clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Revamping the Vikings Offensive Line

New, comments

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Ohio State
Pat Elflein could be the new starting center for the Vikings this season.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the NFL Draft and free-agency is over, or at least largely so in the case of free-agency, we have a pretty good idea of which offensive linemen the Vikings have to work with. But there remain questions about possible scheme change, and who will play what position, and what the new depth chart will look like come September. Let’s take a look.

STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM

For the past two years, improving the offensive line has been a top priority during the Vikings off-season. Last off-season, the Vikings did not extend OL coach Jeff Davidson, and replaced him with Tony Sparano. They also acquired Alex Boone to shore up left-guard and Andre Smith at right-tackle, and drafted Willie Beavers in the 4th round.

The plan was to have some big competitions for the starting positions: Joe Berger would compete with John Sullivan at center; Brandon Fusco with Mike Harris at right-guard; Andre Smith with Phil Loadholt at right tackle; and (marginally) TJ Clemmings with Matt Kalil at left tackle.

But that plan failed to produce improvement as Harris and Loadholt never made it to training camp, and Beavers didn’t make the roster. Berger retained his center spot, and Kalil his spot at left-tackle. Andre Smith won the starting spot at right-tackle by default, rather than earning it- same with Brandon Fusco.

So, despite all the bodies, 3 guys with poor performances the previous year became starters again when the season started- Kalil, Smith and Fusco.

Kalil and Smith played poorly, and briefly, before being lost to injury for the year. Sirles replaced Smith most of the year at right-tackle, while TJ Clemmings, Sirles, Jake Long, and finally Rashod Hill replaced Kalil at left-tackle over the course of the season. Boone was out for a couple games too, as was Fusco, which led to other depth players making appearances as well.

Needless to say, with the starting left-tackle out early, along with the best performing right guard (Harris), and the top 2 right tackles (Loadholt and Smith), things didn’t work out well. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Vikings offensive line 29th in the league out of 32 teams, with the only good linemen being Joe Berger, with Alex Boone average. Sirles improved over the course of the year, but his pass blocking remained well below average.

This off-season the Vikings have again been active in both free-agency (signing Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers) and in the draft, picking Pat Elflein in the 3rd round and Danny Isidora in the 5th round, and signing Aviante Collins as a UFA. Meanwhile Matt Kalil, Brandon Fusco, John Sullivan, Andre Smith, Jake Long, and Mike Harris are all gone. But that’s not all that’s changed over the off-season.

OFFENSIVE SCHEME CHANGE

Beyond the change in personnel this season, there has been every indication during the off-season that the Vikings will be switching offensive schemes, including going from more of a power blocking scheme, to a zone blocking scheme (ZBS). New Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur has used this blocking scheme in his West Coast Offense (WCO) in the past, and Mike Zimmer has made some comments regarding change in offensive scheme; but even more telling is the offensive linemen the Vikings drafted - all of them more suited to zone-blocking.

One of the main differences between power-blocking, which the Vikings have used in the past, and zone-blocking is that zone-blocking requires greater use of footwork, angles, combination blocks, and communication (sometimes generally referred to as “finesse”) to move defenders laterally to create running lanes.

Power-blocking, by contrast, generally focuses on over-powering defenders at the point of attack, sometimes using pulling linemen and/or double-teams to blow open holes for running backs. Here is a good explanation of zone-blocking.

But more than simply teaching some new techniques, zone-blocking requires linemen with a different set of traits - specifically smarter, more athletic linemen (that are typically smaller) with good footwork and agility. Power-blocking, by contrast, requires bigger, stronger linemen.

This raises a key question: how well will the Vikings existing linemen, presumably acquired for their power-blocking traits, be able to transition to a ZBS? That answer isn’t immediately apparent. What is apparent - judging by the quality of the run blocking last year - is that most of them weren’t well suited for power-blocking. Fortunately, perhaps, most of those players are no longer with the team.

The move to zone-blocking has been a trend in the NFL over the past decade, and is typically married to a west-coast based offense, which is what seems likely for the Vikings this year- although I wouldn’t be surprised to see spread-offense concepts included in it.

The reason zone-blocking is used mainly in west-coast based offenses and not Air Coryell, for example, is because WCOs typically have quicker passing plays and more 3- and 5-step drops, often with play action. Air Coryell schemes usually have longer passing routes that require bigger, stronger linemen to hold off defenders longer.

Those shorter passing plays allow linemen to use pass blocking sets that are typically easier for most linemen to use, namely the jump-set and 45 degree set, explained here.

Adopting a ZBS, along with the typically smaller, more athletic linemen, also often results in use of other concepts to help in pass-blocking, including play-action- which can be easier to sell in a ZBS, greater use of pass blocking RBs and TEs - or pass catching ones - or both, and possibly bootlegs - explained here.

Be that as it may, the transition from mostly power- to mostly zone-blocking, and the associated traits needed in offensive linemen, could lead to some surprises when it comes to roster cuts and depth charts this summer, as some linemen may be better suited to the new scheme than others.

COACHING

What strikes me as unusual, is that with all the signs of change in offensive and blocking schemes, brought about by Pat Shurmur taking over as Offensive Coordinator, the Vikings did not make a change in offensive line coach.

It’s not unusual for any team, no matter what scheme they have, to use more than one blocking scheme. For example, zone-blocking teams will often use a power-scheme in short-yardage or goal-line situations. And the Vikings did use zone-blocking a certain amount last year, in part to change things up. But the Vikings offensive line coach, Tony Sparano, has used primarily power blocking schemes everywhere he’s been. So for the Vikings to keep him on as they transition to using more of a ZBS seems a little strange. Perhaps Sparano is equally adept at teaching a ZBS - we’ll see. Last year wasn’t promising, but perhaps having more focus on it this off-season may help.

PLAYERS

The Vikings were active in free agency and the draft in acquiring new players to replace those no longer on the roster - namely Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Jake Long, Brandon Fusco, and Mike Harris. But before looking at the new draft picks, let’s review the starters from last year, the new free agents, what they’ve done, their pros and cons, contract, position possibilities, starting potential, and future prospects.

Alex Boone

What he’s done: Boone completed his first season with the Vikings last year at left-guard. Overall he had a good PFF grade in pass blocking (83.0) and a roughly average grade in run blocking (68.9), leading to an above average grade of 76.5 overall, which was about the same as 2015, when he played left-guard with the 49ers. Prior to that he played right guard for the 49ers going back to 2012, which was his best year with an 86.9 overall PFF rating. Since then his average rating has been in the mid-70s. Since coming into the league, Boone has played in power-blocking schemes. When he came into the NFL in 2009, he was seen more as a mauler than an athlete, lacking the footwork to play outside.

Pros & Cons: Boone has been a consistently good pass blocker, but his run blocking has declined since his breakout year in 2012. Boone has also had a couple minor injuries, which led him to miss 2 games for the Vikings last season.

Contract: Boone is set to count $6.7m against salary cap this year, with $0 dead cap next year, making him expendable in 2018 if he fails to earn a starting role.

Position Possibilities: As the starting left-guard returning from last season, that is Boone’s most likely spot. But he has played both right guard for 3 years with the 49ers, and left-tackle for 3 years at Ohio State. Last year after Jake Long went down, there was talk of him playing left tackle, but that didn’t happen. It’s still an option, even right-tackle possibly.

Starting Potential: Boone will likely start at LG, but could be considered for any position outside of center.

Future Prospects: Every year is a contract year now for Boone, as he can be released beginning in 2018 without a salary cap hit. His $6.7m annual salary cap hit means he needs to earn his keep over the less expensive rookie-contract players too. Boone turns 30 this month, an age where performance is more difficult to maintain for many offensive linemen.

Joe Berger

What he’s done: Berger has been the Vikings best performing offensive lineman the past two years, earning very good grades from PFF in both pass blocking (87.9) and run blocking (80.7) and an 85.0 overall rating last year. This has been the best two-year stretch of Berger’s career, despite turning 35 this month. Berger has been in the Vikings primarily power-blocking scheme since 2011. Coming into the NFL back in 2005, Berger was seen as more of a finesse blocker, with good footwork and agility.

Pros & Cons: Not a lot of cons in Berger’s performance of late, although last year wasn’t quite as good as 2015, and he missed two games due to injury. But his biggest negative at this point is his age. He is by far the Vikings best, and cheapest, starting lineman.

Contract: Berger is in the last year of his 2-year extension, with a modest $1.9m salary cap hit. Only $450k dead cap hit to release him, but that is extremely unlikely given his performance, salary cap hit, and position flexibility.

Position Possibilities: Berger could start at center or either guard spot, most likely right-guard. Early indications are he could start at right-guard this year.

Starting Potential: Given that Berger has been the Vikings best offensive lineman the past couple years, he’s a likely starter at either right-guard or center, more likely right-guard at this point.

Future Prospects: At 35, Berger may be in his last year. If he performs well and wants to continue, there seems little downside to re-signing Berger to another one- or two-year deal with a similar salary cap hit, whether starter or interior line backup.

Riley Reiff

What he’s done: Reiff was drafted in the 1st round by the Lions in 2012 and played out his rookie contract in Detroit before signing with the Vikings this off-season. Reiff was an average left-tackle for the Lions for his first 4 years in the league, before moving to right-tackle last year, having been displaced by Taylor Decker, where he fared a little worse. Reiff had his best year in 2015, his last playing left-tackle, with a 77.5 overall PFF rating. Interestingly, that was a year after the Lions went with a ZBS, which ultimately was abandoned as the Detroit OL never mastered it and often missed assignments. Guys like Larry Warford were more suited to a power scheme as well. But coming out of Iowa, Reiff was said to have good footwork and technical skill, but not the strongest prospect at left tackle, and with shorter arms than desirable. Last year at right-tackle in Detroit’s power scheme, Reiff earned a 68.7 pass blocking rating (just below avg.) , and a below average 57.4 run blocking rating, leading to a 67.5 overall rating.

Pros & Cons: Reiff has been fairly durable, missing only 3 games over the past 5 years. Based on his draft profile and relative success in 2015 in a ZBS, Reiff could be well suited to the Vikings new blocking scheme. But Reiff needs to show improvement in both pass and run blocking, which have been average or below, to justify his contract. Moving back to left-tackle in a ZBS may help.

Contract: Reiff was signed to a 5 year contract with $26m guaranteed and a $8.5m salary cap hit this season. The earliest the Vikings could feasibly release Reiff if he failed to perform adequately would be 2019, where the dead cap would still be $6.6m.

Position Possibilities: While Reiff could play either tackle spot, the Vikings roster makes it very likely he’ll start at left-tackle.

Starting Potential: The Vikings didn’t pay Reiff that kind of money not to start. He will most likely start at left-tackle, replacing the departed Matt Kalil.

Future Prospects: Reiff will be here for at least the next couple years, maybe longer given his contract. He turns 29 in December.

Mike Remmers

What he’s done: Remmers played the past few years with Carolina, which uses both zone and power blocking concepts, primarily as right tackle, but played left tackle the last 12 games last year due to injury - and which brought his PFF rating down to 66.1 from 72.2 the previous year. Pass blocking in particular went down to a 50.0 rating- not surprising for a right-tackle called on to play on the left side- while his run block rating was consistent at 73.5.

Pros & Cons: Remmers has been durable, not missing a game the past two years, but has only been average at right-tackle in both run and pass blocking. That could be his ceiling.

Contract: Remmers’ contract is 5 years with $10.5m guaranteed, and a $5.1m salary cap hit this year. The way the contract is structured, it’s effectively a 2-year deal, as the $1.9m dead cap hit in 2019 would still reduce the salary cap by about $4.5m if he were released at that point.

Position Possibilities: Remmers most likely spot is right-tackle, but looking at him for an inside position isn’t out of the question.

Starting Potential: Remmers seems likely to be the starting right-tackle this year, although not without competition.

Future Prospects: Remmers seems more of a stop-gap type player for the Vikings, rather than a long-term starter, although he could earn that role.

Jeremiah Sirles

What he’s done: Sirles, like Remmers and Boone, was an undrafted free agent in 2014. He started 10 games for the Vikings last year, most at right-tackle, but he filled in also at left guard and left tackle. Overall, he managed an average grade as a run blocker from PFF, at 75.4. But he struggled in pass protection, earning a poor 50.2 grade.

Pros & Cons: Sirles’ draft profile suggests an average athlete who works hard and takes coaching, but has numerous technique issues. Like Remmers, his ceiling maybe as an average linemen at guard or tackle.

Contract: Sirles has a team-friendly UFA contract with a $690k salary cap hit this year, and is a restricted free agent next year.

Position Possibilities: Sirles most likely spot is right-tackle behind Remmers, but a backup guard spot is possible too.

Starting Potential: Remmers was brought in to be an upgrade over Sirles at right tackle, and barring a strong training camp, Sirles will likely serve as a backup player if he makes the team.

Future Prospects: Sirles could remain a depth player for the Vikings, but his limited athleticism makes his future prospects with the Vikings seem somewhat limited, and he’ll have to compete to make the active roster.

TJ Clemmings

What he’s done: Clemmings was drafted as a project tackle in 2015. He had only played offensive line for 2 years in college at right tackle. Despite having the length and athleticism to be a Pro-Bowl caliber tackle, his Senior Bowl performance showed he was very raw in his technique. Unfortunately, for him and the Vikings, a season-ending injury to Phil Loadholt forced Clemmings into a starting position at right-tackle his rookie year - a role he wasn’t ready for and it showed. He performed poorly and it effected his confidence, which was another negative. Last year he was moved to a backup at left tackle, which his traits are more suited, but once again he was forced to start early in the season after Matt Kalil was lost for the season. Once again he performed poorly, never having played left tackle prior to training camp, and still suffering from lack of confidence. He earned a miserable 28.3 overall PFF rating last year, and a 39.7 overall rating the year before.

Pros & Cons: Clemmings has the prototypical measurables and athleticism to be a top offensive linemen- even left tackle- in the NFL. He has also proved durable if nothing else. But he needs time to develop and re-gain his confidence, as his current technique is terrible. His athleticism and footwork are better suited to a zone scheme.

Contract: Clemmings has 2 years left on his rookie deal and a modest $746k cap hit.

Position Possibilities: Clemmings is probably best suited to play left-tackle, but right-tackle or even guard are possibilities.

Starting Potential: Clemmings remains an undeveloped project. Being forced into starting duty before he was ready has been a set-back to his development and confidence. He needs to not be a starter to develop his technique.

Future Prospects: It’s unclear, given Clemmings unfortunate thrust into starting jobs his first two years, when he really needed to develop his technique first, whether his development can be put back on track and salvage his career as a Viking. He has all the necessary traits to be a top-tier offensive lineman, but the development time lost and blow to his confidence may be difficult to recover.

Next, let’s move on to the Vikings draft picks this year.

Pat Elflein

What he’s done: He played guard his first two years at Ohio State, and his last year at center, where he won the Rimington award for best college center. His PFF scouting report and nfl.com draft profile suggest Elflein is best in run blocking, has pass protection issues to improve, anchors well, works hard and is a strong leader best suited to a zone blocking scheme. His PFF ratings across many skills compared to other center prospects suggest he needs to improve his pass protection as well. Last year at center Elflein’s PFF pass blocking grade was only 46.5 - which is poor.

Pros & Cons: Elflein has the skill-set and traits to be a rookie starter, and could emerge as a leader along the offensive line in time if he wins the starting center job. His strength is as a run blocker in a zone scheme, which fits with the Vikings now. But pass protection remains a weak point.

Contract: Elflein will have a standard 4-year rookie 3rd-round pick contract.

Position Possibilities: Mike Zimmer has said they will look at Elflein to play center, although guard is a possibility as well. I suspect the Vikings want to establish him at center, given their roster, and the leadership role that usually goes with that position.

Starting Potential: Elflein could start his rookie year at center or guard, most likely center, but he’ll need to earn that starting role in training camp.

Future Prospects: The Vikings drafted Elflein hoping he’ll become a long-term fixture at center, and lead the offensive line for many years to come. He certainly has that potential.

Danny Isidora

What he’s done: As a 5th round draft pick, you probably don’t expect much from Isidora. His college career at Miami may raise them. Both his PFF scouting report and nfl.com draft profile suggest he has starting level talent, had a very good career at Miami against some top competition, and his PFF guard ratings across many skills compared to other college guards suggest he is pretty solid across the board, and perhaps a better prospect than Dan Feeney, who was drafted right after Elflein. Isidora had a 99.4% pass block efficiency rating from PFF on 3rd down. The downsides mentioned in his scouting reports suggest he plays with too wide a base that allows him to be bull rushed at times, and that needs to be more consistent as a run and pass blocker. He is best suited for a ZBS.

Pros & Cons: As the above suggests, Isidora brings a lot to the table as a college draft pick, can be a quality run and pass blocker, and has the traits and skill set to be a starting guard in the NFL. He needs to improve his technique against bull rushes, and improve consistency, but he may compete for a starting role sooner than expected.

Contract: Isidora will have a standard 4-year 5th round rookie contract.

Position Possibilities: Most likely right-guard, which is where he played all 3 years at Miami, but possibly right-tackle or left guard too.

Future Prospects: Isidora could become the successor to Joe Berger or Alex Boone. I would not be surprised if he became the primary interior line backup his rookie year.

Aviante Collins

What he’s done: He played mostly right-tackle (with a few starts at LT) over his 4-year career at TCU. This kind of sums up his scouting reports pretty well:

One of the most athletic tackle prospects in this year’s draft, Collins wowed at the combine. Excellent mobility, great footwork, and a very intense competitor. The issue is that he doesn’t have the size or the length to play tackle at the next level, nor the strength to hold up as a guard. However, he could fit nicely in the right scheme, such as a zone blocking scheme if he can take a year or two to build up his strength.

His strength issue is his lower body, as he benched 34 reps at the Combine- tied for 2nd among all tackles. He also had the fastest 40 time at 4.81”, which underscores his athleticism. Here is his nfl.com draft profile.

Pros & Cons: His athleticism, footwork and intensity are clearly his strengths, and perhaps his lower body strength and length are his weak points, along with some technique issues he needs to improve. He had an injury that resulted in his missing most of his junior year. But as one scout said, the more you see of him, the more you like. His game against Arkansas here is a good one to watch- he had no problem with #55 Jeremiah Ledbetter and his 36” arms, who the Lions drafted in the 6th round.

Contract: Very team-friendly UFA contract.

Position Possibilities: Could play anywhere but center, but more likely right-tackle.

Future Prospects: Collins will compete for a place on the OL depth chart, most likely as a swing tackle or backup right-tackle, but guard is a possibility too, and could be ready to challenge for a starting position in a year or two.

The Rest of the Roster

Beyond all of the players above, the Vikings have a number of offensive linemen on the roster, all listed as tackles. They include:

All of these guys look more suited to a zone-blocking scheme.

Fett and Lucas seem unlikely winners of a camp competition at any position.

Rashod Hill improved his prospects with a decent performance starting the last game of the year against the Bears at LT, but otherwise it’s hard to know much about him.

Kerin doesn’t have a very high ceiling, and could be an early cut.

Easton has a chance to be a backup center, but the Elflein pick was telling for his future as a starter.

Shepherd saw limited reps as a rookie, was signed away and then brought back. Competes best at right-tackle. Probably not as athletic as some of his competition, but smart, well coached and a hard worker. Used to playing against tougher competition at Alabama.

Willie Beavers was a big disappointment last year as a 4th round pick- the highest pick not to make the roster in the whole draft last year - and was relegated to the practice squad. Isidora will be tough competition, and he’ll have to show a big improvement to get off the practice squad.

Fragel looks like another competitor at right-tackle, who converted from TE at Ohio State. Has the athleticism for upside if he can learn the position well enough.

Projecting the Vikings Offensive Line Depth Chart

At this point, not knowing how things will pan out in training camp, the most likely scenario is this:

Riley Reiff - LT

Alex Boone - LG

Pat Elflein - C

Joe Berger - RG

Mike Remmers - RT

Overall, that gives the Vikings two average tackles, a good right-guard, an average left-guard, and a top-tier rookie center. While that doesn’t sound particularly compelling, compare it to last year’s starting line-up:

Matt Kalil - LT

Alex Boone - LG

Joe Berger - C

Brandon Fusco - RG

Andre Smith - RT

That line-up featured two bad tackles, a good center, a bad right guard and an average left guard. So, if the current projected starting line-up happens, that represents an upgrade from bad to average of both tackles spots, and effectively an upgrade from bad to ‘top-tier rookie’ of one interior line spot.

Overall, that suggests an improvement from a bad to an average offensive line - which would be a huge improvement.

Beyond that, there is reason to believe the quality of the offensive line depth will improve as well.

PROJECTED VIKINGS OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Left Tackle: Riley Reiff | TJ Clemmings | Rashod Hill | Reid Fragel

Left Guard: Alex Boone | Jeremiah Sirles | Willie Beavers

Center: Pat Elflein | Joe Berger | Nick Easton

Right Guard: Joe Berger | Danny Isidora | Zac Kerin

Right Tackle: Mike Remmers | Jeremiah Sirles | Austin Shepherd | Aviante Collins

This is a pretty tentative sketch of how things stand now, but I could imagine that behind the starting five, Danny Isidora emerges as the main interior line backup (with Berger moving to center if Elflein went down) and Sirles, Clemmings, Shepherd, Hill and Collins all competing for backup swing tackle.

I could also see Isidora eventually replacing Berger when he retires, and Easton taking over Berger’s old role of backup center/guard.

Sirles probably has the inside track to become backup swing tackle, but I could see Aviante Collins competing for that job sooner rather than later.

The guys I didn’t list I’m assuming will be cut, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kerin not make the team either. Beavers seems headed for the practice squad again, and possibly Shepherd too, although he has potential at right-tackle.

Of the starters, I think Remmers and Boone are the most susceptible to losing their starting spot. I don’t see any serious challenge to Reiff at left-tackle, or Berger at either center or guard, depending on what happens with Elflein.

Sirles will compete with Remmers at right-tackle, as will Shepherd and Collins- and it’s not out of the question one of them could earn a starting role over Remmers, though it would seem somewhat unlikely.

I think Isidora could be closer to earning a starting role, but he’d really have to shine in training camp and pre-season to displace Berger or Boone - most likely Boone.

In any case, outside of left-tackle the depth looks better this year if Isidora has a good training camp and pre-season. And maybe between Hill, Clemmings, Fragel and Collins a better left-tackle backup will emerge as well.

Poll

Last season the Vikings offensive line was rated 29th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. What do you think it will be rated this season?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    1 - 9
    (49 votes)
  • 17%
    10 - 15
    (509 votes)
  • 66%
    16 -21
    (1912 votes)
  • 13%
    22 - 32
    (396 votes)
2866 votes total Vote Now