The Vikings and Matt Cassel both benefited from a mutually friendly contract.
Cassel, who signed a two-year, $7.4 million deal before last season to back up Christian Ponder at quarterback, ended up being the team’s starter by the end of a 5-10-1 season.
Now Cassel, according to several reports, intends to exercise an option to nullify the second year of the deal, which would make the 31-year-old a free agent and position him to sign a longer-term contract.
Messages left Wednesday with Cassel’s agent seeking comment were not returned. Cassel has until Friday to officially opt out of his current deal.
Cassel’s contract for the 2014 season called for a $500,000 roster bonus if he is still with the team on March 18 as part of a $3.7 million package for the season.
Instead, Cassel could be the most attractive member of a quarterback free-agent class that, for now, is headlined by Michael Vick, Josh McCown, Kellen Clemens and Josh Freeman, who spent the final 12 games of the season with the Vikings. Free agency begins March 11.
Cassel would look for, and likely get, a multiyear deal for more money; and the Vikings could be interested in re-signing him. Ponder, who has one year remaining on his rookie contract, could be the only quarterback on their roster if both Cassel and Freeman enter free agency. Freeman’s contact expires March 9.
Cassel last spoke with reporters after the Vikings’ season-ending 14-13 victory over the Lions in the last game at the Metrodome on Dec. 29, saying: “I love playing for the Vikings. The fan base here is absolutely amazing. The team was special. It was a great team to play for. I really enjoyed my time with my wife, myself, my kids, a great community and everything else that goes along with it. So, would I love to be a Minnesota Viking? Absolutely, without a doubt.”
The Vikings have the eighth pick in the NFL draft on May 8. Of the first 11 teams drafting, five others have a need at quarterback. Cassel could be looked at as a short-term solution for a franchise that seeks to develop its future quarterback through the draft.
Four college quarterbacks — Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Blake Bortles of Central Florida, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Derek Carr of Fresno State — are projected to be top-10 picks.
Cassel, played in nine games for the Vikings this season, starting six, and was 25th in the NFL in passer rating (81.6). He started Week 4 against Pittsburgh in London when Ponder was injured and led the Vikings to their first victory. Freeman, released by Tampa Bay, was signed the following week and was expected to step in as the starter, which he did when Cassel struggled in a loss to Carolina. But Freeman’s one start, against the Giants, was a disaster, and he was sidelined the next week by a concussion. He did not play again. Cassel was not officially deemed the team’s No. 1 quarterback by coach Leslie Frazier until four games were left in the season. Frazier was fired following the season, and former Bengals coordinator Mike Zimmer was hired to replace him Jan. 15.
“We are going to do our very best to have the best quarterback in the division,” Zimmer said at his introductory news conference. “I understand that there are some very good quarterbacks in this division. But my job is to win football games, not to worry about if our quarterback is fourth best in the division or first best in the division. What we want to try to do is win football games however we have to. … A lot of times if you don’t make mistakes, you beat half of the teams in this league.”
Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, signed a four-year contract for $10.15 million that is fully guaranteed. His signing bonus of $5.8 million is paid out evenly over four years. For 2014, his salary is $1.76 million with another bonus of nearly $1.5 million. If the Vikings cut him this offseason, they would be on the hook for that money and a $3.2 million salary cap hit.