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Vikings Offensive Line: Next Man Up

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings-Minicamp Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As casualties for the Vikings offensive line continue to exceed Civil War levels it would seem over the past few years, the latest news about Nick Easton going to IR seems predictable. Add to that Pat Elflein is still on the PUP list as the Vikings pass the half-way point in training camp, and it may be that Cornelius Edison may end up starting at center week one -and perhaps the first six games. Edison has never played in a regular season NFL game.

Beyond that, an extended injury absence for Easton would put his longer-term status in doubt as he’s on a one-year deal with a $2.9 million cap hit and no dead cap. It’s not out of the question that he could go from IR to released with an injury settlement.

But looking across the offensive line, if Elflein was to return and be healthy in time to start, or Edison proves adequate to the task, the Vikings could make it through Easton’s potential injury issue without a big drop in performance over last year - and they could still improve.

Here’s how.

GET TO KNOW THE VIKINGS OFFENSIVE LINE

One of the leading contenders to replace Easton at left guard is Minnesota native Tom Compton. In addition to being a local boy, Compton has been friends with left tackle Riley Reiff since they were drafted and also Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who he played with in Washington a few years ago. All that presumably has made his transition to the Vikings offensive line easier. From a historical performance perspective, Compton has performed at a similar level to Nick Easton, in both pass protection and run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) grading. Compton is 29 - 3 years older than Easton - and played 342 snaps for the Bears last year, first at left guard, but mostly right guard. He had his highest PFF pass blocking grade of the season (83.5) last year week 17 against the Vikings. Career-to-date, Compton has played in 71 games with 15 starts.

All that suggests Compton could come in and perform at a similar level to Easton if need be.

At left tackle, Riley Reiff has been healthy (knock on wood), throughout the off and pre-season, which was not the case last year. That could (hopefully) help him re-gain the performance level he had with the Lions, which was considerably better than what he achieved last season, at least according to PFF grading. It’s not unusual for a veteran free-agent acquisition to have a bit of an off-year after transitioning to a new team. New coaching, teammates, and scheme all contribute to that. Reiff missing most of training camp and pre-season last year, along with going back to left tackle after playing right-tackle the season before, probably didn’t help either.

Hopefully having a season under his belt with the Vikings, along with an off-season and training camp to prepare, will elevate Reiff’s game this season.

Center looks to the be the biggest question mark at this moment, with both Easton and Elflein potentially being out with injury. My hope is that Elflein is able to get healthy and start week one. Worst case, the Vikings go with Edison and hope he doesn’t get hurt too. If Elflein is on the PUP list to start the season, that means he must remain on the PUP list for six weeks, so Edison would be starting at center for some time.

I hope Elflein can come back soon and take a step forward over a generally underwhelming rookie campaign. As the season progressed last year, Elflein looked to be raising his floor in terms of pass protection, but settling into mediocrity as a run blocker. It’s not immediately clear why that was the case, but hopefully Elflein can build on his rookie-year performance despite injury setbacks derailing his off-season and training camp to date. It would seem doubtful, but we’ll see how Elflein responds.

Mike Remmers fared better as a free-agent acquisition than Reiff, as he performed better than his performance at Carolina the previous year, but still about average. As the season went on, Remmers was putting together a string of above-average games in pass protection, but struggling more in run blocking at right tackle. The last several games saw Remmers switch to both guard positions at times, which didn’t help his performance, but that may have had more to do with learning a new position on the fly in the middle of the season that his traits or ability to play the position with better preparation.

Remmers is probably better suited to play inside at guard, given his athletic and arm length limitations which are so key to playing tackle these days against more athletic and long defensive linemen - even at right tackle. So, moving inside to right guard makes some sense and may allow Remmers to achieve higher performance levels by matching his skill set to a position that suits him better.

With Remmers moving inside, Rashod Hill looks to be taking over the starting right tackle spot. Hill played in 12 games last season, 10 at right tackle, 2 at left tackle. He managed a string of 4 largely solid games between week 7-11, particularly in pass protection, before trailing off in performance for the rest of the season after that. His worst two games were the two playoff games.

Hill came into the off-season having lost about 10 pounds, which he hopes will help with his agility/quickness, and fatigue issues. He acknowledged fatigue was an issue both as games went on, and as the season went on. Hopefully coming back in better shape will show up in better performance late, which is when he struggled the most last year.

It certainly stands to reason that a having a half-season of starts and coming back in better shape will have a positive effect on Hill’s performance at right tackle this year. We’ll see. He’s looked better in training camp than last year, so we’ll see how that develops.

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH MAY BE IMPROVING

While the quality of the starters may not be vastly improved over last year - and dependent more on internal improvement rather than new acquisitions - the quality of the offensive line depth may be improving.

But the addition of Tom Compton, Brian O’Neill and Colby Gossett, along with Danny Isidora and Aviante Collins having a year of NFL training and some limited reps under their belt may help to quality of the offensive line depth over last year.

It’s still likely to be the weakest position group on the team yet again this year, both the quality of starters and depth, but despite the injury issues there is still an opportunity for improvement if starting veterans can step up their game this season- and I have outlined some ways each of them can improve over last season that stand to reason.

A LOOK BACK AT LAST SEASON’S OFFENSIVE LINE

Last season, going mostly with Reiff - Easton - Elflein - Berger - Remmers as starters, with Rashod Hill getting significant playing time at right tackle, and Jeremiah Sirles and a couple others filling in too on occasion, the Vikings offensive line was able to perform average or above (70 or above) according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), in nine games in pass protection, but only two in run blocking. Overall, the Vikings offensive line finished slightly above average in pass protection, and just below average in run blocking.

Easton was the best starting lineman in pass protection, with only 12 pressures allowed all season according to PFF, and no sacks. Joe Berger allowed 28 pressures and 3 sacks, while Pat Elflein allowed 26 pressures and 4 sacks at center.

So, from a pass protection standpoint, Easton is the most difficult to replace. But if you look at the left guard position overall, and add pressures allowed by Sirles (18) and Isidora (6), that’s 36 total pressures from the left guard last season, which becomes easier to replace.

But beyond replacing those who will not be starting for the Vikings this season, getting improvement from last year’s starters will be key. Riley Reiff led the group with 45 allowed pressures and 3 sacks, while Rashod Hill allowed 33 pressures and 2 sacks in only about a half season starting at right tackle. So, getting improvement from these two guys could cut down significantly on the number of pressures Kirk Cousins faces this season.

Tom Compton allowed 14 pressures (no sacks) on 342 total snaps last season, which would be about 42 over the full season/post-season the Vikings had last year. Not great, but also only about 6 more than what the Vikings allowed at LG last season.

Mike Remmers allowed 27 pressures and no sacks at mostly right tackle, but also both guard spots last season. Moving him inside to right guard makes his pass protection job easier, but if he were able to do the same as last year, that would be a slight improvement over Joe Berger last season.

But bottom line in terms of pass protection, there is reason for some optimism even with the loss of Nick Easton, if guys like Riley Reiff and Rashod Hill can improve over last season.

When it comes to run blocking, Tom Compton has historically performed a little better than Nick Easton, and Remmers was similar to Berger last season, albeit at different positions. So again, similar to pass protection, it’s probably less about the new guards as it is getting better performance out of the existing tackles (Reiff and Hill) from last season.

BOTTOM LINE

In any case, it’s never a good thing to have a starter lost to injury. But in the case of Nick Easton, the Vikings may have a guy on the roster already that can replace him with similar performance. If Elflein can’t go and it’s Edison at center, we’ll have to see how that plays out. Elflein was a rookie at center last year, and Edison will effectively have a rookie season if he’s called to starting duty. Both were Rimington award winners in college for best center. Edison is more of an unknown, but my guess is that he won’t be a starter very long, if at all.

But if Reiff, Remmers and Hill can improve over last season, and there is reasons why all of them could do so, the Vikings offensive line could also improve this season - despite the injury issues so far.

Poll

Now that Nick Easton is out for the season, who will start at left guard?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Tom Compton
    (855 votes)
  • 20%
    Danny Isidora
    (311 votes)
  • 10%
    Aviante Collins
    (160 votes)
  • 10%
    Somebody Else
    (163 votes)
1489 votes total Vote Now