5 Players with the Most to Prove in the Minnesota Vikings' Final 2 Games

Mike Nelson@Mike_E_NelsonCorrespondent IDecember 20, 2013

5 Players with the Most to Prove in the Minnesota Vikings' Final 2 Games

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    Matt Cassel could be in line for Minnesota's starting quarterback gig in 2014.
    Matt Cassel could be in line for Minnesota's starting quarterback gig in 2014.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    With no hope for the playoffs or finishing anywhere other than the basement of the NFC North, many fans have already turned their attention to the 2014 season and the upcoming NFL draft, where the Minnesota Vikings should have at least a top 10 selection. 

    But for the players, this season is still very much in play. And it's very important. 

    Guys are playing for their next contract, to reach contract bonuses and a spot atop some team's 2014 depth chart, to name a few things. 

    For the five players on this slideshow, the final two games are especially important. 

     

5. DE Jared Allen

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    Jared Allen is playing for his next contract and needs to end with a bang.
    Jared Allen is playing for his next contract and needs to end with a bang.Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Just like for the organization as a whole, it's been a forgettable season for Jared Allen. 

    The five-time Pro Bowl defensive end is on pace for roughly 10 sacks and 50 tackles this season. The sacks would be his fewest since joining the Vikings in 2008 and the tackles would be his second fewest since 2008.

    Allen, 31 years old, is seeking a new contract this offseason and is half a sack away from tying Derrick Thomas for 13th all time on the career sacks list.

    The Vikings appear to have made their decision about the future of the position. They re-signed Brian Robison mid-season and have reportedly offered Everson Griffen an extension that was rejected earlier this fall.

    Allen, reportedly, hasn't been offered any contract extension at all. 

    If that, combined with regressive play, doesn't say it, I will. The Vikings don't plan to bring Allen back. 

    At this point, he's playing to showcase his skills to a new employer. And that employer won't be paying him for sentimental reasons or services past rendered. 

    The new employer will want the 14-sack Allen. Not the 10-sack one of 2013. Allen needs a strong finish to 2013 to ensure he doesn't have to take a pay cut

4. CB Chris Cook

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    Chris Cook's time with the Vikings has been tainted with off-field incidents.
    Chris Cook's time with the Vikings has been tainted with off-field incidents.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    At what point do the off-field distractions, injuries and inconsistent play outweigh the potential? 

    That's the decision the Minnesota Vikings and the rest of the NFL will have to consider this offseason when Chris Cook becomes a free agent. 

    Cook has only played in 10 games this season, was ejected from the Chicago Bears game on Dec. 1 for bumping an official and has yet to play a 16-game season in his career. 

    And for those who don't know, he has as many interceptions as you and I do. 

    Cook is a physical talent (6'2" and 212 pounds) who has had success shutting down some of the game's best receivers (he limited Calvin Johnson to five catches for 54 yards in their first meeting in 2012). 

    But it's expected that Cook, a 2010 second-round pick, is going to want a pay raise from his rookie contract (four years, $5.37 million). 

    It's easy to pay Cook similar to that. But much more and it's tough to justify. 

    Minnesota and the league will watch his final two games to see what he can do—if he comes back from a knee injury that kept him out Sunday against the Eagles

3. DT Kevin Williams

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    Kevin Williams' career with Minnesota is all but over. He has to play for his next contract.
    Kevin Williams' career with Minnesota is all but over. He has to play for his next contract.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    As the Star Tribune points out, it appears the journey of Kevin Williams and Jared Allen with the Minnesota Vikings is all but over. 

    At 33 years old with Sharrif Floyd (who plays the exact same position) waiting in the wings, the writing is on the wall that Williams may only return to Minnesota as a backup. 

    Williams, a 2003 first-round pick, is showing signs of his age. He's having one of the worst seasons of his career. He's on pace for 32 tackles (second fewest of his career) and three sacks (third fewest of his career).

    He'll be out to show future employers he can last a full 16 games.

2. MLB Audie Cole

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    Audie Cole can play himself into Minnesota's 2014 starting middle linebacker spot with his performance over the final two games.
    Audie Cole can play himself into Minnesota's 2014 starting middle linebacker spot with his performance over the final two games.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    At this point, Minnesota doesn't have its offensive or defensive quarterback situation figured out. 

    Erin Henderson began the regular season as the middle linebacker but has lost his spot inside since being benched for personal reasons, which stemmed from a DUI arrest.

    Audie Cole started in place of Henderson and has left a strong impression with defensive coordinator Alan Williams. 

    "He’s been good. If you look at his coverage as a whole, he’s been very good," Williams told Vikings.com. "It just seems that we’ve played, probably, more man coverage in the last couple of weeks because the offense dictated us to do that. But he’s been very good.”

    Cole hasn't recorded fewer than seven tackles in his four starts and notched 13 against the Packers and Bears. 

    As a seventh-round pick in 2012, Cole is just 24 years old. His best years could be in front of him. And with his play over the final two games, he hopes to show that to Minnesota. 

1. QB Matt Cassel

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    Matt Cassel has thrown for more than 240 yards each of the past three weeks and will start against Cincinnati.
    Matt Cassel has thrown for more than 240 yards each of the past three weeks and will start against Cincinnati.Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Few Vikings have accomplished as much as Matt Cassel over the past three games. 

    Cassel has thrown for at least 240 yards in three straight games, something Christian Ponder has never done in his nearly three-year NFL career, and led Minnesota to two wins in the process. 

    The former USC Trojan has the option to opt out of his contract at season's end, but Greg Jennings told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he wants Cassel back next season. 

    Cassel will have a big say in that with how he plays over the final two games. 

    The Vikings haven't been itching to get Ponder back in the lineup, which suggests they're doing the right thing and merely looking for someone who can play well under center. It doesn't have to be Ponder. 

    That means, should he end the season on a high note, Cassel will be in a position to compete for the starting gig in 2014.