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Monday Morning Mailbag: 2024 NFL Combine Concludes; Vikings in NFL's Waiting Game

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The last bit of the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine is wrapping today when offensive linemen participate in the bench press.

The past week was filled with podium appearances by general managers, head coaches and multiple elite prospects as the league simultaneously advances toward the start of the new league year (on March 13) and rounds up another batch of information in preparation for the NFL Draft (April 25-27).

Teams' projections of the depth in the draft could affect their approaches to free agency, and then what happens in the bidding for veterans between teams is likely to circle back and affect draft decisions.

This is also the point in the calendar where news sometimes breaks before the team is ready to announce something. A variety of factors could contribute to timing decisions, so I appreciate everyone's patience as we progress through this part of the year.

Here we go.

Whatever we do, please don't let [Danielle] Hunter walk. He's a beast! Next, J.J. to J.J. has a real good ring to it! My two cents. SKOL.

— Rick O. in Stillwater, Oklahoma

Good news: The salary cap for 2024 increased by an "unprecedented $30 million" all the way up to $255.4 million. That jump, along with efforts by GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah the past two seasons to free up space will give the Vikings much more breathing room.

Bad news: The increase helps all other teams who might be interested in signing Hunter, or ahem, other Vikings.

Adofo-Mensah and Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell participated in an interview with Twin Cities media members last Wednesday. O'Connell explained his excitement of hearing the new number, and Adofo-Mensah shared that his attention quickly shifted to how that could affect markets. We covered that in more depth here.

Hunter has been a Viking since 2015 and played 2023 on a reworked deal that included several incentives he hit while earning his fourth career Pro Bowl in his first season under Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

Although he still won't turn 30 until the end of October and is coming off career highs of 16.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, it's likely that he's closer to the end of his career than the start. Will the Vikings have an offer? Will he be enticed to sign elsewhere if a team offers more?

Adofo-Mensah was asked during his podium session about Hunter on Tuesday and said the following:

"We have a great relationship with his agent. We've obviously had these conversations for the last couple of years. He had a great season. I don't know that anybody in Minnesota is surprised by that," Adofo-Mensah said. "Danielle walks out of bed, and he's gonna sack the quarterback, pressure, impact the game. That's who he is. So we'll have fruitful dialogue like we always do. "It's not just about this season, the next season, all these things. Always got to remember the players have their needs from their standpoint. I always respect that," Adofo-Mensah added. "And so we'll go to the table and see if we can figure out, really, just to see if we can talk about a way to kind of find a deal to meet in the middle."

Rick's second comment is referring to the possibility of former Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy throwing to Justin Jefferson.

Adofo-Mensah made it clear he envisions the team reaching a contract extension with Jefferson, who is scheduled to play 2024 on a fifth-year option exercised by the team. He said he has no plans of trading the phenom.

We don't know what the Vikings leadership thinks of this class of quarterbacks, but I'd venture to say the group will be comprehensive in its evaluation of the position.

[Kirk] Cousins is a pivotal concern as we all know. I have seen and heard comments about Russell Wilson and Jimmy G. (Garoppolo), should Cousins depart. Wilson's been a good QB, but personally I'd like to see Minnesota not recycle a QB. Jimmy G. has injury concerns. Either of them would probably fit Minnesota's salary issue. I don't like it, but it might allow them to make a pick to shore up their defense with a first pick. Hopefully they could get lucky on a QB in a later round that can become a starter in a year or two. The quandary is if Minnesota keeps Cousins and picks defense, can they afford to pay players? It will probably be sometime before Minnesota gets an opportunity to pick this high unless they play poorly or trade. It's a quandary. Just have to hope management and scouts get it right.

— Randy V.

The Vikings haven't been shy about admitting there are multiple places where the team can add to the roster in pursuit of improving last year's showing.

An old Yogi Berra saying is "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

What happens with Cousins is one of the biggest forks in the road the franchise has approached in quite some time because of the magnitude of the quarterback position, how he was playing before his injury and how his recovery has progressed.

If you imagine dominoes placed in a V shape, one side is Cousins returning, and the other is him departing through free agency.

If he returns, it will tip one side of the V, but instead of being linear, it could create a sway in other moves by the team.

If he moves on, then there are a couple of quick prongs of bringing in a veteran, drafting a player high, drafting a player lower, or rolling with Nick Mullens and Jaren Hall under contract.

A whopping 68 players made at least one start in the 2023 NFL season, including four with the Vikings, which is adding to the already high attention on the position across the league.

The perceived scarcity principle always impacts free agency, and that extends to position groups in the draft. Some position groups are stronger and deeper than others from year to year.

Adofo-Mensah mentioned another potential factor on this year's draft class is the use of NIL money by colleges to pay defensive linemen (because of high demand at that level for players at that position), which likely shrunk the number of defensive linemen choosing to enter the draft early.

The quicker the Vikings have clarity from Cousins, the more enabled the team will be to chart the rest of its actions in free agency.

Do the Vikings stay put in the first round, re-sign Kirk Cousins, get the best available athlete in the first round. Then maybe trade up in second, maybe for another pick in first and go after a QB with that pick? Thoughts?

— John H.

If Cousins does re-sign, Minnesota could turn its attention toward defense (unless there's an offensive player deemed too good to pass up).

John isn't the only person who has floated the idea of going defense with the first pick and then seeing how the draft progresses. If a quarterback the team likes falls a little bit in the first, maybe the team could trade back into the first round like it did in 2014 when Minnesota drafted Anthony Barr at No. 9 and made a move to nab Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 to conclude the first round. Barr's selection is the last time Minnesota picked within the top 10.

If Minnesota stays put at 11 or trades up, this will be just the 22nd time in franchise history that the Vikings have selected in the top 11 picks, so it will be important to land a player who can be a difference maker for multiple seasons.

If Justin Jefferson does not stay with the Vikings in the next few years, where would be a potential landing spot for him?

— Graham Van Wyk (Diehard fan) in Argyle, Texas


I will be extremely unhappy if the Vikings were to let Justin Jefferson go. He needs to get paid more because he makes up two players on our team. I'm sure there are other players that could be traded or let go. Please, please keep Justin!

— Mary Sigerson

I'm not in the business of speculating players away from the Vikings to play for other teams, but it's hard to imagine that teams would not be interested in adding Jefferson's production and work ethic to their squads.

Adofo-Mensah said during his podium session that there's been some inaccurate reports regarding the negotiations with Jefferson, which made good progress before the start of the 2023 season but did not result in a second contract.

"We had a lot of great dialogue last offseason. I think people forget: Deals rarely happen after three years and there's a reason," Adofo-Mensah said. "Two years left, there's uncertainty that somebody's got to hold, either the club's got to hold it, or the player's got to hold it. There's new money, old money, how you look at contracts. Those are very hard conversations to have. And so a lot of them don't get done. We got unbelievably close. We've said it, and we continue to say, we think he's the best receiver in the league and should be compensated as such. We think he's one of the best non-quarterbacks in the league and should be compensated as such. "So we'll continue to have those dialogues and those conversations. I promised them, and I will continue to promise them, I will not talk about our negotiations," Adofo-Mensah added. "I think the job should be done with integrity. So a lot of stuff that I hear is completely false, but I can't get up here and tell you what's not true or not false, because that's not that's not how I promised them I would operate. But I will tell you that we're excited to have him and continue those conversations because he's somebody we want around for a long time."

I want to thank you for entertaining our crazy.

Must haves in free agency: D. Hunter, Justin Madubuike or Chris Jones or both. Antoine Winfield, Jr., Patrick Queen, Dalton Risner, Derrick Henry, less Cousins. Pay Jefferson. Sign Jake Browning or Jameis Winston. We have enough cap to sign at least half of these players. Rework Brian O'Neill and Hitman (Harrison Smith) deals. Draft defensive lineman (T'Vondre Sweat or Byron Murphy II). Or Bo Nix at 11 or trade back into first round to select Michael Penix, Jr. Penix has the strongest arm in the draft and can make all of the throws. He will be a steal late in the first round. Allowing for a fifth-year option. He also fits Kevin O'Connell's offense. No one will see it coming. Don't trade up unless you can get Jayden Daniels if available. Extend Christian Darrisaw at the end of the season. A team like this would be good for at least five years with adding new players in the draft each year. Thanks again for listening to my crazy.

— Rodger in Sacramento, California

I appreciate everyone's enthusiasm and interest in the Vikings year-round. I love the passion and energy people direct toward establishing thoughts for the Vikings improving.

Sometimes the wish lists for people exceed what's possible under the salary cap, and some available players may not be what coaches or the personnel department view as the best system fits.

I can't comment in depth on players under contract with other teams who are set to become free agents because of the NFL's anti-tampering policy, so I'll just note the Vikings will evaluate potential opportunities to create additional cap space while keeping an eye on free agents they would like to bring to Minnesota.

As confusing as it would be to have Byron Murphy II on a roster with Vikings cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr., the former Texas defensive lineman has been scored highly by Next Gen Stats, which issued a production score of 79 (2nd among DT at 2024 combine), athleticism score of 85 (4th) and total score of 83 (1st). Listed at 6-foot-1/2-inch and 297 pounds, Murphy put up 28 reps in the bench press, which ranked fifth among defensive tackles.

Sweat, also a former Longhorn, is listed at 6-4 ½ and 366 pounds, so that's a much different type of player than his former teammate. He didn't participate in the bench press. NGS issued a 74 production score (4th), 68 athleticism score (14th) and total score of 71 (8th).

Darrisaw has completed his third pro season, and because he's a former first-round pick, the Vikings have a fifth-year option they can exercise for him, similar to the way they did with Jefferson last year.

The setting of the salary cap on Feb. 23 also cemented the rates that players would receive under a tiered system that governs fifth-year option pay. Minnesota has until May 2 to exercise the fifth-year option on Darrisaw.

Remember Christian Ponder, Carson Wentz and others? J.J. can help a young QB develop. Cut Cousins, sign J.J. and Hunter and hope to find a [Brock] Purdy in later rounds.

— Robert Hernandez in Anaheim, California

The Vikings have a few things in place to help the development of young quarterbacks, including the presence of Jefferson, a strong debut season by receiver Jordan Addison and the pass-catching prowess of T.J. Hockenson, who is rehabbing his knee surgery.

Beyond teammates to target, the Vikings also have a bevy of coaches who are former quarterbacks, beginning with O'Connell and supplemented most recently by the hire of Josh McCown as quarterbacks coach.

Time for change. The Packers moved on from [Aaron] Rodgers and made the playoffs with Jordan Love. The Vikings have a chance to get a great QB in the first round of the draft so let's do it! Cousins can beat San Francisco in the regular season but how about playoffs? Hunter and Jefferson need our support so we can beat the Packers and Lions. San Francisco will be back next year in the playoffs, and we need a team to beat them!

— Sebastian W.

Not many teams/starting QBs did defeat San Francisco in 2023, but Cousins' play against the 49ers (in a prime-time game without Jefferson, no less) was a key to the upset victory.

Cleveland (P.J. Walker), Cincinnati (Joe Burrow), Baltimore (Lamar Jackson), the L.A. Rams (Wentz when the Niners rested most starters) and Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl) were the only teams to down San Francisco last season.

We'll never accurately know how things would have turned out the rest of the way had Cousins not been lost the following week at Green Bay. He definitely played well in his only shot against the Packers in 2023 and has historically torched the Lions.

Having a starting quarterback on a rookie deal creates more cap space to address other needs, especially in a couple of years when Cousins' remaining cap hit would move off the books.

So which college players from the NFL Combine have the Vikings become smitten with?

— Ed Helinski in Auburn, New York

I love this question beyond Ed utilizing the word "smitten," but sorry that this answer won't be very direct.

The Vikings leadership (I'm not in that group) isn't likely to single out prospects because teams like to enter a draft with a cloak of unpredictability that could help better navigate the draft board.

Instead, I'd love to hear who you all were smitten with at the combine.

The event obviously is a major part of the pre-draft process, but there also have been other points of contact (visits by scouts last fall, all-star games) with more to come (pro days at college campuses and the top 30 visit that allows the Vikings to host players at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

Adofo-Mensah laughingly referred to the 15-minute formal interviews as speed dating, and O'Connell also is on record with preferring a full day with prospects during the top 30.

Workouts (positional and timing/testing), the interviews and medical exams are used to cross check the reports that have been in the works on players and each player's game film.

If the Vikings liked what they saw or heard at the combine, they're probably verifying the consistency of that observation with prior points of contact. If they didn't, they'll also see if that is not congruent with what had already been noted about the player.