Just like this time last year, the Vikings’ offensive line remains the top priority this off-season. So far, it appears some evaluations have been completed and both Mike Harris and Brandon Fusco have been let go. It’s unfortunate about Harris, as he had played well before his still mysterious non-football illness, but no doubt the coaching staff knows what it is and made the decision to part ways based on it. Fusco, on the other hand never returned to his pre-injury form of a couple years ago, and was not carrying the weight of his salary cap. I’d consider his release a good move by the Vikings’ front office, freeing-up salary cap for his replacement in free agency- let’s hope.
The front office has not commented on free agents Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, and Jake Long, and I’m in the camp that would be happy to never see them in purple again.
So, presuming Joe Berger returns to start at center next year, that leaves three other vacancies in the Vikings’ starting offensive line.
Here’s my take on how best, and realistically, the Vikings’ can assemble an average or better offensive line next year.
Step One: Move Alex Boone to LT
There had been some talk, mainly by Boone himself, about possibly moving to left tackle last year, as injuries took down Kalil and Long. Boone has the length and tenacity to play LT, and did so in college. Given the dearth of available LTs in free agency, and realistic LT draft choices given the Vikings’ lack of a 1st round pick, and the typical breaking-in period for a rookie LT, Boone seems the best candidate, unless someone else currently on the Vikings roster surprises- but that doesn’t seem likely.
Boone’s strength is his pass blocking, which is more important in a LT than run blocking, and his salary cap is reasonable for a LT too, which combined with getting Kalil’s and Fusco’s salary caps off the books, frees-up cap space to pick up some top tier free agents.
Step Two: Make a Push for Ron Leary at LG
The Cowboys are not going to re-sign Ron Leary. They have big investments in their offensive line, with more coming, and La’el Collins returning from injury to reclaim his starting role. Leary had a great year for the Cowboys last year in replacement of Collins- didn’t allow a sack all year and did very well run blocking too. I suspect the Vikings could land Leary for about what they paid Boone. Leary will turn 28 in April, and is listed as 6’3” 317 lbs - good size for a guard.
Step Three: Make a Bigger Push for Larry Warford or Kevin Zeitler at RG
The Lions have both Warford and Riley Rieff up as free agents this year, and will probably make offers to retain both of them. But with their center Travis Swanson in a contract year as well, the Lions may not be in position to retain all of their offensive linemen without getting into a cap heavy offensive line situation down the road. The Lions have a couple potential replacements on the roster for Warford as well. So, given the Lions have more needs on defense as well, they may decide to draft an offensive linemen, and/or go with Dahl or Glasgow and let either Rieff or Warford go. My guess is that they’d rather keep Warford, who has higher PFF ratings than Rieff, but they may not make the best offer to retain him too. Warford has said he is planning on testing the free agency market, which would open the door for the Vikings to make an offer. Warford is also 6’3”, 317 lbs - just like Leary.
Zeitler, however, is the better player- at least according to PFF. He’s also the best offensive lineman that is (perhaps) likely to hit free agency. The rumor is that Cincinnati will part ways with Zeitler rather than win a bidding contest, and I imagine Zeitler will command a bigger salary than Warford. Having played in Cincinnati he will be familiar with Mike Zimmer, which is a plus, but unlikely to be a big factor either.
TJ Lang is also a possibility here, but Lang will turn 30 in September and has had injury issues that, while not taking him out of games, have to be something of a concern as he gets older. Lang will likely command a big salary for a guard too, and seems to want to stay with the Packers, but so far the Packers have not made him an offer- perhaps for the above reasons. On the other hand, it’s not immediately clear who the Packers have in mind to replace Lang, who didn’t give up a hit or sack to Rodgers all year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Packers give Lang a discounted deal in the end and he takes it. They may also rather make an offer for the younger Zeitler or Warford.
The complicating factor for all these free agents of course is that there are other teams looking to free agency to upgrade their offensive lines, and some with a lot more in their salary cap checkbooks. And, while guards are usually cheaper than tackles, especially left tackles, the price for guards is going up lately and anyone of these free agents could see $7-$10 million a year contracts.
Given other players the Vikings may prioritize in re-signing, and assuming Adrian Peterson is let go along with his salary cap, the Vikings still won’t have a ton of cap space to work with relative to many other teams. Still, the Vikings are pretty solid most everywhere else, so they can concentrate on offensive lineman perhaps more than other teams.
Step Four: Draft a Right Tackle
One draft prospect projected to be a good fit at RT, and would likely be available to the Vikings as a mid-round pick is Will Holden out of Vanderbilt. He’s spent his college career as something of a swing tackle, due to the injury to the LT, and did an excellent job protecting Kyle Shurmur- Pat Shurmur’s son. Holden is a RT at the NFL level though, due to quickness issues, and could use to add some weight as well, but seems to have the technique and power to fit well at RT. He’s 6’7” and 310 lbs., but reportedly with shorter arms that will reduce his draft stock.
Between Holden (or another possible RT draft pick), Sirles, and Austin Shepherd, there should be good competition to fill the RT spot, and get at least average performance from the position next year. Sirles would be the incumbent, and has potential to improve over last year, but getting a guy with more upside than Sirles makes sense too.
Step Five: Build Depth
The Vikings could look to use another mid/late round draft pick on OL, at guard or center potentially. One prospect that could also be there in the third round is Pat Elflein, center from Ohio State. He is one of the top center prospects in the draft, and has the strength, technique and leadership qualities you want in a center. I don’t think he’ll get past the 3rd round, but I don’t see him going much earlier either. He looks to be an upgrade to Nick Easton and eventual replacement for Joe Berger.
Also, if the Vikings come up short in drafting guards in the draft, and only land one, but draft Elflein, he could potentially play center and Berger slide over to guard. But using a third- and fourth-round pick (or thereabouts) on two offensive linemen makes sense in addition to making a strong push in free agency.
This approach attempts to put the best, realistically available players across the Vikings offensive line. RT may not be addressed fully, but you need guys like Sirles or a draft pick to be developed. That development ability in coach Sparano is suspect, hence the reliance on acquiring free agents more than developing young players. Still, a front five that featured Boone, Leary, Berger, Zeitler, and Sirles, let’s say, or Boone, Leary, Elflein, Berger, Sirles, would be a substantial upgrade over last year, and would likely put the Vikings offensive line to at least the average group, if not top 10. That would do wonders for opening up the Vikings now dead last running game, and give Bradford that all important extra second or two to get the ball out.