Around these parts, the one thing fans of the Minnesota Vikings constantly fret about is the offensive line, and in our defense, it’s for good reason.
The real downturn in o-line play began in 2015, and hit rock bottom in 2016. Starters the team expected back from injury (Phil Loadholt, John Sullivan) didn’t play, other starters (Matt Kalil, Andre Smith) were hurt early and missed most of the season, and a woefully unprepared bench combined for what could be argued was the worst offensive line in franchise history.
In 2017, the Vikings made great strides in addressing the issue. They signed T’s Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency, drafted C Pat Elflein to become an immediate starter, and in the fifth round selected G Danny Isidora for depth, with a potential to start down the road. They got rid of career underperformers and guys that were not good enough to be on an NFL roster, and revamped the entire position group.
It worked. The Vikings o-line improved dramatically, although they tailed off at the very end of the season. The revamped line of Reiff, Nick Easton, Elflein, holdover from The Bad Years Joe Berger, and Remmers gave the Vikings offense the foundation it needed to become a top ten unit (11th passing, 7th rushing), up from 28th in 2016 (18th passing, dead last rushing). And keep in mind that top ten running game was without dynamic rookie Dalvin Cook for most of the season.
With the retirement of Berger, and depth not where some fans want it to be or think it should be, the popular thinking heading in to the draft and free agency was that the Vikings needed to add another offensive lineman or two, and if they were going to draft a guy it needed to be early.
They did just that. Only, it wasn’t the player or players most people expected, so the off-season additions have been labeled as a failure. And heading in to 2018, the offensive line apparently sucks again. With all the same guys back from last year except one.
But...let’s do this. Let’s look at what Pro Football Focus had to say, and maybe see if there isn’t a field or backyard we can find where the sky isn’t falling just yet, and talk about this. Here’s the ratings PFF gave each of the starters in 2017:
LT Riley Reiff, 48.6
LG Nick Easton, 41.5
C Pat Elflein, 43.2
RG Mike Remmers, 69.2 (Mostly as RT last year. Also...nice)
RT Rashod Hill, 43.6
Woof. Looks pretty brutal on paper. But let’s take a look at two of the big additions from last year, Reiff and Elflein, and dig a little deeper. If you’re not familiar, PFF takes a run block rating and a pass block rating to get an aggregate rating. Reiff’s pass block score was 48.1, run block was 47.5. Seems a bit scary.
After all, the guy he replaced, Matt Kalil, had an overall rating of 50.8, with a pass block rating of over 64. So according to PFF, Kalil was better than Reiff.
Okay, I’ll hold on a minute to let the laughter calm down.
I don’t get how Kalil scores better than Reiff, either. Reiff wasn’t charged with surrendering a QB sack until the 12th game of the year, the December 3rd road win against Atlanta. He only gave up 3.5 sacks all year and had zero holding penalties called on him, per STATS.com. His effectiveness dropped a little bit after his October knee injury, but I would argue that overall he way outperformed his PFF Grade. And Matt Kalil gave up 7.5 sacks, a number that would have been even higher if Cam Newton is a traditional drop back passer.
Okay, now let’s look at Elflein. On the surface his 43.2 rating makes you go ‘wow, that’s as bad as Michigan’s record against Ohio State the last 15 years or so’. Looking at that number, and then comparing it to Elflein’s body of work, it doesn’t seem to add up.
It doesn’t, at least for me. Once again using the STATS site, they tell us Elflein was only penalized one time all season, and only gave up four sacks. His ability to pull on a screen and get to the second level and engage a a defender was some of the best I can remember from a first year player, especially a center who is also expected to adjust the blocking calls at the line of scrimmage.
And while we’re here, the same goes for Nick Easton, who essentially replaced Brandon Fusco. A pretty low PFF score of 41.5 doesn’t really reflect the fact that he gave up no sacks per STATS and had only four holding penalties before he was hurt in the regular season finale at Green Bay.
I’m not trying to single out PFF and bash them here. I like what they do, and for the most part I think they do a good job. It’s just that some of their numbers seem baffling to me, and in the case of Elflein, Reiff, and Easton, it doesn’t fully represent the body of work.
The bottom line is that the Vikings offensive line was pretty darn good for most of the season. The quarterback’s mobility has a lot to do with how many sacks are given up, I get that, so that might be open for a further discussion. However, I just have a hard time squaring the individual rushing numbers PFF gave the o-line, and then look at how well the Vikings ran the ball, with three different running backs, over the course of 16 games. 1,900+ yards and 15 TD’s tell me they could block better than PFF would indicate.
Now, let’s talk right guard, this year’s big question mark. There are two options here, either Danny Isidora or Remmers. Let’s talk Isidora first.
When Joe Berger announced his retirement, a lot of us felt that the highest priority heading in to the draft was o-line again, specifically a right guard to replace Berger. When Will Hernandez was on the board and the Vikings didn’t take him, and took CB Mike Hughes instead, there was a fair amount of dissatisfaction with the pick. In a vacuum this is a reasonable line of thought, but let’s circle back to Isidora and the 2017 draft for a minute.
When he was selected, it was an almost universally praised late round selection. The thinking was that Isidora could sit and develop for a year, maybe two, rotate in and see a little game action (he had over 150 snaps last year per PFF) and then compete for a starting job. That time could be now. Last year, Isidora wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad, either. I thought the more he played, the better he looked, and if nothing else he was leaps and bounds better coming off the bench than what the VIkings have had in recent seasons.
tSo...what’s changed with that line of thought between then and now? If he’s shown signs of being able to come in and compete for a starting gig (and in relief last year, he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t either), then the Vikings will have been proven correct in passing on a guard and going with Isidora. He got some decent work last year, has had a good off-season, so let’s see what happens.
Granted, if he does get the nod and doesn’t play well while Hernandez pans out with the Giants, we’ll be talking about this for quite awhile.
Now, Remmers. If Remmers moves inside, it will be because the Vikings feel RT Rashod Hill can play at a higher level there than Isidora can play on the inside. Again, Hill’s PFF score of 43.6 belies the fact that he only gave up one sack and committed only four penalties all last year in seven starts. In relief of Reiff, he was light years ahead of anyone that played in 2016, starter or otherwise, and has shown a lot of promise. Whether they go with Remmers-Hill or Isidora-Remmers on the right side, I think they have, at minimum, a combination that is close to league average.
For depth, they have Tom Compton, second round pick Brian O’Neill, and a pretty good draft prospect in Colby Gossett. I don’t know if any of those guys will end up in Canton, but to look at the line, top to bottom, and say it doesn’t have talent or depth is just inaccurate.
When I look at this line and compare it to last year, there are questions, but there’s a good foundation here, too. The loss of Berger needs to be addressed, and whoever steps into that void will go a long way in determining how the line holds up. Is it a top ten line? No, probably not. I think it’s still right at, or pretty close to, a league average line.
But to say it’s a bottom five unit?