The Vikings have been saying adios to good players they can't afford like Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks. Eventually, they'll get around to saying hola to affordable players they hope are good enough to keep them afloat as a reigning division champion and Super Bowl contender.
Among NFC North teams, the Vikings have gone from first on the field to last in money to spend when free agency kicks off with the negotiating period at 11 a.m. Monday followed by the start of the official signing period at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
While the woeful-in-2022 Bears start the '23 league year armed with a league-high $75.2 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com, the Vikings are among several teams shedding starters and longtime fan favorites to abide by the league's $224.8 million cap.
That doesn't mean, however, that the Vikings are doomed. Astutely run teams with limited resources and/or desire to outspend the field in free agency have been winning Super Bowls for years with the help of shrewd, under-the-radar (cheap) moves.
The Seahawks went into the 2013 season with the No. 1 scoring defense (15.3). But they needed a better pass rush. They signed Michael Bennett for one year at $5 million and Cliff Avril for two years, $13 million.
Seattle's QB pressures rose from 230 in 2012 to 335 in 2013. Including the postseason and Super Bowl victory, Bennett and Avril finished 1-2 in pressures with 79 and 64, as Seattle lowered its league-leading scoring defense to 14.4 points a game.
A year later, the Patriots needed a receiver. They gave unheralded Brandon LaFell only a $3 million guarantee. He had career highs in catches (74), yards (953) and touchdowns (seven). Then he had the game-winning touchdown catch in the divisional win over the Ravens and a touchdown in the Super Bowl victory over Seattle.
In 2015, the Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady to a torn ACL in OTAs. That late May day, they brought Cretin-Derham Hall's Ryan Harris back for a third stint. While Clady made $10.6 million on injured reserve that year, Harris started every game, including the Super Bowl win over Carolina, while making a mere $920,000.
Even teams that have beaucoup bucks to spend aren't always going to throw them around willy-nilly, lest they paint their future into a cap-strapped corner.
"Clearly we have a lot of cap space and clearly we have a lot of flexibility, but we have to be cautious," said Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot, whose $62.9 million in cap space ranks No. 2. "We're not trying to win a press conference. We want to make sure we're bringing in the right types of players. We have to set parameters because if we don't, we could get ourselves in a bind."
There are bargains to be had for those GMs and coaches who truly know their teams and the league.
The Patriots went into the 2016 season needing a boost at edge rusher. They gave Chris Long a one-year, $2.5 million prove-it deal.
Long had missed 14 of 32 games the previous two seasons with the Rams. Then he played every game in 2016, posting a team-high 65 pressures, including eight in a postseason that ended with a Super Bowl win.
A year later, the Eagles needed to fill several holes with cheap labor. One of those was a backup quarterback, Nick Foles. All Foles did for his $5.5 million that year was take over for starter Carson Wentz, thrash the Vikings in the NFC title game and outduel Tom Brady at U.S. Bank Stadium while winning MVP of the highest-scoring Super Bowl ever.
Another one of Philly's bargain-bin searches that offseason turned up Long. The Eagles signed the former Patriot for $4.5 million over two years and then used him to post 64 pressures – second-highest on the team – en route to dethroning the Patriots.
"It's not like we wake up the day after the Super Bowl, and we say, 'Oh, man now we have to go figure out the team,'" Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman said at this year's scouting combine. "I wake up every morning thinking about this football team, and I go to bed every night thinking about this football team. It's constant communication about things we are going to do."
A year ago, the Chiefs couldn't afford Tyreek Hill, the league's most electric non-quarterback. Hill went to Miami, where he garnered first-team All-Pro honors while earning $26.9 million of his four-year, $120 million deal. He caught 119 balls for 1,710 yards and seven TDs.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, won the Super Bowl. They paid out $21.8 million in 2022 for three players to replace Hill: Free agents JuJu Smith-Schuster ($10.2 million), Marquez Valdes-Scantling ($10 million) and rookie Skyy Moore ($2.6 million). Together, they caught 142 balls for 1,870 yards and five touchdowns.
So, yes, there are deals to be found even for cap-strapped teams. They just need someone with a nose and an eye to spot the right ones.