With their biggest offseason priority in the fold after Kirk Cousins inked his three-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million, the Minnesota Vikings can now shift their attention elsewhere and upgrade other positions.
General manager Rick Spielman hinted that Minnesota wasn’t quite done in free agency, saying the Vikings will “potentially do one or two more things.” A move Thursday evening backed that up when the team restructured the contract of running back Latavius Murray, multiple sources confirmed to ESPN.
Given the planning by the Vikings’ front office as it relates to the salary cap, Spielman is confident the franchise will have flexibility to work with in coming seasons. Cousins’ 2018 salary comes with a $24 million cap hit, which left Minnesota with just over $26 million to use in free agency and with contract extensions before any restructuring took place.
Murray was at risk of being a cap casualty had he not agreed to a pay cut by 4 p.m. ET Friday, when $5.15 million of his 2018 salary would have become guaranteed; that would have been the sixth-highest cap hit among all running backs. The Vikings could have released Murray, whom they signed to a three-year, $15 million deal last offseason, and freed up about $5 million in cap space had he not restructured, but they worked to keep the 28-year-old in Minnesota's backfield.
The timing of Murray’s restructuring coincides with the visit of Seattle defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to the Twin Cities. Richardson spent time at the Vikings' facility in Eagan on Thursday before dining with coaches and management. The 3-technique spot is one Minnesota hopes to improve this offseason. The Vikings expressed interest in bringing back veteran DT Tom Johnson in a reduced role and are also considering options for reserve tackle Shamar Stephen. Finding interior D-line depth next to nose tackle Linval Joseph is a crucial priority in bolstering the Vikings’ pass rush.
Richardson is expected to remain in the Minneapolis area until Friday. Seattle has reportedly expressed a desire to bring Richardson back, but the Seahawks are getting strong competition from the Vikings.
With the return of Dalvin Cook from an ACL injury, Murray will play an important role in lightening the load for the second-year rusher, as coach Mike Zimmer laid out during the NFL combine.
“The one thing we have to be careful about with Dalvin is, you know, we don’t wear him out,” Zimmer said. “It’s a long season. We’ve got to be smart about it, so we’ll have to have a ... not necessarily a pitch count, but be mindful that it’s a 16-game, maybe 20-game season, and we’re going to have to be smart about how we use him. Because he is a three-down back.”
In Cook’s absence last season, Murray shared responsibilities with Jerick McKinnon, who signed a four-year, $30 million deal with San Francisco on Wednesday. Murray totaled 842 yards on 216 carries (3.9 per carry) and eight touchdowns and caught 15 passes for 103 yards. The veteran back capitalized on his role as a red zone threat, scoring seven of his eight touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line.
“I think Latavius did an unbelievable job for us last year,” Spielman said at the combine. “He led our team in explosive runs last year once Dalvin got hurt. Also, I think we were top or one of the top in third-down and fourth-down-and-1 situations. Also, much better success when we were in goal-line situations as well. I know that was an area that we needed to improve on, and I think with the combination of him and the combination of our offensive line that we redid last year, that that made a significant difference in our success in those areas.”