stardom at times but also has been inconsistent. Barr had a career-high four sacks during his rookie season, leading to the feeling that he could be used in a variety of ways by coach and defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer. Barr could line up at linebacker on one play and put a hand in the ground as a defensive end on the next.
This type of versatility would make Barr incredibly valuable, but so far he hasn’t delivered with the type of breakthrough season that would make him worth an enormous payday.
Diggs’ case is different.
He has gone from fifth-round pick in 2015 to being an elite wide receiver in the NFL. Diggs has 200 receptions for 2,472 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first three seasons and has combined with Adam Thielen to form of the best receiving duos in the league.
Diggs is proof that fantastic receivers can be found in the late rounds of the NFL draft, but once you get one of those guys giving them up isn’t easy.
The Diggs camp certainly has looked at what top wide receivers are getting and likely will want something in that vicinity. The Steelers’ Antonio Brown leads that group with a contract that calls for an average of $17 million per year and $19 million guaranteed.
The rest of the top five includes Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans ($16.5 million average/$38.3 million guaranteed); Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins ($16.2 million average/$36.5 million guaranteed); Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins ($16 million average/$30 million guaranteed); and Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry ($15.1 million average/$34 million guaranteed).
Diggs deserve that type of money but will the Vikings want to give it to him? Especially with quarterback Kirk Cousins already making $84 million guaranteed in his three-year deal.
There is another option if Barr and Diggs come in over the Vikings’ asking price.
The team could use the franchise tag on either player, meaning the guy who receives the designation would get a one-year contract that would pay him the average of the top five salaries at his position or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is greater.
The Vikings have used this designation only twice since it was implemented in 1993. The first came in 2003 when it was put on tight end Jim Kleinsasser and the second in 2011 when it was used on linebacker Chad Greenway. The Vikings likely see this as a last resort, since it often ends up with player who gets the tag being unhappy.
If the Vikings decide they can only keep one between Barr and Diggs, the vote here would be to give Diggs the long-term contract.
Barr continues to have the potential to be fantastic, but that means four years into his career we continue to talk about what could be as opposed to what he’s done. Zimmer has put together a fantastic defense and many of the key pieces still will be in place if Barr departs. The Vikings offense and Cousins, meanwhile, will suffer if Diggs is elsewhere.