For about the last 4-5 seasons, the one consistent Achilles Heel for the Vikings offense has been the offensive line. They’ve had good players individually, but the overall product has been, for the most part, pretty subpar. Let’s see how we got here, what GM Rick Spielman’s past plans have been, and what to expect going forward.
Spielman’s first major rebuild effort was in 2016, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The Vikings counted on John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt to return from season ending injuries that happened in training camp, and neither one of them were on the opening day roster. Loadholt actually retired before training camp, and Sullivan was cut after a lackluster pre-season. In the 2016 draft, they selected Willie Beavers in the fourth round, and that pick is still mystifying. 2015 4th round pick T.J. Clemmings was forced to play multiple positions, and after a decent end to his 2015 season, the constant position changes helped ruin him as an effective player, at least partly.
In 2017, I’ll give credit to Spielman for addressing the line in a big way. In free aency, he was able to sign Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers for bookend tackles, and they both played well for most of the season. In the draft, he aggressively moved up and took C Pat Elflein, and those three new starters helped lead an Offensive Renaissance, as the VIkings went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship.
But there were a couple things that happened and decisions made that spilled over into 2018, and I still don’t know why the Vikings did what they did. Late in the season, LG Nick Easton broke his ankle, the Vikings moved RT Mike Remmers inside, and put Rashod Hill at RT for the playoffs. At the time, Mike Zimmer said he wanted his ‘five best offensive linemen’ on the field, and with Easton’s injury, it made sense as a short term solution.
In the NFC Championship, Elflein broke his ankle as well, and after the season ended, Joe Berger retired, opening up a hole at RG. Instead of making an aggressive play for an interior lineman in free agency or early in the draft, though, the Vikings signed Tom Compton, a guy who wouldn’t be considered a front line starter, and made the Remmers move to guard permanent to replace Berger. In the draft, they took RT Brian O’Neill, who was considered by many experts to be a year away.
So the 2018 plan was a 2016 lite version with a a couple of twists—expect injured guys (Easton, Elflein) to return to full strength, sign a free agent but for depth only, and move a starter from one position to another. They also made a trade with the Giants for C/G Brett Jones, but curiously didn’t play him for most of the season.
The Vikings had more confidence in their plan this time, as OL coach Tony Sparano had really turned the 2017 line around, but his tragic death just a couple days before training camp threw everyone for a loop. The 2018 rebuild plan failed, as the Vikings couldn’t run the ball or protect the quarterback on a consistent basis all season. Elflein struggled mightily, Easton went on IR in training camp, missed the whole season, and was replaced by Compton. And finally, the Vikings managed to make arguably their best offensive lineman from 2017 their worst offensive lineman in 2018 by permanently moving Remmers inside. The only part of the plan that seemed to work was O’Neill, who became the starting RT in week six, and played well the rest of the way. You could make the argument that if O’Neill doesn’t pan out, the 2018 rebuild plan ends up almost as disastrous as the 2016 plan.
And so here we are, dealing with yet again another rebuild. I always find it weird when teams like the Colts, for example, can do a one year turnaround on their offensive line, yet for the Vikings it feels like they’re going with a ‘blind man at an orgy’ strategy—they’re just sorta feeling their way through, not knowing what they’ll grab next.
To kick things off for Rebuild Whatever Point Whatever, the Vikes floated a trial balloon about moving Riley Reiff to guard, because, you know, that worked wonders the last time they tried that. To replace Reiff, they talked about moving O’Neill to LT, another move that I’m dubious about. Not only would they move one established guy out of position, they’d move two! Crazy brilliant. Or just crazy, your call.
When the new league year began, that plan took a back burner as roster moves were made. Remmers was released, and Compton and Easton signed elsewhere in free agency. So far, Minnesota has re-signed Brett Jones, and he said the reason he came back was that he would be given an opportunity to win a starting job. To address the losses up front, they signed Josh Kline from the Tennessee Titans, who they’ve pretty much annointed as the starting right guard, and backup Dakota Dozier from the Jets. Kline has had a lot of success in the past, but slumped badly last year, while Dozier has been mostly a backup at that position. The draft is still a couple weeks off, and almost everyone who roots or follows the Vikings now assumes two things:
- Offensive line is still a gigantic need.
- The Vikings will not draft an offensive lineman in the first round because of these three moves.
Let’s look at what the Vikings projected starting line would be right now, based on the off-season moves so far:
Behind them are Dozier, Danny Isidora, Aviante Collins and Rashod Hill for depth. If you want to argue for Collins as the starting LG based on how he was playing in training camp before he went on IR last year, have at it but I’m sticking with Jones for now. There are a couple of ‘if’s’ here, but they aren’t completely unrealistic. If Pat Elflein returns 100% healthy, I think he’ll be a lot closer to his 2017 season than last year, and that’s a good thing. Jones and Kline are both upgrades over Compton and Remmers—if they can rebound and also play at their 2017 levels. If those things happen, I don’t hate this line, to be honest.
That said, the Vikings still need to address the line in the draft, and I think they will. With the moves they have made, I don’t necessarily think it HAS to be in the first round, though, but I do believe two o-line picks in the first three rounds are damn near mandatory. Depending on who they pick, and where, the line could have a couple different looks. Let’s say they go for a LT in the first round, and name your guy. Here’s the new line:
If they go with a guard or center in the first round, the Vikings line could look something like this, depending on who the player is:
With the quality of offensive linemen available, the Vikes should be able to go a long way in fixing their offensive line woes. How they’ll do it seems more the question for me as opposed to if they’ll do it, as I think another season of 8-8 or worse, due in large part to a bad o-line, will end up in a lot of people losing their jobs. For me, the priority is the interior line, but the valued position is tackle, and the Vikings are going to need to find Reiff’s replacement sooner rather than later. I don’t think they’ll roll with two rookies on the offensive line, but they will start one, and will get two guys that are (hopefully) long term answers.