clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Musical Chairs: Offensive Line Edition

New, comments

The Daily Norseman explores all avenues to improve the offensive line depth chart for the 2017 season.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The most obvious storyline of the Vikings 2016 season so far has been injuries on the offensive side of the ball, specifically the injuries sustained on the offensive line. While the playoffs are still mathematically possible for the Vikings, it's never too early to look ahead to 2017.  The injuries on the offensive line beg the question: how can the Vikings go about fixing it for next year?  The answer is not an easy one, but it starts with acquiring players.   The Vikings should consider all avenues to upgrade their offensive line whether it is via free agency, the draft or a trade.

As our Fearless Leader pointed out yesterday, the Salary Cap is set to increase for 2017, potentially by $10 million.  According to OverTheCap.com, the Vikings currently have $24-25 Million in available cap space for 2017. This number could go higher as the team could either cut or extend Adrian Peterson who is due for an $18 million cap hit next year in the final year of his 3-year contract extension he signed in 2015.  They will also have to decide if they want to extend long-term deals to their three 2012 draft picks: Xavier Rhodes, Shariff Floyd and Cordarrelle Patterson who are all on their 5th year options this year.  Spotrac.com projects the Vikings to pick up the 5th-year options on Rhodes and Floyd and therefore projects the Vikings at only $13 million in available cap space for 2017 as a result (that includes Peterson's full salary).  To make a long story short, the Vikings will probably have somewhere between $13-24 million in cap space next year depending on what moves they make with those players.*  That doesn't leave a lot of room to address the offensive line in free agency, but they should be able to make some moves.

Starting with the left tackle position, here is a selected list of most (if not all) of the players whose contracts are currently set to expire at the end of 2016.  They will become free agents if their respective teams don't sign them to contract extensions before March.

2017 Left Tackle Free Agents

Name

Age

Current Team

2016 Cap Hit

Status

Notes

Andrew Whitworth

35

CIN

$9,000,000

UFA

Starter

Matt Kalil

27

MIN

$4,942,650

UFA

Starter, injured

Riley Reiff

28

DET

$1,998,425

UFA

Starter

William Beatty

31

NYG

$1,100,000

UFA

Starter

Bradley Sowell

27

SEA

$1,000,000

UFA

Starter, benched

Jake Long

31

MIN

$885,000

UFA

backup, mid-season signing

Benjamin Ijalana

27

NYJ

$840,000

UFA

backup

Tony Hills

32

NO

$760,000

UFA

Swing backup

Mike Adams

26

CHI

$760,000

UFA

injured, swing backup

Sam Young

29

MIA

$760,000

UFA

backup, mid-season signing

Nick Becton

26

CHI

$675,000

UFA

backup

David Quessenberry

26

HOU

$568,363

UFA

injured (lymphoma), backup

First off, this is an underwhelming list in terms of quantity.  There are only five starters on the list, one of whom was benched halfway through the year due to poor performance (Sowell) and another on IR (Kalil).  Of the remaining starters on the list, it's difficult to "grade" offensive lineman and determine who is the best.  Even though Pro Football Focus tries to do it, they don't know the line calls or player responsibilities on a given play, and there has been some recently convincing criticism of PFF's ability to accurately grade offensive lineman. So I won't provide their PFF grades (I couldn't anyway, because I refuse to pay for them). That said, Football Outsiders has been ranking offensive lines on the whole very well for years and only William Beatty contributes to an offensive line that was ranked in the top 10 in either adjusted sack rating (pass protection) or adjusted line yards (run blocking), but he is also over the age of 30.  This implies that not only is the list short on quantity, it's low in quality too. In my opinion, if the Vikings were looking to sign a free agent left tackle, signing in-house free agent Matt Kalil is probably their best option, and could be their only real option if Whitworth, Beatty and Reiff are all extended by their current teams (which is also a likely scenario). Next up is the list of free agent right tackles.

2017 Right Tackle Free Agents

Name

Age

Current Team

2016 Cap Hit

Status

Notes

Sebastian Vollmer

32

NE

$4,187,500

UFA

Injured starter, missed season

Gosder Cherilus

32

TB

$3,500,000

UFA

backup swing tackle

Andre Smith

29

MIN

$3,500,000

UFA

Injured starter, missed season

Mike Remmers

27

CAR

$2,553,000

UFA

starter

Byron Bell

27

TEN

$2,250,000

UFA

backup on IR, missed season

Jordan Mills

25

BUF

$1,671,000

UFA

starter

Matt McCants

27

CLE

$1,671,000

UFA

backup, cut midseason

Marshall Newhouse

28

NYG

$1,500,000

UFA

starter

Menelik Watson

27

OAK

$1,198,713

UFA

starter, injured

Eric Winston

33

CIN

$1,090,000

UFA

backup swing tackle

Jeff Linkenbach

29

JAC

$810,000

UFA

backup guard/tackle

Bryce Harris

27

MIA

$760,000

UFA

backup

Don Barclay

27

GB

$700,000

UFA

backup

Earl Watford

26

ARI

$648,716

UFA

backup guard/tackle

Ricky Wagner

27

BAL

$576,140

UFA

starter

This list is significantly longer than the left tackle list with a few more starters.  Based on the age and contract numbers, the Vikings would do well to strongly consider some of the more prominent names on the list, including re-signing their own Andre Smith.  Unlike with Left Tackle there could be other options outside of Andre Smith, assuming again, that their current teams don't extend their contracts.

The Vikings next option is to look toward the draft.  I hate to be the bearer of more bad news in this regard, but this appears to be a unusually thin year at offensive tackle as CBS Sports has only two players with a 1st round grade at this stage of the draft process.  And one of those two players is a border-line 1st rounder at that.  Who cares, because we don't have a 1st round pick anyway, right?  Well, it means that some teams might reach at the bottom of the 1st round leaving nothing but scraps at the position by the 2nd round.  Regardless, here are the six players that CBS gives some sort of 2nd round grade the Vikings could consider in the 2017 Draft.

Tackle Prospects - 2017 NFL Draft (from CBS Sports)

Name

School

Year

Height

Weight

Proj Rd

Ryan Ramczyk

Wisconsin

rJr

6-5

314

1-2

Roderick Johnson

Florida State

Jr

6-6

308

2

Mike McGlinchey

Notre Dame

rJr

6-7

310

2-3

Adam Bisnowaty

Pittsburgh

rSr

6-5

300

2-3

Taylor Moton

Western Michigan

rSr

6-5

328

2-3

Again, this is a short list and keep in mind that is list includes ALL offensive tackles (both right and left).  Maybe one of these players can develop into a long-term NFL starter at tackle, but who knows at this point.  While it's still early and a lot can happen in the pre-draft process in terms of player rankings and projections, early returns are weak and there's no guarantee that any of these players will even still be on the board whenever the Vikings are on the clock.

While the tackle position leaves a lot to be desired in free agency and the draft, there could be more options at guard.  Here is the list of free agent guards.

2017 Guard Free Agents

Name

Age

Current Team

2016 Cap Hit

Status

Notes

Luke Joeckel

25

JAC

$5,300,400

UFA

starter, on IR (former LT/RT)

T.J. Lang

29

GB

$5,200,000

UFA

starter, injured

Evan Mathis

35

ARI

$4,006,900

UFA

starter, on IR

Jonathan Cooper

26

CLE

$3,637,251

UFA

starter, midseason signing

Chance Warmack

25

TEN

$3,041,663

UFA

starter, on IR

Ron Leary

27

DAL

$2,553,000

UFA

starter

Chris Chester

33

ATL

$2,350,000

UFA

starter

Kevin Zeitler

26

CIN

$1,886,050

UFA

starter

Austin Pasztor

26

CLE

$1,671,000

UFA

starter at RT

Tim Lelito

27

NO

$1,671,000

UFA

backup

Ted Larsen

29

CHI

$1,650,000

UFA

backup swing guard/center

Jermon Bushrod

32

MIA

$1,500,000

UFA

starter

Eric Kush

27

CHI

$1,260,000

UFA

starter

Jahri Evans

33

NO

$1,000,000

UFA

starter

Chris Scott

29

CAR

$840,000

UFA

starter at RT

Tom Compton

27

ATL

$785,000

UFA

backup LT

Larry Warford

25

DET

$768,750

UFA

starter, injured

Vladimir Ducasse

29

BAL

$760,000

UFA

backup

Brian Winters

25

NYJ

$725,969

UFA

starter, injured

Hugh Thornton

25

IND

$683,845

UFA

backup, on IR

Patrick Omameh

26

JAC

$675,000

UFA

backup

Oday Aboushi

25

HOU

$589,750

UFA

swing backup

While this list looks longer than the tackle lists, keep in mind it includes both right and left guards and is actually shorter than the combined Left/Right tackle lists above.  That said, there are many more starting guards that are set to become free agents than combined tackles. The top five guards on the list in terms of salary all come with question marks about their health or former skill level, but the good news is that they would come at a discount. It remains to be seen how well Alex Boone and Brandon Fusco have performed, but neither are set to become free agents in 2017. So if the Vikings were to pursue some of the name on the list above it would be to either compete with Boone and Fusco or provide better depth than what we have currently in Zac Kerin and Jeremiah Sirles.  It would be wise for the Vikings to go after one or more of the free agent guards on this list.

Like offensive tackle, the guard position does not look particularly strong in this year's draft either.  There are only six names on the draft ranking list from CBS Sports that have a 3rd round grade or higher, and only one of those comes with a 1st round grade.  I would not be opposed to the Vikings taking back-to-back offensive lineman with their first two picks in the draft, so what follows is the very short list of guards with a 2nd or 3rd round grade from CBS.

Guard Prospects - 2017 NFL Draft (from CBS Sports)

Name

School

Year

Height

Weight

Proj Rd

Dorian Johnson

Pittsburgh

Sr

6-5

300

2

Tyrone Crowder

Clemson

rJr

6-2

340

2-3

Scott Quessenberry

UCLA

rJr

6-3

295

3

Zach Banner

Southern California

rSr

6-8

360

3

Braden Smith

Auburn

Jr

6-5

300

3-4

So where does that leave us with the offensive line?  In my opinion after pouring over the options on the table via free agency and the draft, re-signing Matt Kalil and Andre Smith seem like two very good options.  It remains to be seen what kind of contract the Vikings would offer them considering their injury history and playing ability, but the other options in free agency and the draft look thin.  I would be surprised to see the Vikings not draft a tackle in the 2nd or 3rd round of the 2017 draft, and they should do it even after resigning Kalil and Smith. Drafting a high round guard should be a strong consideration as well.

The only other place the Vikings could look for an upgrade is via trade. Teams are typically interested in trading away aging or frequently injured, yet productive players on high salary contracts, especially those teams that are rebuilding mode.  Teams in tight salary cap situations might also interested in trading players that are in the last year of their current contract who they know will command more money than they can pay in free agency, but who also still want to get something out of the player in the way of draft picks before losing them to free agency. Although with the compensatory pick process this is certainly less of a concern than it used to be. Teams are always interested in trading malcontent players, or players who they know aren't living up to expectations, but who might still have value to other teams. And lastly, if a team has the good fortune to be stocked with talent at one position, they might look to trade their strong depth to help at a different position.  With all of that in mind here are two players that could fall under one or more of those situations that the Vikings could go after.

LT Joe Staley, San Francisco

Staley was the subject of trade rumors this past season and the 49ers were reportedly looking for a 2nd round pick for the 32 year-old Staley. The 49ers are a team in rebuilding mode and are likely trying to dump his high salary and net a draft pick in the process.  He would be a perfect fit for the Vikings (who already signed his former teammate Alex Boone), but there is one small problem: his large contract.  Staley is due to count $11 million against the cap in 2017 and has a contract that runs through the 2019 season counting for $7.7 million against the cap in each of the last 2 years of his deal.  That said, the Vikings paid Kalil $11 million for his 5th year option so arguably swapping out Kalil for Staley at the same cap hit would be an upgrade.  The only concern is his age and the fact that trading for Staley would only solve the LT position for the next 3 years at best.  Still, it would give the Vikings some breathing room to develop a LT of the future.

LT Brandon Albert, Miami

Albert has not been a subject of any trade rumors, but he fits into a mold of an oft-injured and older player that could be traded to a team in need (like Ryan Clady to the Jets last year). The Dolphins are not exactly in rebuilding mode, but after losing Ryan Tannehill to an ACL tear this past weekend, they are likely on the outside looking in for the playoffs.  But they are up against the cap next season with only $29 million in space available per Over-The-Cap (Spotrac projects them for $31 million in cap space, 17th most).  As a team, the Dolphins may not be in a great position to trade away a left tackle, but they also have a young lineman in Laremy Tunsil who has been filling in at left tackle in Albert's absence this season. Albert suffered through a rash of injuries in 2015 and missed most of last season, and has missed a few games this season with other injuries.  But when he's healthy he's one of the better left tackles in the game.  Perhaps Miami would be interested in trading away the 32-year old Albert if the price is right.  He becomes a free agent in 2019 (one year sooner than Staley above) and his cap hit next year is on par with Staley at $10.6 million in 2017.  Unlike Staley though, Albert's cap hit actually goes up in 2018 to $11.3 million making him a bit more expensive than Staley over the course of the first two years of his contract.  The other downside is that he would only be a 2-year stop-gap plan at left tackle that would need to be resigned to a new contract (and that would likely happen anyway to lower that 2018 cap number).  Still, this could be a player the Vikings look to target if they think he'll be an upgrade over Matt Kalil.

After looking over all these options, barring an unpredictable trade scenario like one above, the Vikings are should look at their in-house free agents as the best available options in free agency at tackle, bringing in some competition via free agency at guard, and then to the draft to bolster depth, hopefully with a high round draft pick at both the tackle and guard positions.  While some fans might be looking for a complete overhaul of the offensive line, it would be very difficult to do so without a trade in the current free agent/draft market.  But, with a little bit of luck, perhaps their offensive line can stay healthy for once.  With everything taken into consideration here is one possibility the Vikings could consider for improving their offensive line depth.

Vikings 2017 Offensive Line Depth Chart Projection

Left Tackle

Left Guard

Center

Right Guard

Right Tackle

Joe Staley

Alex Boone

Joe Berger

Chance Warmack

Andre Smith

Conor McDermott (rookie, UCLA)

Nick Easton

Brandon Fusco

TJ Clemmings/Mike Harris

In this scenario the Vikings make two splashy moves.  The first is to go after Chance Warmack hard in free agency, a right guard for the Titans who was a highly regarded draft pick that has dealt with an injured hand this season.  The second is to trade for Joe Staley.  In order to do that, the Vikings have to give up their 2nd round pick, but based on the options available in the 2nd round at tackle this year, I would rather they spend that pick to get Joe Staley than on a chance a young player might be good. Staley's cap number would also be no different than Matt Kalil's cap number and he would arguably be a pretty big upgrade.  I also have the Vikings drafting a mid-round tackle, and here I went off the list above and drafted Conor McDermott in the 4th round, a giant from UCLA.  McDermott would backup Staley and be our "left tackle of the future" after he develops for a few years.  Notice that TJ Clemmings stays on, but that is only if Mike Harris is not able to return to the team.  I assume that maybe next year Mike Harris could compete for a role on the offense assuming he overcomes his mystery injury.  He could also be a potential replacement for Andre Smith who struggled before going on IR this year.  With Brandon Fusco's experience as a starter at both left and right guard (and center in college) this makes him more valuable as a swing backup to Alex Boone and Chance Warmack. The projection above would take up about $16-20 million of our available cap space next year.

After going through this exercise I can see how difficult it is to build a competent offensive line, and it looks like an especially difficult task for next season. It's also possible the Vikings could find a late-round gem in the draft that I didn't consider and with other free agent options and unforeseen trades, perhaps we could have a complete overhaul of the offensive line.  One way or another, Rick Spielman will have to make the offensive line a priority in 2017 as it has been neglected for far too long.

*UPDATE: I made a mistake in the salary cap estimate and incorrectly listed Floyd and Rhodes as being in their 5th year options for 2016.  The team picked up their options for NEXT year (2017) and neither one will become a free agent until 2018.  The team did not pick up Patterson's option which makes him a free agent for 2017.  Spotrac therefore included Floyd and Rhodes in their cap estimate for 2017 for the Vikings since they will be under contract.