Matt Kalil says his knees are pain-free before pivotal season with Vikings

"I want to stay a Viking the rest of my career," said Matt Kalil, the fourth pick in the 2012 draft who is entering the final season of his contract. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- Maybe nothing about 2016 will turn out to be all that different from 2015 and 2014 for Matt Kalil. Maybe the Minnesota Vikings left tackle will alternate stretches of solid protection for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the lapses that led Vikings fans to heap scorn on him two years ago and occasionally last season. In a year when Kalil needs to make a bold statement to secure his future in Minnesota, maybe he'll write in pencil and not pen.

All that will unfold this fall, when the fourth pick in the 2012 draft plays his fifth season for the Minnesota Vikings with an $11.1 million salary and nothing guaranteed beyond this year. Kalil hasn't matched the Pro Bowl form of his rookie season in the three years since, and the Vikings will have to decide after this season whether the 27-year-old should remain their left tackle going forward.

One thing, though, gives Kalil reason to believe this year will be different: For the first time since 2013, he is in the Vikings' offseason program without a standing appointment on athletic trainer Eric Sugarman's schedule. He needed knee operations after the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and Kalil's back, hips and shoulder have all bothered him at different times in his career.

This offseason, though, there was nothing howling at Kalil when he woke in the mornings. He was able to get up, go to work and prepare for the season without pain.

"This is the earliest I've worked out in a long time," Kalil said at the Vikings' annual playground build event last week. "As soon as February came around, I took a few weeks off after the season, and I was ready to go. That's obviously exciting -- not having any scope or anything inside my knee. I'm getting stronger now every day, rather than going into camp and playing catch-up all the time."

The Vikings replaced Jeff Davidson -- Kalil's position coach for four years -- with Tony Sparano once coach Mike Zimmer decided the offensive line needed a little more fire. The Vikings also hope they'll get that from left guard Alex Boone, who will line up next to Kalil after signing a four-year, $26.8 million deal in March.

"He definitely lightens the mood, but when it's time to get serious, he's probably got a million pages of notes; I see that guy taking notes non-stop," Kalil said of Boone. "He's a good teammate to learn from, as well, and he's had a lot of success in the NFL. I'm excited to have a guy like that on our team."

It will ultimately be incumbent upon Kalil, though, to prove he should get a long-term deal from the Vikings once his rookie contract expires. His fiancee grew up in Excelsior, Minn., and Kalil might spend the rest of his life here. To make that a reality, though, he has to produce in 2016. He's hoping he can make that happen with his knee injuries a thing of the past.

"I play well, or I don't, and everything takes care of itself. That's always been my mindset," Kalil said. "Your play on the field has to be good, and everything else will settle in. It's a little extra motivation. Obviously, I want to stay a Viking the rest of my career and play for four or five more years, or who knows how much longer I can play. But I want to compete and play at a high level as long as I'm in the NFL. I'm pretty optimistic this year; I've had a full offseason so far, and I'm ready to get after it when camp comes around."