At the end of 2016, one thing was certain:
The offensive line rebuild Rick Spielman undertook after the 2015 season was an abject failure. A plan that counted on former starters returning from injury, a free agent guard with a nasty streak, a former first round draft pick as the primary reserve, and untried but promising prospects down roster seemed like a decent plan.
It wasn’t. And if it wasn’t fixed, seats were going to get hot, if they already weren’t warm.
The Vikings 2016 Offensive Line was supposed to be:
C-John Sullivan (or Joe Berger)
RG-Mike Harris (or Brandon Fusco)
RT- Phil Loadholt
Notable-Andre Smith (T)
The plan was to have competition at each spot, with the exception of Boone’s job a LG, with the best man winning. The guys that didn’t win a starting job would be a solid mix of experienced vets that could fill in and play seamlessly, it was thought.
The plan started falling apart before training camp. Two weeks prior to the team convening in Mankato, Phil Loadholt announced that his Achilles heel was not healing properly, and he would retire. Andre Smith was now the starting RT by default.
When the team started practicing, RG Mike Harris, who was, arguably, the best offensive lineman in 2015, was placed on the PUP with a non-football injury, and he would not play another down in the NFL. So Brandon Fusco was now the right guard by default.
As training camp wore on, it became apparent John Sullivan was not his old self, he was quickly over taken by the 2015 C Berger, and would eventually be cut. So what was a plan of experienced players fiercely competing for starting jobs was now an offensive line by default, with no depth. The line heading into the season opener was:
That was okay, as long as there were no injuries.
Oh. Well then.
That lasted all of two weeks, as Matt Kalil was lost for the season to IR, Andre Smith a few weeks later, and the Vikings were forced to play guys that had no business starting in the NFL. And it remained that way for the rest of the season.
By the end of the year the Vikings had stumbled to an 8-8 finish behind an offense that only produced 3.2 yards per carry, allowed 38 sacks, eight different starting line combinations, five starting left tackles, and a record number of injuries. Heading in to the off-season, rebuilding the offensive line was priority number one. It simply had to be, or the Vikings would be staring at another mediocre finish and jobs would be on the line.
To his credit, GM Rick Spielman was aggressive in the early hours and days of free agency, jettisoning both tackles from last year and landing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. In the draft, they traded up for Pat Elflein at the top of the third round, and he became the starting center. At the guard position, the 2017 line had one holdover from last year, Joe Berger. But he moved to right guard, and has been there all season. At left guard, Alex Boone was thought to be returning, but when rosters had to be cut down to 53 players, Boone was a surprising cut, and Nick Easton, who out played Boone during the pre-season, became the starter. So, your 2017 line was, heading in to the opener:
Although Spielman was aggressive in getting a new starting line up, he also addressed depth. A holdover from last year, who played at the tail end of last season, was T Rashod Hill, and he stayed. Along with Elflein, the Vikings drafted Danny Isidora in the sixth round.
Both Isidora and Hill have played, and Hill has played both left and right tackle. Both players have gotten decent playing time, and they have held their own. As good as the starters have been this year, and we’ll get to them in a minute, this team is probably not 8-2 without Isidora and Hill stepping in and making the line play a relatively seamless transition from starter to backup.
So how has the 2017 line done? Well for starters, they’ve been relatively healthy. Remmers and Easton have both missed two games, but the Vikings have had the same opening day lineup for a vast majority of snaps this year. Minnesota is running for 4.0 yards per carry, almost an entire yard more per carry than last year, and against the Rams ran for a season high 171. In terms of pass protection, they have only allowed Vikings quarterbacks to be sacked 10 times this year. Of those sacks, you can legitimately argue four of those sacks were all on a gimpy and injured Sam Bradford during the Monday Night win against the Bears. In his aborted comeback, he was very protective of his knee, and willingly took a dive a couple times to protect it as opposed to injuring it further.
So in 10 games, the Vikings have given up six contested or competitive sacks, and none of them—zero—have been given up by LT Reiff. Remmers has been almost as good, and so far, it can be argued that these two players are on the short list for best free agent signings in the Rick Spielman era.
I’m not trying to take away from the remarkable seasons Case Keenum and Adam Thielen are having, or the re-discovery of the running game. Nor am I trying to diminish the performance of what is one of the best defenses this side ofthe Purple People Eaters. There are a lot of significant contributors to this season so far, but one thing is apparent:
Without this extreme offensive line makeover, the Vikings aren’t 8-2. End of story.
Like, not the end of this story, although it is the end of this story. You know what I mean.