The NFL is structurally built so that teams that are on the bottom can quickly rise to the top in short order, and our own Vikings were one of the poster children for that from 2006-2009. With a combination of good drafts, timely free agent signings, and a blockbuster trade, Minesota went from a lethargic 6-10 to the cusp of the Super Bowl.
And once you ascend, it's difficult to stay on top, as you draft later, and if you make trades, you don't draft at all. Every move you make as a front office will have a ripple effect that is magnified if it doesn't pay off.
As Vikes fans, we have witnessed that as well. And we are witnessing it at areas that the Vikings have whiffed at in the draft.
Namely, offensive line. Let's see how the Vikings ended up with one of the worst lines in the NFL.
Let's go back 10 years, to the 2002 draft, and see who the Vikings have drafted, and we'll see a disturbing trend.
2002: Bryant McKinnie, T, 1st Round; Ed Ta'amu, G, 4th Round
2003: No offensive linemen chosen
2004: Nat Dorsey, T, 4th Round
2005: Marcus Johnson, G, 2nd Round
2006: Ryan Cook, C, 2nd Round
2007: No offensive linemen taken
2008: John Sullivan, C, 6th Round
2009: Phil Loadholt, T, 2nd Round
2010: Chris DeGeare, T, 5th Round
2011: DeMarcus Love, T, 6th Round; Brandon Fusco, C, 6th Round
Now, let's look at the starting line the Vikings had in 2006/07/08/09/10/11, when the current front office took over the draft, and see how many draft picks the Vikings have had as starting linemen in that time frame.
After the jump, of course.
RG--Artis Hicks/Anthony Herrera/Herrera/Herrera/Herrera/Herrera
RT--Marcus Johnson/Ryan Cook/Cook/Loadholt/Loadholt/Loadholt
The guys in bold were starters that were drafted by the Vikings. If you just look at the raw numbers, 17 of a possible 30 line positions (5 linemen over 6 years) have been filled by draft picks, 6 spots have been filled by a Hall of Fame free agent acquisition (Hutch), and only the right guard position has been filled by essentially an undrafted free agent (Herrera).
And consequently, the failure at selecting good offensive linemen has been stunning once you do a little digging. McKinnie was league average or better, but as a first round pick he should be better than league average. If things worked out, the line should be stocked with good to serviceable veterans based on these draft results, especially when you look at second round picks Marcus Johnson and Ryan Cook. Now, I'm not saying every pick should work out, but they should when they are first and second round picks, like Johnson and Cook, and at least to this point in his career, Phil Loadholt.
But of those 17 positions, only 8 of them have been what I would consider productive years, the three by Birk and the five by McKinnie. And neither of those guys were drafted by the current front office.
Speaking of Birk, letting him go was a huge mistake. Thanks for that, Chilly. There is a demarcation line in quality play, and it is between the 2008 and 2009 season, the year Birk left for Baltimore. But Minnesota should have been prepared for that, and in a way, they were, or at least I thought they were preparing for that. But Cook, a center in college, was converted to a tackle, then a backup guard, so the Vikes had to rely on a sixth rounder to start. Although Birk himself was a 6th rounder, thinking that Sullivan could adequately replace a Hall of Famer was, in retrospect, nuts.
But that's still not the main point, which is that the Vikings have drafted only 4 linemen in the top three rounds in the last ten years, McKinnie, Marcus Johnson, Cook, and Loadholt. That would be fine, if those linemen had panned out, but only McKinnie did.
Let's contrast that with the Packers, this week's opponent and the defending Super Bowl champion. In the same time frame, they've drafted 15 offensive linemen, and almost half of them (7) were drafted in the fourth round or earlier. As a consequence, all five of the Packers offensive linemen are former draft picks, and all of them but C Scott Wells were drafted in the 4th round or earlier.
Don't want to use the Packers for comparison? Fine, let's use the 1998 Vikings, probably the best Vikes team ever. They had a dominating offensive line that was the foundation for the best offense in NFL history. Three of the starters (Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, Korey Stringer--RIP, big man) were former first round picks by the Vikings that developed into All-Pro players. C Jeff Christy was a 4th round pick by the Cardinals who didn't make the team, and who the Vikes picked up and developed into an All Pro. RG David Dixon was your typical journeyman, a former 9th rounder taken by New England, and the weakest lineman in the group, but by that point in his career was a league average player. Three first rounders and a fourth rounder, awesome line.
A second, a sixth, an undrafted free agent, a stopgap, and Hutch--dumpster fire.
Quite a contrast between then and now, huh?
The Vikings have gone on the cheap for for offensive linemen in the draft for the better part of a decade, and when they did select a traditional first day guy, they missed, and quite badly. As a consequence, that neglect is now on full display.
The only way the Vikings are goingto get a quality line is to draft one, for the most part. Steve Hutchinson was a gift that dropped into Minnesota's lap due to Seattle front office mismanagement that lead to the infamous Poison Pill War with the Seahawks--teams aren't going to let good linemen get away, so addressing the line through free agency isn't the answer, unless it's a mid-tier guy that can be a stopgap for a year or two.
I guess that what I'm trying to say that there aren't going to be any quick fixes, and the Vikings are going to have to do this the old fashioned way: Good scouting, solid drafting, and a good offensive line coach that can develop the guys he gets.
Hopefully, DeMarcus Love and Brandon Fusco can be part of the answer, and not a continuing string of problems that we've seen in recent years, but as 6th rounders, I'm not holding out hope.