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Is Right Tackle the Biggest Need?

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The Daily Norseman breaks down the right tackle position.

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

There is one position that I believe is the biggest need of the team heading into the offseason, and that position is right tackle. At this time last year fans were holding out hope that Phil Loadholt would recover from his Achilles Tear. Even if he couldn’t return to form, we also had hope that Mike Harris could slide over from guard in a pinch, and TJ Clemmings started most of the 2015 season at right tackle and maybe he could improve after being thrown into the fire. The Vikings also signed Andre Smith early in free agency for additional depth to provide a certain level of safety net, but when the dust settled three out of those four options were either retired or on Injured Reserve by Week 5 of the 2016 season, and TJ Clemmings had been switched over to left tackle to start for Matt Kalil who was also on IR. After the Vikings signed Jake Long to start at left tackle (who himself lasted all of four weeks before landing on IR) they relied on some combination of T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles during the vast majority of this past season at right tackle, and the results were…uninspiring.

Looking back again, when news broke of Loadholt’s retirement prior to the start of training camp last summer, the question of who would be the starting right tackle was an open question. Mike Harris landed on the non-football injury list shortly after Loadholt’s announced retirement and he missed the entire 2016 season with a mystery illness. In fact, the Pioneer Press spoke with him recently and his timetable to return from this mystery illness is still uncertain. While Harris is hopeful that he can someday play again, even as soon as this upcoming season, his uncertain timetable leaves him as an unreliable option that can’t really be counted on for anything at this point, not to mention that he’s viewed as more of a guard anyway.

Andre Smith won the competition with TJ Clemmings for the starting right tackle job, but he had many questionable moments where technique and conditioning were called into question. His triceps tear injury in Week 4 required surgery, and if it’s anything like what Ray Lewis dealt with, it could take a full calendar year for him to return to 100% strength and conditioning. Recovery times are always difficult to predict, but it could put Smith on track to miss training camp and the Preseason, including even the first 4 weeks of the 2017 season. When you also consider that Smith is a free agent who performed rather poorly in four starts anyway, the Vikings would be wise to part ways and find a younger, healthier, more reliable option at right tackle. While they had four options at right tackle in the months leading up to the 2016 season, today they have only two: TJ. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of T.J. Clemmings starting at any position on the offensive line is enough to leave me in a panicky fit. Even though I don’t put a lot of stock into Pro Football Focus grades of offensive lineman, they graded him as either the worst or second worst offensive tackle in the entire NFL (out of something like 78 different players), so I suppose that says something. It was a similar story last year when he was at right tackle. Even without those grades informing our opinion, we all saw the complete lack of technique and pressure he allowed to Sam Bradford, and the missed blocks in the run game all season which tells me that Clemmings is backup material at best at this stage. He was a prototypical prospect with great athleticism coming out of the draft, but there were some red flags in the pre-draft process. After this season and last, the Vikings should look to move on from T.J. Clemmings as a starter.

For Jeremiah Sirles, it looks a little better. Sirles first start at right tackle was in week 5 versus Detroit and in the few grades PFF shares publicly as part of their weekly game reviews they graded him 78 out of a possible 100, which was his highest grade of the season. Sirles started at right tackle a grand total of 9 times and also made a start for Alex Boone at left guard in Week 9 vs Detroit. He played in 2 other games as well coming in to relieve Boone at left guard in Week 3, and relieving Andre Smith in Week 4 at right tackle for a total of 12 weeks of game action. In his 10 total starts on the offensive line he graded at least 70.3 or better in 6 of them. He also scored below 69 in the remaining four (I’m not certain how far below as I refuse to pay for their player grades). I’m not sure what we can draw from those grades aside from saying that he was inconsistent in his level of play from one week to the next. It is worth pointing out though, that in those 6 games where he graded at least 70.3 or better, it also happened to be one of the Top 5 graded performances on offense.

So I suppose while Sirles was inconsistent, one could make the case that according to Pro Football Focus he was playing at a replacement level. When you also consider the order the Vikings utilized backups, he was clearly the 2nd best backup after T.J. Clemmings to start the year. When Matt Kalil went down in the 2nd week of the season, T.J. Clemmings slotted in a left tackle, but the next player to sub in was Jeremiah Sirles when Boone went down against Carolina. In other words, he was probably viewed as the 7th best offensive lineman on the team with the ability to play left guard or right tackle. At worst this makes him a versatile backup lineman. On the other hand, that also means that the team viewed him as being worse than T.J. Clemmings, since Sirles went to the bench when they signed Jake Long. So, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing since Clemmings was arguably the worst tackle in the NFL last year.

Consider the other positions on the offensive line. At left tackle we have a similar situation, although arguably better if the team were to resign Matt Kalil. While the struggles of Kalil have been well-documented, he has performed well when 100% healthy and with the right scheme and coaches. His backups appear to be T.J. Clemmings and Rashod Hill. We know what we have in Clemmings as previously discussed above, and Rashod Hill looked serviceable in a partial game’s worth of snaps. So there are three options to work with including a veteran starter who may only be “league average” at best.

At left guard we have recent free agent pickup Alex Boone, who has been solid if unspectacular. At center we have a dominant player in Joe Berger with a promising backup in Nick Easton. At right guard we have Brandon Fusco who after looking great early in his career has regressed significantly. Our backup guard situation includes Mike Harris, who as pointed out earlier can’t be counted on, Jeremiah Sirles (who seems to be in the running for right tackle) and Zac Kerin who is the bottom of the totem pole, somehow behind the likes of Clemmings and Sirles in the mind of the coaching staff.

To make a long story short, we at least have startable veteran options at every position except right tackle. If the best in-house option to start at right tackle is Jeremiah Sirles, who is a replacement level player at best and potentially worse than T.J. Clemmings according to the coaching staff, then that makes right tackle a HUGE priority this offseason. While some fans may not want the Vikings to resign Matt Kalil (and I can certainly understand that) doing so leaves the team with two gigantic holes at offensive tackle. The team can ill-afford to plug them both with the available options in the draft and free agency. And between the two, finding a competent right tackle would be much easier than a left tackle. So in my opinion the team would be wise to resign Matt Kalil to a short, incentive laden deal to keep the left tackle seat warm, and turn their attention to right tackle this offseason. And again, because of the available options in-house, for me right tackle is the biggest need of the team.