Amidst the simmering debate over positions of need and speculation over whom the Vikings could pursue in free agency or pick in the draft, there's another expensive and significant offseason priority that shouldn't be overlooked. The Vikings need to sign Harrison Smith to a contract extension.
I'd rank the signing of Smith to an extension somewhere near the top of the Vikings' offseason priorities – probably just under figuring out what the heck to do about Adrian Peterson and determining a solution to their offensive line woes.
It's fair to say Smith was the Vikings' best player in 2014. Although he didn't garner the recognition he deserved for his tremendous season by Pro Bowl or All Pro voters – he didn't even make the Pro Football Writers of America's All-NFC team that was released Monday – Smith was indeed one of the best safeties in the NFL this season. He made my end of season All-Pro team and finished the season as the NFL's second-ranked safety by ProFootballFocus.com, making the PFF All-Pro team for what it's worth.
In short, he's one of the best safeties in the game, he turns only 26 in a few weeks (Feb. 2) and he's eligible for unrestricted free agency following the 2015 season. He deserves to get paid.
Since Smith was a first-round draft pick (in 2012) he had a fifth-year option included automatically in his rookie deal – a rule under the 2011 CBA. However, it would behoove the Vikings to lock up their best player through his prime with a four-year or five-year deal before training camp begins this summer.
That's exactly what the Vikings did with Kyle Rudolph last July, signing the tight end to a five-year deal worth a reported $36.5 million.
You can expect Smith to get similar money.
According to Sportrac.com, Eric Weddle of the Chargers and Dashon Goldson of the Buccaneers will be the highest-paid safeties in 2015, with base salaries of $7.5 million. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas has an average salary of $10 million. Weddle and Goldson average out at $8 million-plus per season with the Saints' Jairus Byrd ($9 million) and Chiefs' Eric Berry ($8.34 million) rounding out the top-five in terms of average salary among safeties.
Thus, somewhere in the $7 million to $9 million range is the going rate for elite safeties, of which Smith is one despite the lack of offseason accolades. You can bet the Vikings will gladly pick up his option for 2016, which projects to come in around $5 million
The Vikings are already $16.7 million under the projected $140 million salary cap, according to overthecap.com. That's without adjusting for potential restructuring for the likes of Peterson, Chad Greenway or possibly even Greg Jennings.
In other words, there's plenty of room for a new deal for Smith to get done. Smith has also expressed his desire to stay with the Vikings (granted, what else would he say?) so the likelihood of a contract extension getting done this offseason seems very high. That's good news for Vikings fans.
The key questions are how much will it take to get it done and what does it mean if, for some reason, a new deal is not hammered out prior to the season?
The bigger question, and one that probably won't be decided this offseason, is what to do about fellow 2012 first-round draft pick Matt Kalil. Barring a dramatic unforeseen turn of events, I doubt the Vikings will be negotiating a contract extension with Kalil, the No. 4 overall pick from 2012 (Smith was the 29th pick).
The hunch is that the Vikings will pick up Kalil's option for 2016 because it only becomes guaranteed if he gets injured (again). Therefore, if Kalil has a similarly substandard 2015 and doesn't suffer an additional injury, the Vikings could simply cut him before the 2016 season without a penalty financially.
It's worth noting that fellow 2012 draftees Josh Robinson, Jarius Wright, Rhett Ellison, Robert Blanton, Blair Walsh and Audie Cole are also set to become free agents following the 2015 season. They are all candidates for extensions as well, but none are as much of a priority nor would they come with same salary cap ramifications, as an extension for Smith will.
Go to VikingsJournal.com for a look at how far the Vikings are behind the Packers, and a look at who the Vikings should be targeting in free agency.
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData, head writer at VikingsJournal.com, co-host of the Fantasy Football Pants Party at 1500ESPN.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell