One important order of business the Vikings have this offseason is to negotiate contract extensions for a few key players. Extensions come in different shapes and sizes — they can be done to get ahead of free agency, to keep a player happy with a pay raise, to lower their cap hit in the upcoming season, or some combination of all three.
Here's a look at the Vikings' top four extension candidates in 2021.
Brian O'Neill, RT
O'Neill's situation is one of the more classic circumstances for an extension: he's a young player who has been impressive early in his career and could capitalize on that by inking a long-term deal for financial security prior to entering the final year of his rookie contract. Because he was a second-round pick in 2018, he doesn't have a fifth-year option and is set to hit free agency next spring. I don't know if you can call O'Neill a "star" just yet, but he's the Vikings' best homegrown offensive lineman since at least Matt Kalil in 2012 and maybe going back to Phil Loadholt in 2009.
O'Neill's snaps played and overall PFF grade have gone up in each of his three seasons, and he became a dominant run blocker in 2020. His pass protection has been consistently good-but-not-great, which would be the only concern for the Vikings on a high-priced extension. O'Neill famously gave up just one sack in his first two seasons, but that was somewhat fluky considering he allowed 50 pressures during that span. His stats regressed a bit this year with 28 pressures allowed and career highs in sacks allowed (three) and penalties committed (eight).
Still, O'Neill is the best player on the Vikings' offensive line and they shouldn't hesitate to extend him this offseason. The fact that he plays right tackle and hasn't made any Pro Bowls means he shouldn't command elite OL money. Would something in the range of four years and $10-12 million per year be enough? If Riley Reiff isn't brought back (more on him in a second), would O'Neill's camp push for a switch to left tackle and ask for additional money on that basis?
Harrison Smith, S
KSTP's Darren Wolfson reported earlier this offseason that the Vikings will engage in extension talks with Smith this year. And even though he's 32 years old, it makes a lot of sense. The Vikings are likely going to lose Anthony Harris to free agency this year, so locking up Smith long-term is a good way to ensure they at least have one elite safety going forward. Like O'Neill, he's set to enter a contract year in 2021.
It could work out well for both sides. Smith's AAV on his current contract is $10.25 million, which ranks 11th among NFL safeties. Considering how well he has played into his 30s, Smith could feel like he deserves a raise. The Vikings could provide that, plus additional security, while lowering his $10.25 million cap hit this season. Smith had another five interceptions and 89 tackles last season and has shown no signs of slowing down. He could easily have three or four more years of outstanding play left in him.
Danielle Hunter, DE
Hunter's contract situation is a hot topic right now. He's drastically underpaid based on his dominance in 2018 and 2019, and Hunter recently threw some fuel on the fire by liking a couple tweets about him being traded. Even though he's coming off of a major neck injury that cost him an entire season, he has plenty of leverage after watching how abysmal the Vikings' pass rush was without him. Last fall, Ian Rapaport tweeted that Hunter wanted to become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL or be traded. Vikings GM Rick Spielman said this week that such a notion hasn't been communicated to him. This could get interesting.
If cooler heads prevail, an extension could work out for both parties. Hunter's current contract runs for three more seasons but pays him just $14.4 million per year on average, which is nowhere near the money that some of the game's top pass rushers are making. An extension that adds a few years and guarantees a lot of money down the line could be a way to make Hunter happy. And like with Smith, the Vikings could structure it so his $17.75 million cap hit in 2021 goes down.
Arif Hasan at The Athletic came up with a proposal for a Hunter extension that I think seems pretty fair.
One could add three years to his contract that averages $25 million in new money, making for a three-year extension worth $75 million but likely headlined as a six-year $125 million deal with the old money in his contract still provided to him. In short, guaranteeing the next three and a half years on top of his initial deal would mean over $55 million fully guaranteed, more than the full guarantees Garrett received. On top of that, they can add rolling guarantees, similar to Kirk Cousins’ deal, which guarantee his salary for the 2022 season based on his roster status at the beginning of 2021.
If the two sides can't work out a deal, trade rumors are going to start to heat up. It's possible Hunter will simply play out the 2021 season without anything changing, but that seems somewhat unlikely at this point.
Riley Reiff, LT
Reiff is another player who I've written a lot about recently. He's got one year left on his deal and has been discussed as a potential cap casualty due to his expensive 2021 cap hit. But the Vikings reportedly have interest in bringing him back on a restructured deal, which would mean a short-term extension that lowers his cap hit this year.
If the Vikings believe that Reiff's strong 2020 season can be repeated, extending him would make sense. That would keep O'Neill at RT, where he has shined, and would mean taking a long-term look at Ezra Cleveland at guard. Reiff was very solid last season and offensive tackles often age well. I would be surprised if the Vikings added more than a year or two onto his contract, though. A short-term extension could allow them to re-evaluate things season by season with Reiff.
Outside of those four players, I'm not sure who else would fit as an extension candidate. They're probably not extending Kirk Cousins again until next offseason. Anthony Barr has a big 2021 cap hit, but he hasn't played well enough for an extension to make sense. Eric Kendricks is also under contract for three more years. Tyler Conklin is the only other pending 2022 free agent who could maybe factor into Minnesota's long-term plans.
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