Image courtesy of Vikings.com

After three seasons, the 2012 Minnesota Vikings draft class is a bright spot on Rick Spielman’s curriculum vitae.

Harrison Smith, regardless of what the Pro Bowl roster says about him, is one of the NFL’s best young safeties and the Vikings will probably want to lock him up for the long-term very soon.  Josh Robinson, Jarius Wright, Rhett Ellison, Robert Blanton, Blair Walsh, and Audie Cole are all later-round players that have been positive contributors during their three years as Vikings.

Greg Childs was the casualty of a freak injury and seventh-round pick Trevor Guyton is now in Canada, but otherwise that group has been very productive.

One of the biggest question marks from this class, however, is the guy they drafted first and the guy that was heralded by many (myself included) as a “can’t-miss prospect.”  Left tackle Matt Kalil has been so underwhelming over the last two seasons that some Vikings fans are going so far as to wonder if the Vikings aren’t already scheming to replace him.

These fans are certainly going to be perplexed if the Vikings decide to pick up Kalil’s fifth year option this May when the decision needs to be made.

Others wonder if Kalil still has the potential to be a suitable blind side blocker, where he was solid during his rookie season, and if there is some way he can possibly turn things around in time to save his career in Minnesota.  These same people wonder if being a full year removed from knee surgery, the momentum of a better second half to the 2014 season, and maybe even an upgrade at left guard could be a recipe for a rejuvenated career.

Kalil was quite clearly one of the absolute worst left tackles in football in 2014.  Particularly, the first half of the season was absolutely wretched.  2013 was not a whole lot better.

He allowed 12 sacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the highest total of any offensive tackle in the NFL.  He gave up 55 quarterback pressures which was the second worst in all of football, ahead of only Miami’s rookie tackle Ja’Wuan James.  Both Chandler Jones of the Patriots and Ziggy Ansah of the Lions won Defensive Player of the Week awards after facing off with Kalil.

Also noticeable were the penalties.  According to Pro Football Reference, Kalil was called for 12 penalties this season and ten of those were accepted by the opponent.  Those accepted penalties accounted for 95 yards.

To put that in perspective, Phil Loadholt was called for three penalties for 28 yards before being placed on injured reserve near the end of November.  Center John Sullivan is credited with nine accepted penalties for a loss of 57 yards… dating back to when he was a rookie six seasons ago.

The criticism does not go unnoticed by Kalil, as evidenced by his public comments about the validity of sites like PFF, and he recently opened up on the topic of his disappointing season.

“I’ve never really had any kind of injuries my whole career and I think you kind of take that for granted, playing healthy,” Kalil told Access Vikings. “So as far as being mentally tough and the adversity I had to face this year, I think it made me a lot stronger mentally. It’s something that you learn from. … Players have bad years. It’s not the end of the world for me. What I see is an opportunity to go into the offseason and correct what I can correct and have a great year next year.”

“If you’re a quarterback and you don’t throw for six months and go into camp, you’re not going to be as sharp as you can be. It goes with any position, just getting technically sound,” Kalil continued. “My whole career, that’s what I strived on is in the offseason doing a lot of fundamental stuff and working on my technique. This was the first offseason not doing that and it showed.”

A top five draft pick is selected with expectations of being able to overcome adversity better than Kalil managed to do, but if his injury truly was the reason for his downward spiral then perhaps the Vikings have a chance to reclaim some of their investment moving forward.  He almost certainly will not be released, however, as Spotrac has Kalil with a 2015 cap hit of $6.29 million and would result in that much dead cap space.

Kalil provided some hope in the second half of the season with slightly improved play, or at least less incompetent play, and he noticed the difference himself.

“It took me until after the bye week to kind of figure it out and get my technique back,” Kalil said. “I played a lot better but it’s still not the level I’m capable of playing.”

“Obviously I set the bar high my rookie season so that’s the expectations of me for the rest of my career,” he went on. “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.”

Whether or not the Vikings pick up his fifth year option (most beat writers seems sure they will), Kalil has to treat 2015 like a contract year.  If he puts another 16 games of disappointment on tape then the Vikings will almost certainly look to replace him following the season, if not sooner.  Internal candidates for his job do not really exist at the moment, unless Antonio Richardson is showing coaches he is the real deal, but the Vikings could put Kalil on notice this offseason by investing in quality depth at the position.

I have my doubts, but I really do hope that Kalil can turn things around and earn that second contract.  I pounded the table for this guy in 2012 and thought he’d be an annual Pro Bowl candidate, so if he doesn’t improve greatly I’m going to have a hell of a time convincing you all that an injury was the cause of my mistake.