and the Vikings offensive line, while improved, still came in at a mediocre 22nd overall - up from 29th overall the previous year. PFF grades every player on every play in determining their overall grades, which most NFL teams subscribe to, even if coaches don’t always agree with their grading- at least the bad grades.
The Vikings conducted a nearly complete overhaul of their offensive line during the last off-season, acquiring free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, drafting center Pat Elflein in the third round, jettisoning left guard Alex Boone in favor of Nick Easton, while moving Joe Berger to right guard from center- where he played in 2016.
That led to some improvement, but that improvement was a bit underwhelming at times, as Case Keenum was under pressure nearly 40% of his drop-backs, and run blocking was inconsistent much of the season.
Pass protection was helped out quite a bit this year by improved blocking from running backs- particularly Jerick McKinnon- and the uncanny elusiveness of Case Keenum, who gave up sacks on only about 10% of his pressures.
But a big part of the reason the improvement was not more substantial was the poor performance of the new starters, particularly over their previous year grades.
For example, Riley Reiff, who had a 70 overall grade (average) in his last year in Detroit at right tackle, and had graded in the mid- to low-70s since entering the league, finished his first year in Minnesota at left tackle with a poor grade of 48.6. That’s a substantial deterioration that should be somewhat concerning as a high-priced free agent acquisition. Even Vikings’ former left tackle Matt Kalil graded slightly higher last year. Ouch.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Mike Remmers had a pretty good season most of the year at right-tackle, and was grading in the mid- to upper-70s most of the season, until moving to the guard spots later in the year and seeing his year-end overall grade dip to 69.6 (about average). That was in-line with his last year in Carolina- where he played a lot of left tackle- but below his two prior seasons where he graded in the mid-70s. Still, Remmers’ play met or exceeded expectations, at least at right-tackle, where he was roughly average overall.
At left guard, Nick Easton had most of the reps, and sadly didn’t improve over his previous season, where he filled in for several games. Easton missed three games mid-way through the season, and again at the end of the regular season with a fractured ankle that ended his season. Overall he received a poor (41.5) grade from PFF, which was down from the 45.5 grade he received in 2016.
Sadly, year-over-year improvement for offensive linemen has not been a hallmark during offensive line coach Tony Sparano’s tenure in Minnesota. He’s not hesitated to shuffle players around, trying to find the best line-up, but I’m not aware of any individual offensive lineman that has improved on a year-over-year basis under Sparano.
Joe Berger has been the best individual performer along the Vikings offensive line for a number of years now, and this past year was no exception. While he also had a down year from his 2016 performance at center, his 75.7 (average) overall grade from PFF was the best of any offensive linemen for the Vikings last season. He had an overall grade of 83.2 in 2016, and 89.1 in 2015.
Rookie Pat Elflein, taken in the 3rd round of the draft out of Ohio State, was one of the top center prospects in the draft. But he too struggled in his rookie year, earning a poor 43.2 grade from PFF for the season.
Rashod Hill, who showed some promise in the 2016 finale against the Bears at left tackle, also earned a poor grade of 43.6 overall from PFF, playing mostly right tackle.
Jeremiah Sirles was the only other offensive lineman to see much action last year- at left guard in relief of Nick Easton for a few games- and he too earned a poor overall grade of 45.2.
Here is the breakdown of the PFF grades for the Vikings offensive linemen last season:
It’s pretty hard to get excited about any of those performances, or to have much confidence that OL coach Tony Sparano will spearhead improvement next year. Still, the OL was improved over the injury-riddled disaster of 2016, and was better at not giving up quick pressure (under 2 seconds). But there still is a lot of room for improvement.
What was discouraging however is that OL performance in general, and in most individual cases too, declined as the year went on last season. Riley Reiff started in the mid-70s, but declined into the 40s by season’s end. That was the general trend across the board, although Easton and Elflein never made it into the 70s overall during the season. It could be that they got beat up over the course of the year, and performance suffered as a result. But it would have been more encouraging if a guy like Reiff, for example, was improving as he got back into the groove at left tackle with a new team. But that wasn’t the case.
A lot of praise was handed out to the offensive line by coaches and players alike last season, and as a group they were instrumental in giving the skill players more time to do their thing. But injuries also hurt at times during the season, including the playoffs, where they struggled as the game went on against New Orleans, and at Philadelphia, where Keenum was under pressure nearly half of his drop-backs.
Looking ahead, it would be nice if the Vikings were able to re-sign Joe Berger, if only as something of a security blanket, and draft a top guard or two. Or acquire a top offensive linemen in free agency, if they have the available salary cap space after they sign a QB.
But just how effective the starting QB next season will be, along with the offense as a whole, will be largely dependent on how much the offensive line can improve.