Minnesota Vikings: 5 Contracts to Re-Evaluate This Offseason
The Leslie Frazier era for the Minnesota Vikings officially ended Monday morning at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Frazier was fired after the Vikings had completed a disappointing 5-10-1 season with a win over the Detroit Lions in the final game ever played at Mall of America Field.
Frazier's dismissal has been received with mixed reviews in the Twin Cities. On the one hand, his 21-32-1 record over parts of four seasons simply isn't good enough. While it might be impossible to find anyone who has a bad word to say about Frazier, his kind demeanor and placid comportment only work in football if you're winning. The Vikings weren't.
Fair or not, that's the simple reality of the NFL.
The argument can be made that Frazier was forced to coach the Vikings with one arm tied behind his back, or rather, Christian Ponder's right arm tied behind his back. Ponder was general manager Rick Spielman's bold move in the 2011 draft, and it's Frazier who's losing his job because that bold move turned out to be a bust.
Obviously, the Vikings' current problems run far deeper than just at quarterback. The truth of the matter is, however, that quarterback is by far the most important position in the NFL. It's always been that way, and it is more than ever currently, with the rules more than favoring passers and receivers.
Great quarterbacks can help mask a team's flaws (see: Rodgers, Aaron), while bad quarterbacks only help reveal them.
And so Spielman will now have the opportunity to select a new head coach and presumably take another crack at finding a franchise quarterback.
While all of the immediate attention will be on what prospective new pieces the Vikings add to the mix, Spielman already has his hands full in deciding what to do with the players he has on hand.
Let's take a look at five players on the Vikings roster whom Spielman must re-evaluate heading into the offseason. These aren't free agents, just contracts that need second looks when assessing the Vikings' future.
1. Quarterback Matt Cassel
Matt Cassel knew what he was doing when he signed with the Minnesota Vikings last March.
Cassel said and did all the right things after inking a two-year deal to come to Minnesota to be Christian Ponder's backup. On the surface, Cassel was taking a backup role that would entail mentoring a young quarterback in Christian Ponder who'd struggled to get his career going.
Given a polygraph test, you might have heard Cassel say something along the lines of, "Ponder doesn't have it; I'll be the starter in no time at all."
With that in mind, Cassel signed a two-year deal with Minnesota with an option to opt out after this year.
He was starting by Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was back on the bench by Week 6 when the Vikings started what's been called a quarterback carousel by many, but was more like a quarterback shell game that more often than not had no pea under any of the shells. Minnesota signed Josh Freeman off the waiver wire and immediately put him in the starting lineup.
If you missed that Monday night football game against the New York Giants, you missed Josh Freeman's career as a Viking. You didn't miss much.
So Cassel became the starter, then he went back to the bench and then he became the starter again.
When it was all said and done, Cassel was clearly the best quarterback on Minnesota's roster. While his play was far from perfect, he was the only signal-caller who moved the Vikings offense in the right direction.
Verdict: Spielman has to bring Cassel back. He'll be 32 years old when next season begins and is obviously not the long-term answer at quarterback. What he can be, however, is a nice bridge and mentor to whomever the Vikings go get to be their next quarterback.
Cassel has leverage on the team and might ask for a bump in the $3.15 million he's owed next season. Minnesota might not want to go a lot higher than that, but it'd hate to risk losing a guy who might begin the 2014 season as its starter.
2. Quarterback Christian Ponder
The Minnesota Vikings are certainly not alone in drafting a quarterback in the first round who didn't work out. And while the Christian Ponder-as-starter era may be over in Minnesota, it certainly doesn't mean that Ponder's days as a Viking have to be.
It's very rare that first-round busts stick around with the team that drafted them after things go south, but Ponder might be a different case.
Usually when things go bad for a starting quarterback, egos are bruised, fingers are pointed and relationships become strained to the point where they can't be saved.
Usually what would be written next here is that the Vikings should eat the money they owe Ponder and simply cut him. In most cases, that's the right thing to do for both the team and the player.
And while it's been written and talked about ad nauseam in Minnesota that Ponder isn't good enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, nobody has ever questioned his character.
He's a quality young man who's had a great attitude throughout his rocky tenure in Minnesota. Sure, he's had some press conferences that have induced eye-rolling among fans and media alike, but show me an athlete who admits his confidence is shot, and I'll show you an athlete who's time is over.
Verdict: The Vikings should keep Ponder around for the final year of his contract. His money is all guaranteed, so they wouldn't save a dime by cutting him, and Ponder is certainly serviceable as a backup or a third quarterback.
Ponder has shown nothing but a positive attitude while in Minnesota. He's a high-character guy who can be a capable quarterback for small stretches. He may not have the talent to be an NFL starter, but he's certainly a player who can have use off the bench.
3. Safety Harrison Smith
Harrison Smith might be the best player on the Minnesota Vikings defense.
That might sound like a stretch when talking about a player who has only played 24 games in the NFL, but considering the sorry state of the defense, that's also not saying a whole lot.
At any rate, the smart guess is that the 2014 Vikings defense won't include the likes of Jared Allen or Kevin Williams, both of whom are free agents and more than likely not in the Vikings' future plans.
The probable departure of those two will leave a huge leadership gap on the defensive side of the ball for Minnesota. Smith will undoubtedly be one of the players who will assume a larger role in setting the tone, both physically and mentally, for the Purple defenders.
Despite missing half of the 2013 season, Smith still finished sixth on the team in tackles. His five interceptions in 24 games might not be eye-popping, but for a secondary that's starving for picks, Smith is a player it can't live without.
Verdict: Smith is halfway through his rookie contract and due to make just over $1 million in 2014 and $1.3 million in 2015. The Vikings don't even want to think about Smith flirting with free agency in two years, so they would be wise to lock him up to a much bigger contract this summer.
Conventional wisdom might dictate waiting until the summer of 2015 to extend Smith, but if Smith plays at his projected level next season, he might see himself getting a monster payday in free agency.
The prudent move for the Vikings would be to add four or five years to Smith this offseason and not have to worry about losing him for a while. The duty of a general manager is to project long term, and Harrison Smith is a fantastic investment.
4. Tight End Kyle Rudolph
The NFL can be a brutal business.
Look no further than the John Carlson era in Minnesota. Signed to a huge five-year deal in 2012, Carlson suffered through an injury-riddled first year with the Vikings and was tabbed as a free-agent bust.
Given the chance to take on a bigger role after Kyle Rudolph's foot injury in 2014, Carlson showed everyone why he was given that big deal, playing a vital role in the Vikings offense for a five-game stretch.
Carlson then suffered a possible career-ending concussion against the Baltimore Ravens.
Carlson's bad luck might underline the importance of Minnesota locking up Kyle Rudolph to a long-term deal this offseason.
Rudolph is a true difference-maker at tight end for Minnesota, and he's barely dipped into his potential. If the Vikings can fix their messy quarterback situation moving forward, Rudolph should have no problem becoming one of the best tight ends in the league.
Verdict: Rudolph is entering the last year of his rookie contract and is due to get a pretty substantial raise from the Vikings. Set to make just under $1 million in 2014, the Vikings would hate to have Rudolph even think about hitting free agency after next season.
Rudolph has shown enough potential in his first three seasons to receive a boost in pay that would be commensurate with a top-five to -seven tight end in the league.
Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford have both flashed decent potential, but neither is close to being the security blanket that Carlson provided in Rudolph's absence.
5. Safety Mistral Raymond
Vikings safety Mistral Raymond is a prime example of how fleeting a career in the NFL can be.
Raymond won an epic training-camp battle with Jamarca Sanford for the starting strong safety position in the summer of 2012. He had a decent start before getting injured in the third game of the season.
He hasn't started a game since.
The Vikings' dismal defensive performance in 2013 was just begging for players to step up and take a spot for themselves. With the Vikings losing Harrison Smith, Sanford and Josh Robinson for huge chunks of time, their were plenty of reps to go around for the backups to earn jobs for themselves.
Consider Raymond the odd man out. Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton both proved to be better options than Raymond down the stretch.
Raymond was given a huge opportunity in 2012, and bad luck and circumstances limited his chances. He's now fighting for his future in the league.
Verdict: The Vikings should cut Raymond and free up the money to find another secondary option. As a fringe player, you aren't given much time to impress the coaches in the NFL. Raymond's time with the Vikings is probably over.