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Rick Spielman and the offensive line

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Rick Spielman when reading Internet hot takes about the Vikings offensive line
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the latest offensive lineman season ending injury, this one to Nick Easton, the personnel management of that position group has once again come under scrutiny by fans of the Minnesota Vikings. The line has been a significant issue for this team since at least 2013, and hasn’t been what anyone would consider league average or better since around 2012, when Adrian Peterson had his remarkable 2,000 yard rushing season and the Vikings went to the playoffs.

Coincidentally, 2012 was the first year Rick Spielman was given full reign as GM, with final say over the drafting and signing of personnel. Overall, I think most people are pretty satisfied with what Spielman has done in re-stocking the roster with talented players up and down the starting 22 since then...with the general exception of the offensive line.

But is it negligence, like a lot of fans seem to think? Let’s take a look.

2012

The starting offensive line in 2012 was:

LT: Matt Kalil, First round draft pick, 4th overall.

LG: Charlie Johnson, signed as a free agent in 2011 and had been the starting LT

C: John Sullivan, starter since 2009

RG: Brandon Fusco, sixth round pick in 2011, first year starting

RT: Phil Loadholt, second round draft pick by the Vikings, starter since 2009.

When Spielman assumed full time GM duties, the Vikings had gone in to rebuilding mode after falling short in the 2009 NFC Championship (damn it, Brett). They went a combined 9-23 in 2010-11, and needed to overhaul the roster by cutting salary and getting younger. One of the areas where they did both was along the offensive line, getting rid of LG Steve Hutchinson and RG Anthony Herrera. Spielman still had good pieces to work with in Sullivan and Loadholt, and drafting Matt Kalil was very much the right move at the time.

Johnson was one of those Joe Berger-Tom Compton types, a guy that doesn’t really stand out at any one position, but can play anywhere on the line and hold his own. The biggest question mark was Fusco, who was going from being a sixth round pick the year before to starter.

The 2012 unit was the ninth overall ranked line by PFF that year. Adrian Peterson came back from a 2011 knee injury and ran for over 2,000 yards, and the Vikings went 10-6 and made the playoffs. Kalil and Fusco both played well for rookies, and with Sullivan and Loadholt as established vets you had a pretty good feeling about the line moving forward.

2013

In 2013, the same five guys were the starters and even though the Vikings fell to 5-10-1, it wasn’t because of the line. Matt Kalil’s play dipped slightly, but most everyone attributed that to a minor knee injury and the dreaded sophomore slump. Charlie Johnson was below replacement level, but Fusco, Sullivan, and Loadholt were absolute studs at their position. As a matter of fact, Fusco would get a five year, $25 million extension just as the 2014 season would be getting underway, and everyone thought that was the right move at the time.

Although the team’s overall play dropped, the line went from ninth to sixth overall. So far, so good.

2014

In free agency, the Vikings re-signed Charlie Johnson, and signed Vlad Ducasse and Joe Berger to bolster depth. They also drafted David Yankey in the fifth round As mentioned earlier, Fusco signed an extension, and it was thought Kalil would bounce back to 2012 form. Sullivan and Loadholt had been constants on the line, and they were both thought to be in their prime. the only guy anyone really had a beef about was Charlie Johnson. Injuries started to take their toll, though, and the line was this for most of the season:

LT: Kalil

LG: Johnson

C: Sullivan

RG: Berger

RT: Loadholt

The 2014 line was thought to be something the offense could build their foundation around when the season began, but everyone sort of fell off a cliff at once, and the yearly ‘season ending injury to a key offensive lineman’ storyline we seem to deal with every year began here with Fusco. He tore his pec against the Saints and went on IR, and replacement Vlad Ducasse was Ducawful. Really, the only consistent bright spots over the whole season were Berger and Loadholt. Sullivan was okay, but had knicks and dings, and his overall performance dropped from previous years. Their overall PFF ranking plummeted to 21st.

If you want to say Spielman needed to address the offensive line in a serious way, this is where it needed to start.

2015

If 2014 was the season that started showing cracks in the line, 2015 was when the dam started to give way. In free agency they re-signed Mike Harris and Joe Berger, and to their credit they had talks with Mike Iupati, who ultimately signed elsewhere. There was still a somewhat reasonable expectation for Matt Kalil to bounce back somewhere between his pretty bad 2014 and his pretty good 2012. Finally, Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan were going to be the vets that set the example for everyone and helped stabilize a pretty young unit.

To the Vikings credit, in the draft they selected three tackles for depth—T.J Clemmings in the fourth round, Tyrus Thompson in the sixth round, and Austin Shepherd in the seventh.

Should they have drafted a lineman earlier, though?

Hindsight being what it is, the easy answer is ‘yes’. But looking at the roster at the time, the Vikings were thinking they only needed guys for depth and development, so it makes sense that they didn’t, based on the assumption guys that were hurt the previous year were coming back healthy.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, AMIRITE?

John Sullivan’s back spasms turned into season ending back surgery early in training camp, and Phil Loadholt ruptured his Achilles Heel during the first series of the first preseason game. Joe Berger became the center, Clemmings the RT, and the offensive line was:

LT: Kalil

LG: Fusco

C: Berger

RG: Harris

RT: Clemmings

Clemmings started off terribly, but by the end of the season he had stopped the bleeding and was treading water. I don’t think anyone saw him as a starter, but I do think a lot of people were okay with him becoming a backup after getting a trial by fire season under his belt. Berger excelled at center, and Harris played very well. Fusco struggled, but it was thought that a lot of that was due to him coming back from an injury. The two tackle spots were problematic, but the interior line was pretty solid. Overall the line was ranked 14th by PFF, and considering they had to absorb injuries to two starters, the Vikings line managed to do okay, but the position group needed to be addressed in the off-season.

2016

The folks that want to prosecute Rick Spielman for offensive line war crimes point to 2016 as exhibit A, but I think they’re wrong, at least to an extent. True, the offensive line was historically bad, but that wasn’t for lack of effort by Spielman and the coaching staff to bring in guys to improve the unit. Minnesota was aggressive in free agency, signing G Alex Boone, and former first round T Andre Smith. They also re-signed Mike Harris, and drafted T Willie Beavers in the fourth round. Again, one of the things people like to point to is not drafting a lineman earlier, but when you look at what they did in free agency and combine that with the anticipation of Sullivan and Loadholt returning, and the overall dearth of talent at wide receiver when 2016 began, getting Treadwell makes sense.

Stefon Diggs was really the only established receiver on the roster at the time. He had led the team in receptions at 52, and Mike Wallace was the second leading WR, with 39 grabs. Wallace was released at the end of the season, and WR was perceived to be a much bigger need at the time, based on what the Vikes had done in free agency.

With Sullivan and Loadholt expected back, there was a real sense of optimism about the additions the Vikings made with the o-line, and it felt like there was a solid core of guys there, with a little bit of depth, too. Matt Kalil propaganda was in full swing as well, as he expected to regain his 2012 form after yet another off-season surgery, and he was in the best shape of his career, you guys (This is sarcasm, in case you were wondering). The projected line was going to be:

LT: Kalil or Smith

LG: Boone

C: Sullivan or Berger

RG: Harris or Fusco

RT: Loadholt or Smith

I remember both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman saying that every job except Boone’s was an open competition, and the best five guys were going to be the starters. I was super pumped, and you were too!

Then it all went so horribly, horribly wrong. Loadholt actually retired right before training camp, saying his Achilles hadn’t properly healed to the point where he felt he could play. Mike Harris ended up going on IR on day one and retiring for a brain condition that could have killed him had he kept playing. Sullivan struggled mightily and was cut, and the competition for the best five instead became starters by attrition. The week one OL starters were:

LT: Kalil

LG: Boone

C: Berger

RG: Fusco

RT: Andre Smith

Yeah, hold that thought. Matt Kalil went on IR in week three, Smith went on IR in week six, Berger missed two games, Boone missed one, and Fusco missed two. By week four Clemmings was the starting LT and by week six we were longing for Kalil. As Death And Pestilence fell upon the offensive line like some Biblical Curse, the o-line combo that started the most games at their respective positions turned out to be:

LT: Clemmings

LG: Boone

C: Berger

RG: Fusco

RT: Jeremiah Sirles

Things got so bad in terms of not only talent, but warm bodies to just put on a uniform, they signed former first overall pick Jake Long during their October bye week. And he really started to look like a bona fide NFL lineman again...until he tore his Achilles in November and missed the final seven games of the season. The Vikings saw seven different starting o-line combinations, and a team that many of us thought was going to be a serious playoff team in August stumbled to an 8-8 record. The running game was non-existent, and it was arguably the worst offensive line in franchise history.

As bad as that turned out to be...and it was so, so bad...if you go back to the beginning of the 2016 off-season, the plan Spielman had was a logical one. I think it was reasonable to expect at least Sullivan back, and Loadholt’s injury happened so early in the preseason it wasn’t a stretch to think he’d be back, either. They signed talent to come in and compete all along the line, with the intent to get five good starters after a training camp and preseason of pressure packed competition.

No one can foresee six season ending injuries to guys that would eventually start or compete to start (I include Long, Sullivan and Loadholt among the six)...it just doesn’t happen in the NFL very often. So yeah, while we can criticize the performance of the line, and criticize the guys Spielman might have brought in via free agency and the draft, to say the Vikings didn’t attempt to address the line and upgrade simply isn’t true.

2017

The Vikings had the most aggressive off-season in terms of addressing the offensive line in the Rick Spielman era. It began in free agency by signing to bookend tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. It’s easy to use 20/20 hindsight and declare ’well they could have signed Ricky Wagner and Andrew Whitworth’...okay, sure. That’s assuming those players even wanted to sign with Minnesota, but let’s play Devil’s Advocate and say they had interest.

If you look at Wagner’s contract and the Vikings do that deal, for example, I don’t think they have the flexibility to get Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson this past off-season. However, the Vikings got two good players at prices that didn’t bust their salary cap, which gave them the ability to do what they did back in March. In the draft, they moved up in the third round and got Pat Elflein, and in the sixth round they drafted Danny Isidora, a raw prospect but a guy that a lot of people thought was going to go a lot higher, and had a starting-caliber ceiling. Unlike 2016, most everyone stayed healthy, and the OL looked like this:

LT: Reiff

LG: Nick Easton

C: Elflein

RG: Berger

RT: Remmers

They Vikings also brought in Rashod Hill and Easton, and Easton beat out Alex Boone and won the starting LG job in the pre-season. It was the most consistent performance by the line since 2013, and it helped revive a dormant running game. It was the foundation that turned the Vikings into a top 10 offense, and Minnesota advanced to the NFC Championship. There were some depth questions, though. Easton broke his ankle during the last regular season game, Remmers moved to the LG position, and Rashod Hill moved to Remmers’ RT spot for the playoffs.

2018

There was still work to do in terms of depth, but free agency became all about Granitejaw McDreamy and Sheldon Richardson. Still, the Vikings did manage to sign Sharknado Star Tom Compton, and took T Brian O’Neill in the second round of the draft. In the sixth round, they drafted another G, Colby Gossett. Joe Berger retired, meaning the Vikings had to find a guy to replace him, and they seemed to settle on making the ‘Mike Remmers to G’ experiment permanent. As training camp started, this is what the o-line was projected to be:

LT: Reiff

LG: Easton

C: Elflein

RG: Remmers

RT: Hill

Yet once again, the injury storm clouds formed on the horizon. Pat Elflein was put on the PUP, Mike Remmers tweaked an ankle the first day of pads, and Nick Easton is now on season ending IR due to a herniated disc in his neck. The huge problem is Easton—I’m honestly not concerned with the health of Elflein or Remmers long term. But, with them currently not practicing, the first team offensive line looks a little less than daunting. Yesterday’s afternoon practice looked something like this:

LT: Reiff

LG: Compton

C: ‘Yukon’ Cornelius Edison (I’m not lying when I said I’m running this into the ground. Don’t doubt me when it comes to lame puns).

RG: Isidora

RT: Hill

And once again, the discussion about Spielman neglecting the offensive line has reared its ugly head. Is it fair? At face value, no. In the short term, Elflein and Remmers should be back in a week or so, and as long as they’re ready for opening day the line will be fine.

But Spielman is getting savaged for the long term prognosis, which is what’s most baffling to me. The Vikings added more to the o-line with Compton in free agency and O’Neill in the second round. Everyone wanted an offensive lineman drafted early, and one was drafted early. But now the argument isn’t IF someone was drafted, it’s WHO was drafted. And because the Vikings didn’t trade up for Billy Price or Frank Ragnow, or draft Will Hernandez, Spielman is an utter failure for drafting a ‘project’ in O’Neill...although it looks like he might be making a serious push to win the RT job.

For the period leading up to this, though, I think it’s fair to criticize some of the poor draft choices the Vikings have made, which is a significant contributing factor to the recent o-line struggles. Willie Beavers wasn’t even on most big boards, for example, but the Vikings took him in the fourth round. David Yankey was the 2014 version of Danny Isidora, and he never panned out. You can make an argument that getting a high round pick wasn’t a high priority, but depth most certainly was, and those depth picks were failures.

But some of it has been bad luck, too.

No one saw Matt Kalil degrading like he has...but at least that’s Carolina’s problem now. Brandon Fusco looked promising, got injured, and never really recovered. Mike Harris was really becoming a good interior lineman, and he got hit with something no one saw coming, and had to retire. If Phil Loadholt had stayed healthy, he probably plays through 2016.

So while some of the criticism has been fair, I also think the charge of blind neglect is also false, and not warranted.