Minnesota Vikings: The Matt Kalil Conundrum


As a rookie, Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil looked like a sure-fire All-Pro player in this league after barely giving up any pressure in his first season, which is incredibly rare for blindside protectors making the jump to the NFL. Even seasoned Texas A&M tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews had forgettable rookie seasons, and the NFL is littered with examples of tackles who had rough rookie seasons. Even franchise OT Trent Williams didn’t have the best go-around in his first season.

Whatever optimism Kalil instilled as a rookie No. 4 overall pick out of USC, it was sapped out by an injury that led him to struggle in 2013. He wasn’t terrible, but it was clear that a knee injury had caused him to go from an excellent rookie season to a clear sophomore slump.

It’s unclear if an injury is to blame for last season’s woes, but I’m sure most people wouldn’t buy the injury excuse if it were fed to them. Maybe there’s some larger explanation for his play last season, because it was simply atrocious. By every measure, Kalil was one of the worst offensive tackles in the NFL last season, as he did absolutely nothing to help rookies Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon out.

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I mean, it’s one thing to struggle like Kalil did in 2013, but it’s an entirely new level of dreadful play when you stick out as a liability more than guys like Vladimir Ducasse and Charlie Johnson, who are not starting-caliber players in this league. The fact that Kalil was worse than these guys in his third season is troubling, especially since he seemed primed for a breakout campaign after apparently getting past the knee woes that held him back in 2013.

Per Pro Football Focus, Kalil had the same number of sacks allowed as penalties conceded, giving up 12 in both category. Those 12 sacks allowed were good enough to be the worst mark among all offensive tackles in 2014, and his 12 penalties allowed were also a bottom-three total. Again, this is a guy who was brilliant enough as a rookie in 2012 to have the seventh-least number of pressures allowed.

Two seasons later, Kalil went from seventh-least to second-most in the pressures allowed department, as only Miami Dolphins rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James allowed more pressure. So, yes, Kalil allowed more pressure than Atlanta Falcons rookie Jake Matthews and Carolina Panthers perennial liability Byron Bell.

Kalil is officially entering the final year of his four-year contract, but he won’t get to use the final year as an audition for his fifth-year option. Instead, the Vikings only have until the 3rd of May to choose whether or not they would like to keep him around for an extra year, meaning that they have a difficult decision ahead of them. Because while Kalil struggled in 2013 and was one of the worst pass blockers in 2014, he was a top-ten tackle in 2012 and is a former fourth overall pick; this guy could reasonably re-emerge as a top tackle and building block in front of franchise QB Bridgewater.

If only everyone were like Harrison Smith, who is coming off of the best season of his career and has made it an easy decision for Rick Spielman and the Vikings to keep him around for an extra year. In a “What Have You Done For Me Lately” league- or “Not For Long”, depending on which fits your argument better- Smith was brilliant in the final season before the Vikings fifth-year option decision, whereas Kalil had a nightmare of a season.

It’s bad enough for Matt Kalil that he played as poorly as he did last season, but he also has finances going against him right now. According to Fox Sports North’s Brian Hall, the National Football Post’s Joel Corry estimates that Kalil’s fifth-year option would cost the Minnesota Vikings about $10.75 million, because former top ten picks’ salaries under the fifth-year option are determined by the average salaries of the top ten players at the position. It’s no surprise that Kalil’s projected salary under a fifth-year option is so high, as left tackle is a premium position.

If the Vikings decide they don’t want to keep Kalil around, then they can negotiate with him in 2016 in the hopes that they can keep him around, provided he does bounce back next season. If he doesn’t bounce back, then the Vikings will be happy knowing they can search for his replacement. That said, a big season from Kalil would force them to have to re-negotiate with him a year sooner without the fifth-year option available, giving Kalil more leverage.

Nov 16, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Vikings tackle Matt Kalil (75) during the third quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the fifth-year option for a top-ten pick is equivalent to what they would make under the transition tag, so the Vikings always have another avenue to make sure he can stay for another year, again, assuming he gets back on track in 2015.

The Vikings would love to have him back long-term if the talented 25-year-old can play like he did in 2012, because it’s hard to find good left tackles, particularly in the draft. If the Vikings already found one three years ago, they certainly don’t want to go hunting for another one in 2016.

But is Kalil a good left tackle? I have hope that he can bounce back, because he has all the attributes you look for and was once at that level in just his first season. It’s impossible to ignore how poorly he played in the past two seasons, and his play last season was especially jarring.

$10.75 million is far too much to give to a player who is an uncertain commodity, but this is complicated by the fact that the money is not guaranteed. Maybe putting Kalil in a contract year will give him some extra motivation to bounce back (not that he needs more motivation, but I guess it could help), and then the Vikings can re-evaluate him in 2016.

It hurts their ability to re-sign him if they don’t pick up his fifth-year option and he plays well, but I’d rather have the risk of not re-signing him than have the risk of paying a liability $10.75 million, especially since the former risk is offset by tags.

Hopefully things work out for both the Vikings and Kalil, and I have a feeling the organization is more willing to pick up his option than I am. The latter risk of paying Kalil $10.75 million if he struggles is offset, since that money is only guaranteed for injury.

He’s been so bad, though, that this is still an incredibly difficult decision, and it’s probably best for the Vikings to force him to play out 2015 as a contract year. 12 sacks and 12 penalties allowed in one season? The second-most pressure allowed among all tackles? That’s just horrific and impossible to sugarcoat.

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