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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation: Offensive Line

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It was another bad season for the Vikings offensive line. Kirk Cousins was the 2nd most pressured quarterback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, largely due to the Vikings offensive line being ranked 29th in pass blocking efficiency. If you look at overall team run and pass blocking rankings, which include non-OL blockers as well, the Vikings ranked 25th and 27th respectively. Overall, PFF ranked the Vikings offensive line 29th in the NFL this season.

In terms of individual starters along the offensive line, only Riley Reiff was graded above 70 - which is meant to be average - overall. Rookie Brian O’Neill was second, followed by Tom Compton, Mike Remmers, and finally Pat Elflein anchored in the mid-40s (poor) - a big regression. Among starters from last season, only Riley Reiff was improved - performing back at about his career average.

Vikings OL coach Tony Sparano suffered a fatal heart attack just before training camp, leaving assistant OL coach Andrew Janocko and TE coach Clancy Barone to take over as co-OL coaches. The Vikings did not pursue alternatives - the timing of Sparano’s death just before training camp was doubtless a complication in finding a replacement.

Offensive Line Injuries

Player casualties included last year’s starting left guard Nick Easton, and improving backup OL Aviante Collins - both were on IR before the season started. Pat Elflein also missed the entire off- and pre-season with ankle/shoulder injuries, and also the first four games of the season. There were some other games lost to injury from Tom Compton and Rashod Hill (before losing his starting job to Brian O’Neill), but for the most part the offensive line was relatively healthy this season.

New Offensive Line Acquisitions

The Vikings invested their 2nd round draft pick in tackle Brian O’Neill, who wasn’t expected to have much of an impact this season, but his rapid development in the off/pre-season allowed him to supplant Rashod Hill during the course of the season as the starter at right-tackle.

The Vikings also picked up some veterans during the off-season - Tom Compton and Brett Jones being the most notable. Compton became the starting left-guard, replacing the injured Nick Easton, and Brett Jones - who started at center last season for the Giants.

Jones started the first three games for the Vikings, and earned higher average grades over that three-game span than Pat Elflein did the rest of the season. Jones also earned much better grades than Elflein last season with the Giants.

So, with that lead-in, let’s evaluate the Vikings offensive linemen and coaching.

Offensive Line Coaching

After the death of Tony Sparano, the Vikings went with Assistant OL Coach Andrew Janocko and TE Coach Clancy Barone as co-OL Coaches. Head coach Mike Zimmer gave some mild compliments to both coaches at his end-of-season press conference, but also said that after the death of Tony Sparano things went into a tailspin.

Andrew Janocko had only worked as an assistant OL coach for a year before being elevated after Sparano’s death. No offense to Janocko, but he’s a young guy that could use a few more seasons as an assistant OL coach before being really ready to be the position coach.

Clancy Barone had been an offensive line coach before with a couple teams, but never for very long. He has alternated between OL coach and TE coach, but has had a hard time holding onto either position for more than a couple years since becoming an NFL coach in 2004. Eight of those years since he’s been a TE coach, and that may be the better spot for him. His runs as OL coach have been very short lived- one or two years at the most.

I would be surprised if either Janocko or Barone were given any serious consideration to stay on as OL coach, and I hope getting a top OL coach is as high a priority as getting a top offensive coordinator for the Vikings early this off-season.

Both this year and over the past couple seasons, the Vikings have been unable to coach much improvement out of any of their offensive linemen - veterans or rookies. The only exception seems to be Brian O’Neill this year - and that may be more due to O’Neill’s own drive to get better rather than particularly good coaching. Veterans have not played better in Minnesota compared to where they were elsewhere (although a couple may have been about the same), and rookies have generally disappointed in their development.

But let’s take a look at each of the starters, and a few other notables.

Pat Elflein - Center

Pat Elflein was the worst graded center in the NFL this season according to PFF. 38th out of 38. Maybe his injuries played a part in his performance, and not getting stronger during the off-season, but it’s likely more than that.

Elflein was supposed to be back healthy at the beginning of training camp, but remained inactive for another two months, and after having missed the entire off-season as well. I’m not sure what the exact natures of Elflein’s injuries were (other than shoulder and ankle), but it seemed like a long time to be out, and there didn’t seem to be much urgency with Elflein to get back into active status.

In any case, Elflein struggled all season. His best game was against Arizona, and even that failed to earn an above average grade. He had a few games with an above average grade in pass blocking, but not even one above average grade in run blocking all season.

It’s hard to see anything optimistic about Elflein’s stats this season - his sophomore campaign. In fact, given Elflein’s performance, it was questionable to keep him in the starting job when Brett Jones, who’d played better, was on the bench.

There were a few things behind Elflein’s poor performance looking back at the games this season. The first was that he was overpowered and had difficulty sustaining blocks; the second was he lost the hand fighting which led to defenders getting past him; and third he sometimes didn’t block the right guy, letting a defender by him unchecked.

At his best Elflein did well helping out on double-teams in pass protection; staying low and moving a defender in zone blocking; or getting a nice open field block at the second-level. But these were not as frequent as you’d hope, and he was not a guy that ever dominated an opponent - or showed the tenacity or mean streak to finish blocks consistently.

Bottom line, Pat Elflein has a lot of work to do to improve his game. He needs to get stronger and improve his anchor. He needs to improve his hand technique. He needs to develop more of a mean streak and tenacity to finish blocks. And he needs to improve his awareness. Beyond that, the center position is one where ideally you have the leader of the offensive line. I’m not sure Elflein has demonstrated the leadership the Vikings are looking for among offensive linemen, which starts by leading by example.

Is Elflein a bust? Maybe. The Vikings coaching staff will know more about the extent of his injuries and to what extent they were a factor in his regression this season. If they weren’t a big factor, he may be a bust or at least much more of a project than a 3rd round draft pick should be. If so, he still has a lot of work to do to get healthy, stronger, improve his technique and attitude on the field. It may also be that Elflein is a better guard than center - as was suggested by his PFF draft profile.

All that suggests Elflein may be more than a season away from becoming a decent offensive lineman. And there is no guarantee he gets there. Having a good offensive line coach would be helpful going forward, but having competition for Elflein’s job would be good too.

Mike Remmers - Right Guard

Remmers was moved inside to right guard from the get-go last off-season, but after a full off-season and pre-season to prepare (Remmers did miss some of training camp with an injury) it just didn’t go well. Remmers regressed from his previous year at right tackle, allowing 42 pressures (along with 8 penalties) on the season, including 7 sacks. In 2017-18, Remmers allowed 27 pressures and no sacks at (mostly) right tackle - on about 240 fewer pass blocking snaps.

Worse, Remmers’ run blocking grade by PFF was his worst since he started in the league.

His failure to make it at right guard, combined with his salary cap number, and the fact that he’s not needed at right tackle anymore, should be enough for the Vikings to part ways with Remmers this off-season, which would save $4.55 million in cap space, while creating $1.8 million in dead cap. A trade would have the same effect on the salary cap.

Between the guys the Vikings have on the roster (Danny Isidora, Aviante Collins, Cornelius Edison) or may be able to re-sign (Brett Jones, Tom Compton, Nick Easton) there is a replacement level player for Remmers in there somewhere.

But the hope is that the Vikings may acquire a bona fide upgrade via free agency or the draft for one or more interior linemen, and jettisoning Remmers seems a likely part of that process - particularly if it’s a free agent.

Bottom line, Remmers was a fairly expensive acquisition a couple years ago in free agency to fill the void left by failing to develop offensive linemen the Vikings had acquired, but now the need for his services has become redundant and parting ways seems appropriate at some point this off season.

Brian O’Neill - Right Tackle

Perhaps the only somewhat bright spot among offensive linemen this season has been the development of Brian O’Neill. When he was drafted at the end of the second round, he really wasn’t expected to have much of an impact this season, and most draft analysts said he’ll need a year to develop as he hadn’t much experience at tackle in college - having been a former TE.

But O’Neill did everything he could to build his strength and bulk during the off/pre-season, and began making a run for the right-tackle position occupied by Rashod Hill. Mid-way through the season O’Neill overtook Hill and became the starter, and looks like he will continue to improve with another full off/pre-season to work on his game and build strength.

There is some possibility that O’Neill could eventually move to left tackle (and have Reiff move back to the right side) as O’Neill has better length and athleticism than Reiff, if he can improve his technique.

But at either tackle spot, O’Neill looks to be a keeper and a good draft pick. Overall O’Neill gave up 31 pressures (with 4 penalties) and no sacks on the season, and he looks like he can improve on those numbers next season, and become the best linemen currently on the roster next season.

O’Neill is on his rookie deal, so the Vikings have him locked up through 2021 for about $1.2 million a year, which is helpful both in improving the offensive line, and with the salary cap.

Tom Compton - Left Guard

The Vikings acquired Compton this past off-season (he came from Chicago) and gave him the most work he’s had in any season in his career, with 837 snaps altogether. Overall, he was okay. Not good, but okay. He had a number of good games in pass protection (SF, Buffalo, Philly, AZ, Jets, NE, Seattle) but got beat-up pretty bad against the Rams and both times against his old team - the Bears.

Overall he gave up 35 pressures on the season, including 7 sacks, and had 7 penalties. Like pretty much every Vikings offensive lineman, he struggled in run blocking - but was better than most.

Compton is now a free agent, but presumably could be brought back on a bargain contract. He is a Minnesota native. He’s not the guy you want as a starter, but could be a decent backup at either guard position to help get the Vikings through the inevitable injuries over the course of a season without too much of a drop-off in performance.

Assuming the Vikings can acquire/develop a better left guard to replace him.

Riley Reiff - Left Tackle

Reiff was also a bit of a positive for the Vikings this season, having improved some over last season, and having remained healthy for the most part. He got back to playing at about his career average performance level (which is about average), and was one of the most consistent linemen as well. He didn’t have many poor games (although 12 of his 42 pressures allowed came against Buffalo). Overall, he was the highest graded lineman on the team among starters, turning in several solid games in pass blocking - and also in run blocking - which is all too rare for Vikings offensive linemen.

Reiff is the most expensive of the Vikings offensive linemen, and will be just under $12 million against the cap next season. Cutting him would save about half that in cap space, with the other half in dead cap, but there is no reason at this point to do so.

Reiff may not be worth the full $12 million or so, but he turned in a decent year at left tackle this past season, and there is no reason to believe that he can’t do at least as well next season too.

Reiff is one of the team captains, and the most worthy among offensive linemen by performance/experience, but the Vikings could use a more active leader in this group, which really needs leadership to help develop guys at just about every position along the line.

In any case, Reiff is not the weak link on the offensive line, and with many other weak links to upgrade, keeping Reiff in place for another year is an easy decision. With better coaching, Reiff might even improve above his career average performance if he’s able to keep healthy.

Rashod Hill - Swing Tackle

Hill lost his starting spot to Brian O’Neill over the course of the season, and has become the swing tackle for the Vikings. He is a restricted free agent now, and perhaps a guy the Vikings may want to extend another season.

He’s not quite the backup tackle you want, and I’m not sure he’ll get much better at this point (better coaching gives him a chance), but given the alternatives on the roster he deserves a chance to compete for the swing tackle job. But the Vikings salary cap situation is tight, so whether they extend Hill or not may come down to that, and available alternatives.

Aviante Collins - Everywhere But Center

Aviante Collins broke his arm late in training camp, which sidelined him for the season. Before that, however, he was getting plenty of attention from the coaching staff - and at every position but center. He looked to possibly be a starting candidate at left guard before he went down, but swing tackle was also a possibility.

Bottom line was that Collins was showing some promise and improvement over his rookie year, and was moving up the depth chart. From all the positions he was tried at, he looks to be either a swing tackle or possibly a starting guard. This coming off/pre-season may help define his best position, but it may be inside at guard. Collins has shown more of the nasty streak and tenacity to finish blocks - something that is sorely needed along the Vikings offensive line. I suspect that the Vikings will draft interior linemen, but Collins could compete here as well.

Brett Jones - Interior Lineman

Jones was acquired from the Giants this past off-season, where he had started at center last season. He performed very well in pass protection, not as well in run blocking, but compared to Pat Elflein this season he was much better in both.

Jones is a free agent now, but he’s a guy the Vikings may want to re-sign as competition along the interior line - including center.

I suspect the Vikings may look to draft one or two interior linemen in the early rounds of the draft, and how ready they may be to take on starting duties may figure into the decision on whether they retain free agent interior linemen like Jones.

Bottom Line

The Vikings may have made progress in solidifying the two starting tackle spots this year, but they may need to find replacements for all three interior linemen this off-season.

Some rumors the Vikings may target guys like Dalton Risner and/or Cody Ford or maybe Chris Lindstrom as potential plug-and-play guards. That could leave Pat Elflein, Nick Easton, Brett Jones and Cornelius Edison to battle it out for the starting center spot.

Or maybe the Vikings could trade for a center (or guard) as well.

But given the depth at other positions, and age of starters, the Vikings could make a concentrated effort in the draft to improve the weakest position group on the team for the past several years - offensive line.

But just focusing on the offensive line in the draft will not be enough. They will need a good offensive line coach to develop the talent they have and acquire along the offensive line if they are to get the most from their investments.

Poll

Should Pat Elflein be the starter next season at center?

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    No
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