MINNEAPOLIS -- It's true, Vikings fans: Matt Cassel is opting out of his 2014 contract with the Vikings, leaving the team with only Christian Ponder under contract for the 2014 season and a No. 8 overall pick that could mean the top three rookie quarterbacks are wearing baseball caps of other teams by the time the Vikings make their selection.
That position left Cassel holding considerable leverage on a $3.7 million contract for 2014. He was scheduled to make less money than Matt Moore, Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Hasselbeck. Cassel played more in 2013 than all but Fitzpatrick, and with so many teams looking for quarterback help, Cassel would have been foolish not to explore the possibility of making more money, at least as a backup quarterback. His representatives structured his deal with the Vikings that way for a reason, and after emerging from a chaotic Vikings quarterback situation as their best option in 2013, Cassel had a strong enough hand to play that opting out of his deal was a prudent financial move.
And while it doesn't necessarily mean that Vikings fans should panic, it does mean the stakes just went up for the team to have a reliable veteran quarterback heading into 2014.
I still think there's a decent chance Cassel will wind up returning to the Vikings in 2014. He'd developed a good rapport with his teammates, particularly wide receiver Greg Jennings, and could fit in well with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme. But the Vikings will have to pay Cassel more money to bring him back, and there's a good chance they'd need to give him a multi-year deal. They could also head out into the free- agent market and take a look at quarterbacks like Josh McCown, Michael Vick or Matt Flynn, but it's unlikely any of those quarterbacks would come cheaper than Cassel.
The Vikings could trade for a younger quarterback like Washington's Kirk Cousins, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and New England's Ryan Mallett, but doing so would likely cost them at least a mid-round draft pick. And while new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner might see something different in Ponder than Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave were able to get out of him, it seems more likely that Ponder's time in Minnesota is about up.
Essentially, Cassel is betting on his ability to get a richer deal in a shallow free-agent pool than he was promised with the Vikings. He had that right, and it looks like a smart play from here. It is, however, going to require Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to be that much smarter with what he does next at the position.