Jim Souhan
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By the time his work is done next summer, Rob Brzezinski won't have enough money under the NFL salary cap to buy another vowel.

While the Vikings' week-to-week drama promises to continue, and they could even make the playoffs and theoretically even win a playoff game, the dramatic events of the first 12 weeks of this season have set up an even more important drama to be played out once the season ends.

The key figures in this drama are the Wilfs, Brzezinski, Brian Flores and Danielle Hunter. The Wilfs own the team, Brzezinski owns salary cap responsibility, Flores runs the defense and Hunter runs quarterbacks into the ground.

The Vikings have every intention of signing star receiver Justin Jefferson, who will be looking to set a record with his next contract.

This season has strengthened the negotiating position of Kirk Cousins, who was among the best quarterbacks in the league before he was injured and who is unlikely to be satisfactorily replaced by anyone on the current roster.

Christian Darrisaw has become an excellent left tackle, and recent history suggests that the Vikings need to keep every good offensive lineman they can find. He, too, will be looking for a lucrative extension that the Vikings can't afford not to sign.

What will complicate these negotiations is a looming truth that can no longer be denied:

Hunter is one of the Vikings' best players. He's one of the best players in the NFL. He is having a dominant season on a defense that sorely needs him. He is one of two Vikings defensive stars. He is 29. The other, Harrison Smith, is 34.

Presuming Hunter ends the season healthy and playing well, the Vikings will have to include him among their top contractual priorities. The one-year, $20 million deal Hunter signed in July makes him a free agent after this season.

He is a great player in his prime at a premium position. You don't let those kinds of players walk away.

Can the Vikings afford to sign all four?

The proper answer is another question:

Can they afford not to sign all four?

I once asked an NFL executive if he could afford to sign a star player. His answer, paraphrased: "Forget about the salary cap. If an NFL team really wants a player, they will find a way to sign him. The salary cap exists as an excuse to get rid of players the team no longer really wants."

Factor in Brzezinski's long-running success at massaging, kneading, folding and spindling contracts to keep the Vikings under the cap, and you may presume that there is a way to get these deals done.

A deal including voidable years on Cousins' next contract and a large signing bonus for Jefferson prorated over the course of his deal could create the cap space necessary to sign Hunter.

Which leads to another key figure: Flores, the Vikings' renowned defensive coordinator.

Flores should be a head coach again in the NFL at some point. He's probably too smart to take the next opportunity unless it's the right opportunity, having dealt with a bad owner in Miami.

If the Vikings can keep Flores around for a while, he could help them afford their premium players, and not by making a financial contribution. Excellent defensive coordinators can save money against the salary cap. Remember when Tony Dungy was the Vikings defensive coordinator? He would take castoffs and turn them into good players, and sometimes even stars.

Before this season, Josh Metellus was a valued backup and special teamer. Under Flores, Metellus has become a dynamic roving safety with a nose for the ball. Undrafted linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. has contributed at a rock-bottom price.

Metellus' development also has eased the pain of the Vikings' failed first-round draft pick in 2022, safety Lewis Cine.

The Vikings finished 31st in yards allowed in 2022, then spent their first draft pick on a receiver. That move encapsulated coach Kevin O'Connell's worldview. He wants to win with an irrepressible passing game, while saving money on running backs and lesser defenders.

That approach can work if the defense has two attributes: an excellent defensive coordinator and a pass-rushing star.

Flores is the former. Hunter is the latter.

A defensive coach can mitigate weaknesses at linebacker and in the secondary with varied blitzes and coverages. He can't survive without pressure on the quarterback. Hunter is tied for the league lead in sacks, with 13½, and he might have been the best player on the field on Monday night against Chicago.

Brzezinski can find a way to keep Hunter, and the Wilfs should encourage him to do so.