In 2015, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line was, to put it charitably, not good. Along with the wide receiver position, it was the weakest spot on a very talented roster. So, since there really wasn't anything worth writing about in free agency at the wide receiver position, Rick Spielman decided to focus his free agent attention on what he could fix now.
Obviously, we don't know if the Vikings have truly improved their offensive line or not. . .however, we do know that they've put a whole lot of capital towards that end.
According to the folks at Spotrac (thanks to a link from 24/7 Sports), we can now tell you that the Minnesota Vikings are spending a greater percentage of their salary cap space on the offensive line than any other team in the National Football League. The Vikings are now spending over 25% of their 2016 salary cap allocation on offensive linemen, and that's without figuring in the one-year deal that Andre Smith signed on Thursday.
So, what are the Vikings potentially looking at along the offensive line now? Well, according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Vikings now have nine offensive linemen on the roster that have started 16 games in a season previously:
The five players that are italicized in the list above are all in contract years, whether it's from a previous contract, a restructure, or signing a one-year deal with the Vikings.
If we look at the tackle spots, it looks like Kalil is going to remain relatively unchallenged on the left side. The team picked up his $11 million option at the start of the new league year, and there really doesn't appear to be a ready replacement for him on the roster at the present time. For better or for worse. . .hopefully for better under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Tony Sparano. . .Kalil is going to get what might be his last audition at left tackle with the Vikings.
At the other tackle spot, on the other hand, it looks like things could get a little crazy. The team brought back Loadholt after his Achilles injury last year, and brought in Smith. I'm not sure if people are assuming that Loadholt is just going to walk back into his starting spot if he's healthy, and the Vikings didn't give Smith the kind of money they did for him to hang out on the bench. This might be the battle to watch in Training Camp this August, and the man who started all 16 games at right tackle for the Vikings in 2015, T.J. Clemmings, may not even be a serious part of the starting discussion at the position in 2016.
The three interior spots on the line are going to be a real free-for-all as well. Let's start at left guard, where you'd have to think that new addition Alex Boone is going to slot in, having played there last year with the San Francisco 49ers. That means he'd be replacing Brandon Fusco, who got a big contract extension from the Vikings in 2014 but struggled mightily with his move to the other side in 2015. Would the Vikings consider moving Fusco back to the right side?
Well, then you run into the problem of what to do with Mike Harris, who was a pleasant surprise at right guard in his first full season at the position. Harris really got better as the season went on, and the fear was that the Vikings would lose him in free agency. (The New York Giants, among other teams, were rumored to have been sniffing around him in the "legal tampering" period.) But, the Vikings brought him back on a one-year deal, and you can bet he's going to be battling his tail off in camp this summer to prove that he should get even more in 2017.
One of Boone, Fusco, and Harris is going to be spending the majority of their time on the bench in 2016 (barring injury). Which one is it going to be? If I had to guess, just in terms of versatility, it seems that Harris would be the odd man out. He could provide valuable depth at both tackle and guard, and if he had to step in for Boone or Fusco, the drop-off in play would be negligible.
Then there's the center position, where long-time starter John Sullivan should be fully recovered from the back injury that cost him all of 2015 and attempting to reclaim his starting spot. The problem with that is the man he'll be trying to usurp is Joe Berger, who was one of the best centers in the NFL last season in Sullivan's stead, according to most metrics. Berger has spent plenty of time at guard during his stretch with the Vikings, but is there going to be room for him at the guard position of Sullivan regains his past level of play? Like Harris, Berger could be a valuable backup at a number of positions if he doesn't take the starting job back.
To this point, we haven't even mentioned a lot of young players that the team seems to like a lot, too. Guys like Austin Shepherd, who came in for the Vikings in a lot of "jumbo" sets in 2015. There's center Nick Easton, who the Vikings thought enough of to trade Gerald Hodges to the 49ers for. There's guard Jeremiah Sirles, who the Vikings thought enough of to send a draft pick to the San Diego Chargers for. There's center Zac Kerin, who finally got an opportunity to get onto the big club after several seasons on the practice squad. There's tackle Carter Bykowski, the local kid that was having a pretty solid camp until a pectoral injury cost him his season.
When the Vikings get to Mankato in late July, there won't be a single positional battle more interesting to watch than what happens along the offensive line. Give credit to Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer, and cap guru Rob Brzezinski. They knew they had to attack this spot in free agency, and that's exactly what they've done. We don't know yet who will win these positional battles in camp, but with the moves they've made at the position, the Minnesota Vikings should definitely have a much stronger offensive line than they have in 2015. Just as importantly, they should have significantly better depth to cover any possible injury scenarios.