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Vikings Year-End Evaluation Part II: Offensive Line

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I doubt there is much disagreement that the Vikings offensive line was the weakest position group on the team- and for at least the second year running. It was about this time last year that the Vikings’ previous offensive line coach- Jeff Davidson- was not extended and replaced by Tony Sparano.

And while Sparano had to deal with a rash of injuries- some known (Kalil, Smith, Sullivan and Loadholt were known injury concerns) and some surprises (Mike Harris), as I detailed in Part I, there has been nothing to suggest Sparano has done anything to turn things around for the offensive line, including developing young players, getting more out of veterans, finding the best position for players, or managing the line well.

After Sparano was acquired, the Vikings made their biggest acquisition in free-agency to shore up the offensive line by signing LG Alex Boone. That move would allow Brandon Fusco to move back to his old position at RG, where he had performed well before being injured the previous year. TJ Clemmings, who had been forced into action as a raw rookie, was moved to LT, where from a measurables standpoint, he was a better fit. The Vikings had also made the decision to execute the $11m 5th year option on Matt Kalil at LT, rather than look elsewhere.

The Vikings also acquired RT Andre Smith, who had been something of a first-round bust for the Bengals many years ago, in part due to injuries, and whom the Bengals did not wish to re-sign. It had been at least a couple years since Smith had played well, but the Vikings were willing to take a chance on a one-year prove-it deal if Loadholt didn’t pan out

With John Sullivan back, training camp was set for some big position battles- Berger and Sullivan at center, Mike Harris and Brandon Fusco at RG, Loadholt and Smith at RT, maybe even Clemmings or Bykowski giving Kalil a challenge at LT.

As it turned out, Harris got a mystery illness and was out, Loadholt retired, and Sullivan didn’t seem to have it and lost the position battle early on to Berger.

Meanwhile both Kalil and Smith were less than impressive throughout camp, but were given starting positions. Fusco too. Boone was alright, and was given the starting LG position really from the moment he was signed.

After Tony Sparano spent some time during the pre-draft process working out Willie Beavers, the Vikings drafted him in the 4th round, despite performance issues during college, only to have him not make the 53-man roster- the highest drafted player in the entire draft not to do so.

The Vikings also let RT Austin Shepherd go (he was later re-signed to the practice squad), although he had seen some jumbo-package snaps as a rookie and showed some potential.

In any case, opening day saw the Vikings start Kalil, Boone, Berger, Fusco and Smith from left to right. From the get-go it was apparent that Kalil and Smith especially were struggling, and so was Fusco.

It didn’t take long for Kalil to go on IR, replaced by Clemmings, and then Smith too, replaced by Sirles. At the time, I thought those two going on IR could be addition by subtraction, as they both were playing poorly and their replacements could in fact be upgrades. Looking back now on the season, Sirles proved to be an upgrade, while Clemmings did not (but not much worse either). Jake Long, who was acquired at the bye-week, was brought in too soon at LT, and got beat badly for a game or two before starting to improve- but then he too went down and was lost for the season.

Overall, looking at the PFF grades for all the offensive linemen who played this past season, it should be clear that injuries did not result in a big drop in performance. RT actually improved, and if you combine Clemmings, Long and Rashod at LT, performance was about the same as Kalil, which is to say equally bad.

When Fusco went down with an injury late in the season, Berger was moved to RG and Nick Easton given a chance to start at center. If you compare Easton and Fusco’s performance, again not a big loss overall.

Really the only bright spot along the offensive line was Joe Berger, who continued to play at a high level, although down slightly from his previous year. Alex Boone was in the average-to-above-average category overall. These were the only two linemen rated average (70) or above. No linemen performed better this past season than in 2015.

If Sparano spent time working with Clemmings to develop his technique during the off-season and throughout the season, I’d like to see how he would have performed without coaching. It’s difficult to see any value-added there from a coaching perspective. From a physical standpoint, Clemmings is a prototypical LT- he has the size, length and athleticism to play the position. But I don’t see any development in technique, which is why his performance has been so poor.

Worse is the general decline in run-blocking across the board. Pass protection has been an issue for years, but run blocking took a definite turn for the worse this year under Sparano. Average yards per rush attempt went from 4.5 last year (4th best), to 3.2 this year (dead last). That’s about a 30% drop- huge. That wasn’t all because of the loss of AP. When Asiata and McKinnon took over for AP in 2014, they combined for 4.4 yards/rush.

Bottom line, excepting established veterans already performing relatively well- Berger and Boone- Sparano has had absolutely no impact in terms of improving offensive line performance. I’ve heard no comments regarding Sparano this year, which generally means nobody has anything good to say about him.

My hope when Sparano was hired was that he would benefit from having a stable organization to work in. But Sparano’s steady decline with short stints from head coach to coordinator to position coach without any achievement in recent years may be the red flag it appeared to be on his resume.

Given the change in offensive coordinators, and likely scheme, combined with Sparano’s performance this year, and I see no reason to keep him. Clearly there is a need for upgrades in personnel along the offensive line, but so too in coaching if the Vikings are to realize more of the talent they have, or will have, along the offensive front. The Vikings need not only a coach that can actually develop players and teach technique better, but also a coach that is better in evaluating players and can implement a scheme that fits best with their abilities.

One such coach is Bill Callahan, currently with the Washington Redskins. I did a write-up the other day on him, even though I imagine it wouldn’t be easy to get him away from the Redskins, who can block interviews if they wish until his contract expires next year. Nevertheless, this is a guy that could work wonders for the offensive line, and is the type of coach Mike Zimmer prefers- a teacher. Both coaches are 60 and grew up in Illinois- played football in high school only a short distance away.

Beyond Callahan, I’m sure there are other possibilities, but none better.

Be that as it may, clearly there is a need for new players as well, and to move on from a few old ones.

Out with the Old

One of the old ones to move on from is Matt Kalil. Matt has suffered from injuries since the tail end of his rookie year and has never been the same. These injuries, sadly, are not going away. Matt has on-going knee issues, in addition to on-going back issues, and now the hip injury. To be honest, I’m not sure how much Kalil wants to play anymore, given his injury status. In any case, counting on Matt Kalil to suddenly be healthy and ready to resume his rookie form of 5 years ago is totally unrealistic. Making a deal to keep him on the team (assuming he wants to play) and giving him the first-team snaps would be a total waste of money and opportunity for another player to develop.

Similarly, Andre Smith should not be re-signed. Smith’s career is basically over, given his on-going health issues and poor play. He’ll be 30 in a couple weeks, and a turn-around for him, who hasn’t been healthy or good for years- isn’t likely.

I would also add Brandon Fusco to the list, at least in terms of being a starter. I would allow him the chance to compete, but if he doesn’t win the starting job, which should not be counted on or expected, he should either be restructured at less than half his current salary or traded/released before the season starts next year. His dead cap at that point would only be $800k.

That leaves most of the offensive line spots open, but I would also consider a re-shuffle of a couple existing players, after considering possible acquisitions.

Re-Shuffle Existing Linemen

The first guy I’d explore switching positions is Alex Boone to LT. Left-tackle is not a position easily or adequately filled in free-agency, as the good ones tend to be re-signed. Some will point to 35 year-old Andrew Whitworth, who is a free agent now from Cincinnati. He was highly rated this year despite his age (just like Berger), and for that reason could possibly be acquired for less than you’d normally get a top LT, but a 1-2 year rental isn’t the preferred option unless there really isn’t anybody else out there. Typically switching teams carries a risk of a performance drop as a guy learns a new system, etc., so Whitworth can be a consideration, but not the first option.

The first option may be Boone. He played LT in college and was willing to make the move this year- apparently had a conversation about it with Sparano after Long went down, but the move was not made. Nevertheless, Boone’s strong suit is pass blocking and he has the size and length to play LT - and the tenacity you like to see from that position. Also, in moving Boone to LT, it would be easier- and cheaper- to fill his spot at LG either from existing players, free agency or the draft.

One guy that I hope can come back and the Vikings re-sign is Jake Long. Long was a stud before his injuries, and obviously his going down again this year with an Achilles injury- which ended Loadholt’s career- is troubling, but if he’s healthy and willing, I’d give him another one-year deal to compete in training camp and at least be a back-up.

Beyond possibly re-signing Jake Long, there are a few other free-agents to consider.

Free Agents that could Fit

If Boone is moved to LT, one free agent that could fill his spot at LG is Ron Leary with the Cowboys. Leary probably isn’t a top guard, but he’s on par with Boone. Given the big investments the Cowboys have in Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, and with Zack Martin due to get paid too in a year or two, the Cowboys will let Leary go in favor of La’el Collins. Leary is 6’3” 320lbs, and had a good year with the Cowboys- 81.8 overall PFF rating, and above 80 in both pass pro and run blocking. It should be noted that the Cowboys play a zone-blocking scheme, however- something that should be considered for the Vikings.

At right-guard, there are three potential options. One would be Mike Harris, if he is healthy and can be re-signed. He’d likely be the cheapest option, and could perform equally well as the others potentially too - he had a good year at RG in 2015.

The second option would be Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals. He’s one of the best guards in the league, and doubtless the Bengals will have him as a key free-agent to re-sign. Given that, it’s unlikely Zeitler can be acquired, and if so he’d be the most expensive option- probably around $10m/year.

The third option would be Larry Warford with the Lions. The Lions have both Warford and Riley Rieff up as free-agents, and it’s unclear they’ll field good enough offers to retain both of them. Rieff, at LT, is solid but not great, and given other options spending over $10m/year to acquire Rieff is not that compelling. Warford may not come much cheaper, but he’s a better guard than Rieff is a tackle. Warford is a big guard- 6’3”, 330lbs- and was rated over 80 by PFF in both pass protection and run blocking this year and is coming off his rookie deal.

Ideally and realistically, the Vikings could acquire Ron Leary, move Boone to LT, keep Berger at C, and re-sign Mike Harris at RG. That leaves RT.

Sirles is certainly an option if he can continue to develop, but he may be better at guard than tackle. Austin Shepherd is also an option, but probably more as a backup than starter.

Draft Prospects

There is next to nothing at RT in terms of free agency this year, so better look to the draft- which is also a weak one for tackles. It’s a little early for a lot of pre-draft evaluations and scouting reports, but one guy that could be available for the Vikings is Zach Banner, RT from USC.

Banner is Phil Loadholt 2.0. Banner is 6’8” and was up to 380lbs. at one point, but has since slimmed down to around 345lbs. to improve his agility, quickness, etc. Banner could be a good mid-round pick. He is the son of Lincoln Kennedy, who played RT for the Raiders in the 90s. His weight issue (needing to lose weight to improve his quickness and reduce injury risk) and technique make him a mid-round prospect that could be developed into a solid starter, but probably not an immediate one.

Brad Seaton from Villanova is another mid-round possibility at RT. 6’5”, 325lbs, he a great senior year but was out most of his junior year with an injury.

Perhaps the top prospect for RT is Cam Robinson from Alabama, although some view him as a LT. He’s 6’6”, 326lbs, and there is some debate about how good a LT he would be in the NFL, and how high he’ll go. Most put him as a first-round prospect given the weak tackle draft class, but it may be that he drops as teams don’t see him as the best player available and address other needs. I suspect the Vikings would have to at least trade up to get him, and maybe that’s worthwhile, but we’ll see how things play out.

Any way you look at it, the Vikings will likely need to develop a player at RT for next season. Sirles may be the leading candidate at this point, but I wouldn’t say he’s a shoe-in either. There is also the possibility of a trade for a RT, but difficult to speculate who that would be.

Lastly, there are the remaining players on the Vikings roster, one or more of which could compete for a starting job if given proper coaching and development. TJ Clemmings is one of these, and if LT is addressed with Boone and Long, perhaps Clemmings could be looked at again as a RG, and perhaps Mike Harris considered again at RT (Harris did much better at guard than tackle, but at 338lbs has the size for RT), and Austin Shepherd could also win a starting RT spot. Rashod Hill, who had a solid relief appearance at LT against a Bears team mailing it in week 17, could potentially add something too.

Who knows, maybe even Willie Beavers will prove to be a smart pick and win the starting RT job.

At this point it may be better to have Nick Easton spend another year as back-up behind Berger, rather than move Berger to guard, unless he shows significant improvement this off-season and training camp. It’s a bit unclear if he can be a starter after Berger hangs it up, or if a new acquisition needs to be made.

Overall, the Vikings have some options to upgrade their offensive line personnel to the point where they have at least above-average guys at every position, and can improve the running game to much closer to where it was in 2015, while providing Sam Bradford more time for longer passing plays to develop.

In any case, existing players need to be developed if the offensive line is to have the needed starting performance and depth over the course of a season as injuries inevitably will happen.

It’s difficult to be that optimistic in that regard if Sparano is kept on as offensive line coach, and if at least one major free agency acquisition is not made, as this is a position group in need of not only new blood, but a new approach and thinking.