Those two words can create a differing financial ideas … and sometimes tension and pressure.
For some players, contract years are the impetus to have their best season yet. At least that’s what the popular opinion is among fans.
The thinking goes as such: Player X will try harder because of a contract year. But, in reality is a contract year really a big deal for the player?
“It’s definitely a big deal. I’d be lying to you if I’d sit here and say it’s not that big of a deal,” said Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who – surprise! – is in his own contract year. “It can set you up for the rest of your life or even more. As an athlete, as a player, you like to see what the next step brings you.”
Munnerlyn could be feeling the pressure as much as anyone. His first year in Minnesota was also Mike Zimmer’s first year and Munnerlyn admitted he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his head coach’s philosophies, even if Zimmer’s forte has always resided in the defensive backfield.
For a time, Munnerlyn was hesitant, even resistant. These days, he is full buy-in on the Zimmer hype train. Zimmer’s techniques were different than Munnerlyn knew before, but he has seen them in action and knows they work. Now the question for the guy who considers himself the best nickel cornerback in the league is whether he can earn his way onto a Zimmer roster beyond 2016.
Munnerlyn’s three-year, $11.75 million deal with the Vikings is up after 2016 and so is the latest one-year contract for veteran cornerback Terence Newman. But the Vikings also have Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and rookie Mackensie Alexander as the “young blood” at the position. Newman may decide to retire after the 2016 season, when he will be playing as a 38-year-old. Munnerlyn has no such plans.
“You want to know: Do they want you here, do they don’t want you here? Will I be playing in Minnesota for the next four or five years? That’s how it goes. But at the same time, you can’t control that,” Munnerlyn said. “The only thing you can control is what you do on the football field. That’s why I come out here each and every day and compete. I compete at a very high level. When they drafted a corner, I wasn’t mad or like, ‘Oh, man, I’m out of here.’ No. I didn’t look at it like that. I was just like, I’ve got to bring it. I’ve got to bring up my game a little bit more and go out there and ball out.”
There are numerous other Vikings that will need to “ball out” in 2016 to earn their next big contract.
Safety Harrison Smith already did that. He was scheduled in 2016 to play under the fifth-year option in his rookie contract that the Vikings exercised earlier this year, but they also extended his contract earlier this month, giving him a five-year extension that averages $10.25 million per season. (Hint: He’s worth it in NFL financial terms.)
His contract was preceded by many others. Of the top 10 contracts by cap space this year, the Vikings have had a recent history of locking up players at or before their prime, not on their way down from the ride. Most of their biggest contracts were given out in the last three years and to players still reaching their prime.
- 2011: Adrian Peterson’s deal with a $12 million cap number in 2016.
- 2013: Brian Robison’s extension through 2017 worth $5.6M annually but $5.25M in 2016 and jumping to $6.6M in 2017.
- 2014: Everson Griffen’s deal for $8.2M, Kyle Rudolph’s at $7.3M, Linval Joseph and Munnerlyn’s free-agent deals at $6.35M and $4.58M, respectively, and Brandon Fusco’s at $4M in 2016.
- 2015: John Sullivan’s training camp extension that averages $8.5M at $5.83 this year and Matt Kalil’s fifth-year option worth almost $11.1M this year.
- 2016: Smith’s extension that averages $10.25 million at $7.3 this year and Alex Boone’s free-agent deal at $6.7M.
The job of Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski operate much like a Ferris wheel. In the amusement park that is the NFL, their ride is more like the luxury Linq version in Las Vegas. As players exit the ride – willingly or otherwise – at the bottom of their careers, Spielman is adding about 20 more players to the rotisserie at the start of their careers. During the ride, Brzezinski is serving the best of them additional money.
The decisions will continue to need to be made after this year. Kalil and Munnerlyn will be up, as well numerous established veterans on one-year deals – Phil Loadholt, Andre Smith, Newman, Mike Harris, Chad Greenway, Rhett Ellison and others.
Technically, Cordarrelle Patterson is a veteran, but he’s still on his rookie deal and to call him “established” on offense would be a stretch. Like so many others, he could consider this a make-or-break year for his future on the team.
“If it’s a make or break, then that’s what it is. If that’s what it is, then I hope it’s going to be a great year,” Patterson said.
“… I feel like people know what I can do. I’ll show it, man. It’s not just me, it’s my teammates that are going to help me out, them being on the field with me. We play for each other.”
The makeup of “each other” is different every year, depending on who stepped off the Ferris wheel and who joined. Roster churn is part of the cycle of NFL life, so players know every year is a new opportunity and the Vikings like their opportunity this year.
“I’m buying in,” Munnerlyn said of higher expectations placed on the 2016 Vikings. “This team is upcoming. You look at what we did last year, 11-5, we’ve definitely got to have a better record than 11-5. Our coaches have been preaching that to us. Adrian went out and said we’re going to win the Super Bowl. We’re going to the Super Bowl and we’re going to win it. I’m all for it.”
Next year will take care of itself, whether it’s a player’s contract year or classified as a “make-or-break” season. But for those in their contract years, the motivation is increased.