EAGAN, Minn. – The work researching a player begins well before he is drafted or signed as a free agent. The care for a player extends well beyond his final snap.
Such is life for Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who on Tuesday terminated the contract of the longest-tenured player, Kyle Rudolph, in preparation for a 2021 salary cap that has been dramatically reduced because of the revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Rudolph wrote a "Dear Minnesota" letter for The Players' Tribune, and the Vikings were able to look back at some of the best on-field and off-field moments of his 10 seasons in Purple.
None of the above made the decision any easier on Spielman, who spoke to media members Wednesday and said Rudolph "not only has been an outstanding football player here and helped us win many games, but even more importantly, the impact he and his wife, Jordan, have had out in the community. I know our ownership group has reached out to talk to Kyle as well, just to let him know how much he meant to us."
Rudolph ranks fifth in team history in receptions (453) and touchdown catches (48), and he also is 10th in receiving yards (4,488).
Agreeing to part ways allows the three-time Vikings Community Man of the Year nominee to survey the widest array of options.
Spielman likened the decision to how tough it was to release Brian Robison before the 2018 season. Robison had been with Minnesota since Spielman tabbed him in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
"It hurts us, too. … Those are extremely difficult [decisions]," Spielman said. "Those are the nights that you sleep on the couch [and] you stare at the ceiling because you know how torn you are personally from the decision, but you also know you have to also make a business decision on how we can move forward and do some of the things we need to do in other areas to get better. So that's by far the hardest decisions and the hardest part of this job."
The Vikings and the 31 other NFL teams are preparing for the start of the new league year, which falls on March 17 this offseason and will usher in the free agency signings of 2021.
Personnel departments across the league are also plotting their strategies for maximizing their evaluations of players at college pro days, which ramp up next week (we'll have a preview of this process next week).
Spielman said the Vikings have a preliminary plan that has been built in similar fashion to when the combine normally occurs ahead of free agency. The combine for 2021 has been delayed this year and will be medical only, so discussions with players' agents shifted from in-person talks to video conferences or phone calls.
Here are three other topics covered by Spielman during the 27-minute session.
1. Checking in on Danielle Hunter
Defensive end Danielle Hunter is a two-time Pro Bowler who wound up missing all of 2020 with a neck injury. Believed to be something minor before pads went on in camp, the injury required surgery.
Naturally, Hunter's status has been a big talker and was even before the season ended. Spielman was asked if Hunter will return to 100 percent and if he's working on a new contract with Hunter.
"I'm not ever going to talk about business or contracts with anybody. I never have done that. I never will," Spielman said. "I know from all indications from where he's at on his rehab right now — and I saw an Instagram picture of him yesterday, he looked pretty good. But excited to get him here in the fold and get him going once we get started."
Here are two posts by Hunter, one with Jaleel Johnson on his right during a workout, and another during a resistance exercise:
Hunter is under contract through 2023, but an ultimatum-style Tweet by NFL Media's Ian Rapoport back in October generated some buzz.
Spielman was asked if he had been directly approached about Hunter being paid more and said, "No."
2. Repeat: "Kirk's our guy"
Hunter hasn't been the only Viking who has been the subject of speculation.
The current dynamic across the league at quarterback led some to speculate multi-player and multi-team trades that would put the Vikings on the quarterback carousel.
Never mind the fact that Head Coach Mike Zimmer went on "Good Morning Football" in early February to proclaim, "Kirk’s our guy."
Granted, what one says during an NFL offseason can be true in the moment and for a period then change because facts change, but Minnesota has made so many moves that point toward continuity with Cousins at QB.
Spielman doubled down on that Wednesday.
"I think Coach Zim' put that to bed when he spoke after the season. Kirk Cousins is our quarterback," Spielman said. "I know there's a lot of rumors floating around out there, but Kirk Cousins is our quarterback. We felt that he played very well, probably the best that he's ever played down that stretch last year. Kirk is our quarterback going forward, and I look forward to him [having] another year in this system. I'm excited for him and what he's going to bring to our team next year."
View the best photos of Vikings QB Kirk Cousins from the 2020 season.
3. QB-driven draft
The mantra that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league is being reinforced with the chatter about current players possibly changing teams.
It also could be the case of this year's draft, with multiple outlets forecasting a bevy of quarterbacks — possibly five or so — being selected in the top 10 picks.
Such a run might help Minnesota, which is scheduled to select at 14 overall, based on what Spielman and Zimmer have said and done regarding Cousins' status.
Asked about that happening and possibly keeping more options on the board for Minnesota at other positions, Spielman reminded that there's a lot of time before the end of April.
"It's hard to predict what's going to happen in the draft right now. There's still a long ways to go, if there's any more movement on quarterback trades," Spielman said. "There's a whole process we have to go through on this pro day circuit we're getting ready to embark on. There'll be a lot of movement, just like there is every year after the pro day workouts and guys jockeying for position.
"I don't know what other teams are going to do, to be honest with you," Spielman added. "If there are that many quarterbacks that do go in the top 10, let's say, I know there's going to be some very good talent that's going to have an impact on our roster when we're picking at 14 if we do stay at 14."