The Case for Matt Kalil

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This article was written by Joe Oberle

The Vikings have plenty of changes to make and holes to fill on the roster in the offseason. Chief among them is fixing the offensive line, which saw 11 different players and eight different starting combinations in 2016 due to injuries. And chief concern among the offensive line is left tackle. And, of course, the chief decision there is what to do with Matt Kalil. Well, full in the face of conventional wisdom (and chat room ranting), I say, “sign him, chief.”

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That is not a popular sentiment amongst many of the Vikings faithful or Purple observers. In fact, on the most recent Purple Journal Podcast, we discussed just this situation, and my take was not met with overwhelming support.

We were discussing a recent purplePTSD.com piece by Luke Braun in which he put together an analysis of the Vikings’ vital free agents, crunched some numbers—specifically, adding valuation to the potential salary numbers it would take to retain the FA—and came out with a very interesting and practical recommendation of whether to keep or cut the Vikings free agents.

Luke’s piece is well worth the time, and it gave me a jumping off point for this one. I am not here to refute Luke’s analysis, rather quite the contrary. His method offers some solid, verifiable numbers to look at when assessing Vikings free agents (which ultimately can be subjective no matter what the numbers) and it certainly gave me some food for thought.

But, full disclosure here, I am a bit old school and am not a big analytics guy. I came late to that game, I certainly recognize the huge value in it, but I always weigh the numbers in sports analysis with other aspects, and that is my objective here—trying to determine what the Vikings will do—which we know is not always necessarily what they should do.

In the case of Kalil, a former Pro Bowler in his rookie year who has fallen on hard times with injuries, poor ProFootballFocus.com ratings and even a celebrated squabble with fans, the Vikings might not be in any other position than to keep him. They are in need of improved play at left tackle, and even the inconsistent Kalil has been better than what the Vikings trotted out there in 2016.

As it is, the free agent pool at left tackle is not great either—Luke said this about what is out there:

“Andrew Whitworth is the only truly attractive LT option out there, with Riley Reiff, Ben Ijalana and David Quessenberry filling out the market. It’s not pretty, and Kalil may well be the second-best free agent LT out there this year.”

If that’s the case, I feel the Vikings need to get one of the first two on the market and draft another one as highly as possible (and right now that is a mid-teens pick in the second round). And purplePTSD.com writer Simon Bruus says that this dude, Forrest Gregg, no Whitaker . . . I mean, Gump, no . . ., Forrest Lamp, would fit the bill. I hope the Vikings take him, but they still need a reliable veteran over the top of him.

For me that is Kalil. Whitworth would be nice, but he is older and going to be more expensive, so I am thinking the Vikings need to focus on Kalil. As Luke says, Kalil is not a good value buy, and he is right. Kalil is basically a “painted into the corner” kind of choice. And if the Vikings try for Whitworth and miss, the cost to get a butt hurt Kalil back is likely to go even higher (and they would miss him, too), so there is a certain amount of gambling involved here on who the Vikings choose to chase.

But back to the case for Kalil. (Perhaps you think I am avoiding that since I may not think the case is strong. Perhaps. But I will give it a try anyway.) I believe I mentioned that Kalil made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year after the Vikings picked him fourth overall in the 2012 draft. (Of course, that selection was aided by the fact that a certain running back nearly broke the NFL record for single season rushing yards.) Unfortunately, he hasn’t had the same success in his subsequent four seasons.

The reason, of course, has been injuries. Kalil has had several knee injuries and postseason surgeries to correct them, but he has played through all of them (not missing a start)—some would say (myself included) to the detriment of his performance. Then in 2016, he suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second game of the year, so, we really didn’t get a good look at what we thought was going to be a “healthy” Matt Kalil.

The injuries are a concern. He can definitely be labelled as injury prone. But neither his defenders nor his detractors can predict if it will continue, you just have to weigh this aspect of the player in your contract negotiations with him.

It is my contention, however, that a healthy Kalil has the skills, knowledge of the Mike Zimmer/Tony Sparano system and the desire to prove all of his detractors wrong. His newly installed left guard, Alex Boone, said he always preferred having Kalil next to him in the lineup, and the pair never really got a chance to get things going this past season. The prospect of the two of them together for a full season really is exciting to think about (even if you are Sam Bradford)—although after last season it might unrealistic to count on.

When judging a player, there is always film work (which is key) and numbers, which sometimes can be only part of the picture. So, I attempt to look further and try to understand what the coaches, who are the ones who have the most insight, data and access to the players, are thinking—and in this case that is Zimmer.

At the height of Kalil’s struggles, when PFF nearly had him rated out of the league, Zimmer came to Kalil’s defense more than once in his weekly press conferences. Kalil never made excuses, yet we would find out after each season that he was injured and had to have his knees scoped and cleaned up.

So, Zimmer tried to explain things for him, saying that the coaching staff looks at more than what the analytics people do—as in, what was expected on the play, what the other members of the line were doing, and how the quarterback reacted on the play and if their decisions had any effect on the protection or blocking schemes. Zimmer, a bit old school like myself, kind of scoffed in frustration at the whole analytics phenomena and basically said his staff looks at more than that. (Of course, since that time the Vikings have hired some analytics people in the front office, but that’s another story for another time.)

But Zimmer was defending Kalil. Zimmer probably really appreciated his left tackle for his penchant for playing through injury. (Zimmer took the field with one working eye for a lot of the season.) And I don’t think Zimmer would defend him if he didn’t see the ability for Kalil to play the position at a high level. (There are other players that Zimmer isn’t so charitable toward when it comes to not playing through injury.)

I think Kalil is tough, and while he is not an overtly loud/with attitude guy like Boone, I believe he has a lot of pride in what he does. His brother played in a Super Bowl recently, and there is nothing like sibling rivalry to stoke a player’s competitive fire.

Sometimes I have worried about his want to, however. He is a businessman, showing other interests than football, and I wondered if he may be biding his time and hoping to get out of the game in one piece. But his willingness to play though injury and line up every game belies something different. In his rookie season, when the attention on concussions reach a league-wide peak, I asked Kalil about it and he simply said: “We all know what we signed up for.” For good or ill, Kalil is willing to lay it on the line for his team.

t is in a player’s heart, in my opinion, is not something easily quantified by numbers. That is ultimately what a coach and general manager must look at when they sit across the negotiating table from the players, with all the numbers laid out in front of them. They look in a player’s eyes and try to determine what is in his heart (unless the agent is doing all the talking). Zimmer is big on retaining or bringing in players who are “his kind of guy.” Players such as Terence Newman, who he seems unable to kick loose, Chad Greenway, whom he would like a whole defense of and Adam Thielen, who gets more, perhaps, out of the God-given ability he has.

On a certain level, I believe Kalil is one of Zimmer’s guys, but he just hasn’t been healthy enough to prove it to everyone else. Therefore, I think the Vikings, at Zimmer’s urging, will make a strong play to sign Kalil to a new contract. And after what we saw this past season at left tackle, we may all have reset our expectations and might just look at things a bit differently—when Kalil lines up there on opening day.

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