EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his staff made a tough decision earlier this week when they terminated the contract of veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Spielman said Wednesday that those types of decisions are some of the toughest he has to make as the GM.
But those moves are also the reality in today's NFL, especially with the 2021 salary cap going down due to lost revenue and dollars from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're going through that process now. I know we've kind of laid out a preliminary plan … there's a lot of decisions that have not been made yet," Spielman said. "I know we've got kind of a general ballpark on what we're going to have to do, but a lot of those decisions are yet to be determined.
"We still have a couple of weeks before free agency starts and we have to be at that cap number," Spielman added.
The NFL's salary cap has routinely increased over the years. For reference, the salary cap was a hair under $35 million in 1994, the first year it existed. But in 2020, the cap had ballooned all the way up to $198.2 million per team.
And while the reported salary cap floor for the 2021 season was initially rumored to be around $175 million, he said Wednesday that the Vikings are operating that it will be around $180 million for the upcoming season.
The final cap number will be released by the league in the next two weeks before the new league year officially starts at 3 p.m. on March 17.
Rudolph's release saved the Vikings a chunk of money, but Spielman knows there are still more moves that could be made.
"We've still got a lot of work to do and we're still in the process, but I think I have a pretty good sense right now — before free agency kicks off in a couple weeks — where the strengths of the draft are, where the strengths are in free agency … and how we're going to roadmap and fill as many needs as we possibly can," Spielman said. "This year is going to be a little more unique from a challenge standpoint with where the salary cap is.
"A lot of the deals we had done and put in place were pre-COVID and pre-pandemic," Spielman added. "As we've always talked about, we've been planning out what the cap would be in 2020, but in 2021 and 2022 as we move forward. I don't think anyone predicted the situation where we even thought about the cap going the opposite way."
So what does it mean for the next few weeks?
View the best photos of tight end Kyle Rudolph during his time with the Vikings.
For one, Rudolph's departure could be one of a few moves that help Minnesota get cap compliant by March 17.
But it also means that there could be a wave of other teams releasing players — just as the Vikings did with Rudolph — to get themselves under the $180 million figure, or wherever it finally lands.
"The other thing I'll mention quickly is that as we're watching this UFA process, it's going to be an interesting dynamic with players getting cut as well," Spielman said about the general state of the league. "There's already been some significant players cut, and I think there's going to be a very active market this year."
The flip side of that, however, is that not every team is swimming in cap space to snatch up prospective free agents. Players who are released could have to take cheaper and shorter contracts to navigate a reduced cap.
Spielman said the ensuing two weeks will be fascinating to watch, but he held off on describing the reduced cap as all doom and gloom.
"I don't want to call it devastating. There's a lot more things in the world that are devastating than the salary cap dropping," Spielman said. "I think it's that you have to be more creative.
"Whether you want to push some money into the future or whether you want to release guys," Spielman added. "There are teams that have a lot of salary cap room, and it may not affect them whatsoever. It's going to be up to each individual club how they interpret what devastating is."
Spielman said Wednesday that he will lean on his staff to help him work through such a peculiar offseason.
With former Vikings Assistant General Manager George Paton now the GM in Denver, Spielman said other members of the personnel department such as Jamaal Stephenson, Ryan Monnens, Reed Burckhardt and Kelly Kleine have all taken on larger roles on the free agency process.
And salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski (who's official title is Executive Vice President of Football Operations) will also be an asset to Spielman once again.
And even though the salary cap will drop from a season ago, Spielman reiterated Wednesday that ownership is still fully committed to delivering a Super Bowl to Minnesota.
"Even though we didn't have fans and the cap has gone down and revenue has gone down this year, our ownership is fully committed to giving us the resources necessary to try to go out and do what we have to do to improve this football club," Spielman said. "They've never hesitated once on us not being aggressive going forward. This process is always a moving target like it is every year.
"There will be some different and unique challenges this year, especially with the cap and how we're going to work around some of our cap issues. I know our creativity, and Rob Brzezinski is one of the best in the business," Spielman added. "As we sit there and lay out our financial planning along with our ownership, I know we're going to still go out there and hopefully be able to still improve our ball club."
There's a common refrain from players and teams that while football is a game, the NFL is also a business.
In 2021, that could be as truthful as ever.