<
>

Vikings mailbag: Looking at which players will return in 2016

play
Decision looming for Vikings on Phil Loadholt (1:50)

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling looks at the team's options with right tackle Phil Loadholt, who is entering the final year of his contract after season-ending injuries in 2014 and 2015. (1:50)

MINNEAPOLIS -- In this week's edition of the mailbag, we'll look at a few questions the Minnesota Vikings will have to answer about their own roster before deciding how active they want to be on the free-agent market next month. They've used discretion on the open market in recent years, but the decisions they make at several spots on their roster will determine what they do this year.

@GoesslingESPN: The future of Matt Kalil, in my mind, isn't in much doubt, at least not for 2016; as we discussed in the mailbag last week, there's enough uncertainty with other positions on the offensive line, and probably enough hope left for Kalil, that the Vikings aren't going to part ways with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft when he's healthy and about to start working with a new position coach. One option that intrigues me, though -- and it's one we discussed on the Purple Podcast this week at 1500 ESPN -- is the idea of a prove-it deal for Kalil. Let's say, instead of giving him a high-dollar extension, the Vikings present him with a two- or three-year deal, at a lower cap figure than the $11.1 million hit he's set to carry in 2016. You'd have to give him some guaranteed money to get him to come down from $11.1 million for this season, and my hunch is he's not in great danger of being cut. But a player who has had knee issues might jump at the chance of some security beyond this year, and an intermediate deal would give the Vikings time to see if Kalil can return to Pro Bowl form under Tony Sparano. It'd be one option to avoid paying Kalil $11.1 million this year, or getting backed into a corner if he has a big year in 2016.

@GoesslingESPN: This is an interesting question, and I'm not sure we'll have a complete answer to it for a while. Sullivan had his second back operation in late October, and he's set to turn 31 in August. He's confident he'll be back for the 2016 season, and if he's healthy, there's no doubt he's the starter. As capably as Berger played last year, the Vikings missed Sullivan's mobility and savvy on the line, and Teddy Bridgewater could use him at center again. But back injuries are tricky, and the one thing we always hear about offensive linemen in OTAs and minicamp is how it's tough to make any meaningful determinations before training camp, because players aren't in pads. So while there's reason to be optimistic, the Vikings might not have a complete sense of whether Sullivan can hold up until training camp or the preseason. From a cap standpoint, they have some flexibility; Sullivan has two years left on his deal, but only $666,667 of signing bonus proration left. So if his back were giving him such problems that he couldn't be ready for the season, his departure wouldn't carry much of a cap hit. The bigger question is probably the future of the position; Berger will be 34 in May, and the Vikings have young options in Zac Kerin and Nick Easton. It'll be worth watching those two before the season, to see if either has a chance of becoming the center of the future. At the moment, there's no reason to think Sullivan won't be around. But it'd be easier to say that with complete confidence if his injury weren't in such a tenuous spot.

@GoesslingESPN: From what Zimmer has told me, he has at least two years left on his deal; it doesn't expire after this season, and it's possible he has three seasons left. All he was willing to tell me when I asked him about his initial deal was that it was longer than three years. So there's no real rush to get something done with Zimmer. But if the Vikings have another big season and go to the playoffs, I'd expect a contract extension could be something the Vikings discuss with Zimmer's agent, Marvin Demoff. They're thrilled with the direction Zimmer has taken the team so far, and another strong season could see him rewarded.

@GoesslingESPN: I wouldn't go that far. The Vikings have been willing, under Zimmer, to keep older players around. There were plenty who thought Chad Greenway wouldn't be back in 2015, and the Vikings kept him around. Brian Robison and Terence Newman had strong seasons in 2015, and Zimmer speaks highly of all three players. Now, Hunter appeared to be well ahead of where many of us thought he'd be at the end of the season, and if he's at the defensive end spot opposite Everson Griffen, with Anthony Barr at linebacker, the Vikings could have a pass rush that's terrifying in its flexibility. I think there's still a place for Robison, though, and Newman could return, too, depending on what he wants to do at age 38. He could get a look at safety (though I don't think that's a guarantee), and the Vikings might want his presence in case Waynes isn't ready to be out there all the time. If younger players are outperforming older ones, Zimmer has shown he won't hold them back. But the Vikings, under Zimmer, have been a more friendly team for older players than some would expect. I certainly think Robison is back in 2016, and I wouldn't be surprised if Greenway and Newman are, too.

We'll wrap it up there for this week. Thanks for flooding the mailbag with so many great questions; you can submit them any time during the week using the hashtag #VikingsMail. Enjoy your weekend, and we'll talk next week.