For the last several seasons, the Minnesota Vikings seem to enter training camp with a lot of the same questions, and this year is no different. For many, myself included, the one question that everyone is asking is ‘how will the offensive line perform?’
For the Vikings, it seems to be a question as old as the franchise itself, and one we renew every year about this time. Unfortunately, the answer has usually been ‘not very good’, and the end result has been a disappointing season, like 2016, or last year, when Minnesota stumbled to an 8-7-1 record.
But in the off-season, the Vikings revamped the line to the point that there’s reason for optimism, and a fair belief that the line will play a lot better than they did last year. Let’s take a look.
For one thing, they almost have to be better, because they can’t be much worse. Per Pro Football Focus, the website Mike Zimmer takes with a grain of salt, they gave up the most pass pressures of any line in the NFL, and their pass blocking efficiency, whatever the hell that is, was 29th out of 32 teams. They were also ranked 30th in the NFL rushing offense, but if you want to make an argument that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo eliminated all designed running plays from the playbook in week two and that played a large part, I’ll listen.
Be that as it may, the Vikings enter 2019 with three new starters, if you include position switches. The tackles are returning, and I’m good with that. Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill are on the left and right side respectively, and I really like both guys. I think Reiff is at least league average, and if he stays healthy he’s a solid LT. O’Neill flashed early last year as an injury substitute, took the starting job in week five or six, and never looked back.
It’s the interior line that had issues last year, and everyone who committed those offensive line crimes against humanity last year is either gone or moved to a new position. Let’s start with Pat Elflein, last year’s center who is now the starting left guard. Elflein struggled last season coming back from two surgeries, and was literally one of the worst graded players at the position per PFF. His move to left guard should benefit him, as he was first team All-Big Ten twice, and a second team All –American as a guard while at Ohio State. Elflein’s strength is his ability to pull and engage a defender on the perimeter, so it’s reasonable to think the switch to guard will be beneficial.
In free agency, the Vikings signed right guard Josh Kline to a three year deal worth almost $16 million, over $7 million of which is guaranteed. Kline has had a good career overall, but slumped last year in Tennessee. The zone blocking scheme that new offensive line coach Rick Dennison is employing should play to his strengths as a player as he looks to regain his old form.
At center, the Vikings used their first round selection on Garrett Bradbury, who was penciled in as a starter almost immediately, and entered the head coach cliché Hall of Fame within one day of rookies reporting to Eagan, which is a new record (full credit to Eric Thompson for that joke). In his senior year at NC State, he was a consensus All American, won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s most outstanding offensive lineman, and didn’t allow a single QB sack in over 900 snaps. The Vikings hope Bradbury is the next great center in a long history of them for this franchise.
The one thing that seems a lot different this year than in past years though is depth. On paper, the Vikings seem to have it, and with it an ability to absorb injuries that past units couldn’t. At tackle, Rashod Hill is the presumed backup, with 28 games and 15 starts in four years. Brett Jones would seem to be the primary backup at center, he’s played 44 games with 17 starts in three years, and he also has position flexibility as a guard. The primary guard backup? I’m going to go with another rookie, Dru Samia, a fourth round pick out of Oklahoma. Samia started nearly 40 games at Oklahoma, and is a perfect fit for the zone blocking scheme the Vikings are going to run. And if there’s going to be a battle for a starting job within this group, I’m going to say it will be between Samia and Josh Kline, especially if Kline starts slow and Samia starts fast. Still, it’s a big leap from college to the NFL, and it would take a lot, I think, for Samia to overtake Kline.
There are still a lot of ’if/then’ scenarios that need to play out for this line for them to reach their full potential, and that’s worrisome, as it’s unusual for all of them to pan out in your favor. Bradbury is a rookie, and rookie offensive linemen generally struggle. Just because Elflein switched positions doesn’t mean he’s going to improve, and in college he was primarily a right guard, not a left guard. Kline was flat out bad the last couple years, and there’s no guarantee he’ll turn things around. Still, these players all fit well into a zone blocking scheme, and there doesn’t seem to be the square peg in a round hole issue the line has had in recent seasons, like moving Mike Remmers to guard.
With Tom Compton and Remmers gone, it’s addition by subtraction in terms of improvement, because you can’t tell me with a straight face that Elflein-Bradbury-Kline/Samia can be any worse than Compton-Elflein-Remmers was last year. Well I mean you can, but you would be wrong.
The guys the Vikings replaced Compton and Remmers with have questions, but they also have an upside that Compton and Remmers didn’t have.
Let’s play some football. Well, I mean, let’s watch those guys play some football.
You get the idea.