EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Two years away from free agency, Adam Thielen was among the best bargains in the NFL.
Facing a tight salary cap situation, the Minnesota Vikings could have waited to reward Thielen, their two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who was tied for fourth in the league with 113 receptions last season.
Waiting, and creating potential tension with team cornerstones, hasn’t been their approach. So the Vikings and Thielen agreed to a four-year, $64 million contract extension last week.
“It shows what type of organization this is,” Thielen said this week as players began their first round of organized offseason workouts. “They’re not here to lowball people. They’re not here to take advantage of people. They want to reward the people that helped this football team win games and, ultimately, they want to win games. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons that I want to be here for a long time, because I want to win games. I guess it just shows what this organization is about and how they treat their players.”
Thielen, the famously undrafted player from Division II Minnesota State who had the third-most receptions in franchise history last year, signed for an annual average of $16 million on his new deal that is the sixth highest among NFL wide receivers. He can earn as much as $73 million with incentives over the life of the contract covering the 2021-24 seasons.
This was the latest move by Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman to maintain the foundation — mostly drafted-and-developed players — of a roster with a recharged Super Bowl aspiration. Thielen’s extension followed those given to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks in the past year.
The Vikings have thus created an environment, particularly on defense, built on remarkable continuity in a league that’s constantly turning over. The front office hasn’t shied away from extensions a year or more before free agency, and the players have shown a willingness to stay and forgo the chance to test an open market.
“I feel like we just love playing with each other,” Kendricks said. “We know what kind of group we have. We have each other’s backs. I take a lot of trips with these guys in the offseason, and we just enjoy being together, working together. We know what we’re all chasing. I feel like it says a lot about what we’ve got.”
Linebacker Anthony Barr was an outlier among recent high draft picks, in 2014, by the Vikings who hit free agency without an extension. He even agreed to join the New York Jets before reconsidering and staying where his heart was for a little less money.
“I sent him a text like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be weird not playing with you,’ and he was like, ‘Just wait a second,’” said Kendricks, who has been a teammate of Barr’s since college at UCLA. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I see.’ Everything kind of played out how it did. Couldn’t be happier.”
Barr’s decision even struck the typically stoic Harrison Smith. Speaking to reporters this week, the Pro Bowl safety choked up and acknowledged being surprised by the emotion he felt.
“He’s one of my best friends,” said Smith, another high draft pick, in 2012, who never hit free agency. “Honestly, I wanted him to go get as much money as he could make. Pro sports, it’s how things happen. I obviously wanted him here, as well. So, I wasn’t going to be upset one way or the other. It’s an emotional game, and you make friendships, and you make plays together, and you’re pumped for the guy next to you. It’s why I play.”
The feeling is mutual around the team’s facility.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph said this week he’d be willing to restructure his contract to help the team’s salary cap situation and thus avoid being released. Defensive end Everson Griffen, the longest-tenured member of the team as a 2010 draft pick, already did that last month. Taking a pay cut was not his preference, of course, but the support he received from the team while taking a leave for mental health issues sure made it easier to stay.
“They took care of me and they treated me like family,” Griffen said. “I’ve been here for 10 years. I’ve played good football for them, and I felt like they handled the situation that I was in perfectly. They took me under their wing. They made sure I had everything lined up, and it was a good thing. I just want to repay that. It’s always bigger than football.”