Fifth-year option decisions looming for Vikings on Kalil, Smith

BY foxsports • February 11, 2015

One was vilified by the public and analysts for the failings of the Vikings offensive line last season, the other was perhaps the most valuable player on Minnesota's defense.

The perception regarding left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith couldn't be any different heading into an important offseason for the two former first-round NFL Draft picks. The Vikings will have to evaluate the entire package for Kalil and Smith with a decision looming on whether to extend their contracts for one more season.

Forget the franchise or transition tags, whose deadline approaches. Minnesota likely doesn't have pending free agents that would qualify under either of the expensive tags. Instead, general manager Rick Spielman will need to decide before May 3 whether to exercise the fifth-year options for Kalil and Smith, both selected in the first round of the 2012 draft.

With the current collective bargaining agreement established in 2011, the NFL set a new precedent for first-round draft picks. Each drafted player signs a four-year contract and teams have the right to a fifth-year option on first-round draft picks.

Last season, the Vikings revealed their opinions on quarterback Christian Ponder by declining the fifth-year option. Ponder was the first of Minnesota's first-round draft picks under the new system. Despite little assurances in a fifth-year option -- the fifth-year option isn't guaranteed -- the Vikings essentially ended Ponder's tenure with the decision to skip an extra year.

Ponder was one of eight 2011 first-round draft picks, the first under the new CBA rules, to have his option declined. Two others -- offensive linemen Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi -- were released before they saw the end of their rookie contracts.

Kalil and Smith, part of the second class of draft picks to see the new strategy play out, represent the beginning of the newest chapter of Spielman's draft day wheeling and dealing.

Spielman somehow coerced the Cleveland Browns to give up additional picks in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds simply to move up one position and draft running back Trent Richardson. Dropping down one spot, Spielman and the Vikings still got their man in Kalil at No. 4 overall.

The extra picks gave Spielman the arsenal to trade back into the first round and select  Notre Dame's Smith with the 29th overall pick. Spielman has made similar moves each of the past three drafts, giving Minnesota as much flexibility as possible with seven players selected in the first round and eligible for fifth-year options.

"We just have to talk through internally, and we've already had some initial discussions," said Spielman in January. "On some teams you look at, they exercise that option, but then they try to work out a long-term extension for those guys."

Kalil and Smith are each signed through next season and Spielman could, of course, also look to extend either player longer than adding the additional fifth year. The Vikings have locked up several drafted players with extensions in recent years, including tight end Kyle Rudolph and guard Brandon Fusco -- both 2011 draft picks -- last year. Of the two, Smith seems a prime candidate for an extension.

Smith is developing into one of the league's best safeties and is a key member of the Minnesota defense. As the anchor of the secondary, Smith was second on the team with 92 tackles and led the Vikings with five interceptions. Perhaps snubbed for his first Pro Bowl, Smith was rated the NFL's second-best safety last season by the analytic website, profootballfocus.com.

A toe injury limited Smith to eight games in 2013, but he's played all 16 games in his other two NFL seasons. The secondary has been a mess without Smith and he's had 254 tackles, 23 pass deflections and 10 interceptions in 40 career games.

Smith recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he's interested in an extension and staying with Minnesota for the long-term. After the season ended, Smith said he's excited about the future of the Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer.

"I think there's a lot of confidence moving forward ," said Smith at the conclusion of the season. "Not that we're happy with where we're at, but I think there's just a positive mindset of where we can go."

According to Joel Corry, a former agent who contributes to the National Football Post as a writer, a fifth-year option on Smith could equate to about $5 million for one season. He estimates a Kalil fifth-year option would be in the neighborhood of $10.75 million. The true numbers won't be determined until the league's salary cap is set.

The fifth-year option for the top-10 picks equates to the equal of the transition tag, which is the average salary of the top-10 paid players at their respective positions. The rest of the first-round selections, including Smith, receive the average of the third- through 25th-highest paid players at their position.

The options aren't guaranteed, so either player could be released before the fifth-year contract kicked in. The only guarantee is for injury.

Kalil forces a different decision for the Vikings than Smith. Kalil would be paid an average of the top-10 left tackles in the league. Playing to his potential, Kalil might qualify for such a high obligation. He was considered the prototypical left tackle coming out of Southern California and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.

But he struggled with a knee injury in 2013 and the effect lingered into 2014. Only two offensive linemen were penalized more than the 12 flags Kalil drew last season. He was rated 81st out of 84 offensive tackles last season by Pro Football Focus.

However, Kalil also improved down the stretch and, perhaps, provided hope he could get back to a Pro Bowl level. He was flagged just three times in the final five weeks, one of which was declined. According to Pro Football Focus, after Kalil allowed 11 sacks in the first 10 games, he only gave up one sack the rest of the season.

"It's important," Kalil said of his offseason. "Obviously I set the bar high my rookie season, so that's the expectations of me for the rest of my career; if I don't do that or if I do, do that. As far as I critique myself, I know how I'm doing and the level that I play at. It's just about getting my body on that same level and being super sharp when OTAs come, and keep sharpening that skillset so when the season comes I'm not behind and I'm ahead of the curve and ready to go."

Now Minnesota will have to decide if it wants to be ahead of the curve on Kalil or Smith going into a fifth year.

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