Riley Reiff is given a salary ultimatum. Riley Reiff says goodbye to his teammates. His agent canvasses the league for trade interest. Riley Reiff says he thinks he’ll be released. Dramatic close-up and music. Another soap-opera cliff-hanger.
Next day Mike Zimmer opens by saying we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. Then the news breaks: Reiff agrees to restructure his contract and remain with the Vikings. Hooray! All’s well that ends well.
Except this isn’t really the ending. It’s the beginning. The season is quickly approaching, and what have the Vikings done to improve the offensive line- long the bane of their offense?
Where’s the Plan ?
The Vikings had the whole off-season to consider in detail their best five, who’s best at what position, where they needed more competition, along with salary cap considerations.
Their first move was to present their best performing guard, Josh Kline, who just signed a 3-year, $15.5MM deal with the Vikings a year ago, with an ultimatum to take a salary cut or be released. He was released, creating $2.666MM in dead cap and saving about $1.5MM. The Vikings could have saved a bit more salary cap had they cut Pat Elflein, who performed worse than Kline last season. Kline did have concussion issues, but it was unclear if that was why he was approached with a salary cut.
In the meantime, the coaching staff was talking up guys like Dru Samia, Oli Udoh and Aviante Collins as guys that could be ready to step-up.
Then came the draft and the Vikings making a serious effort to trade for LT Trent Williams, presumably to replace LT Riley Reiff. The deal didn’t happen, and so the Vikings drafted Ezra Cleveland instead. And promptly moved him to left guard.
When training camp finally got started, we learned - out of nowhere - that Pat Elflein was the presumptive starter at right guard and Dakota Dozier at left guard. None of the coaches had said anything of either one during the off-season to suggest they’d get the first cracks at starting guard jobs. In fact Elflein especially had been notably missing from any discussion of starting offensive linemen. But we learned that there had been a “group decision” for Elflein to move to right guard earlier in the off-season. His third position as a starter for the Vikings. He’s been at or near the bottom of the league every year in pass protection.
Aviante Collins would compete at left guard, with Ezra Cleveland 3rd string.
The Vikings had known salary cap constraints since the beginning of the off-season, and the need to free up space for possible core player extensions, but Riley Reiff, who’s a $13.2MM cap hit, average performer, and not much dead cap left in his deal, was praised by coaches and given the starting left tackle spot, where he took all the snaps when healthy or not having a vet day off.
But then the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue, and Reiff suddenly becomes expendable. Two weeks before their first game, the Vikings approach Reiff, like Kline earlier in the year, with an ultimatum of taking a pay cut or being released. The Vikings wasted no time installing Brian O’Neill at left tackle in practice with Oli Udoh taking over at right tackle, as Rashod Hill was not practicing. Apparently the Vikings were ready to roll with O’Neill at left tackle, and Rashod Hill or possibly Oli Udoh at right tackle.
Meanwhile Dakota Dozier was determined to be the best left guard available, and Pat Elflein the best right guard, despite some concerning performances in training camp, and past history that suggests both multi-year vets are mediocre at best. This is Dozier’s 7th year as a pro - and will be his first as a starter.
Rick Spielman had said there would be an open competition at both guard spots early in the off-season. Nobody but Elflein got first-team reps at right guard, and there was limited competition between Dozier and Collins at left guard.
Cleveland was never really a candidate for the starting left guard job, Dru Samia seems to have vanished. Rick Dennison praised Brett Jones today for helping to teach all the young guys, but nevertheless hasn’t been mentioned or considered him for starting duty. Oli Udoh was recognized for the first time since the start of training camp as having had a good camp, is doing well, has a bright future, but needs to improve consistency. Rashod Hill was also praised for his improvement and having done well in camp.
But now Reiff chose the pay cut, so apparently he’ll become, once again, the starting left tackle? We knew that Reiff had not been approached about moving to left guard, despite tackle looking like the stronger depth position with Rashod Hill and Oli Udoh having played well in 2019 starts, and Reiff being only an average performer at tackle. Apparently the coaching staff is willing to shuffle other starting linemen to different starting positions, but not Reiff. Reiff had said last month that they’re all cross-trained, and that he’d play wherever they want him to play.
Bottom line, despite the offensive line being the weak link in the Vikings offense last season - and for many years - the plan was to maintain the status quo, except for replacing Josh Kline with Dakota Dozier, and switching Elflein from left to right.
What They Could Have Done
Given the Vikings salary cap situation, they could’ve included Riley Reiff among the other veteran cuts at the beginning of the off-season, or at least approach him with a salary cut ultimatum like they did Josh Kline. I’m guessing Reiff would’ve walked at that point, which would’ve been fine, as the Vikings have three viable starting tackles in Brian O’Neill, Rashod Hill, and Oli Udoh that likely would perform just as well, if not better than O’Neill and Reiff. They could’ve then prepared O’Neill to move to left tackle and have Udoh and Hill compete at right tackle.
If they really felt Josh Kline was a concussion problem waiting to happen, they could have done the same as they did with him, but taken the savings and brought in Kelechi Osemele to compete at left guard. The Chiefs signed him to replace their left guard who opted-out in late July for $1.2 million. Osemele is past his prime at age 31 and coming off surgery last fall, but he’s also never allowed more than 21 pressures a season since 2012 and only 9 sacks in 7 seasons. He played left guard in Kubiak’s system in 2014 so it wouldn’t be new to him. He’s 6’5”, 330lbs and was an first-team All-Pro in 2016 and first-team Pro Bowler in 2017. Somehow I think he might’ve been an upgrade over Dakota Dozier.
They could’ve still drafted Ezra Cleveland to take over next year at left guard, which is perhaps their current plan for him.
At right guard, they could’ve actually had a competition among all the other interior linemen, including possibly Josh Kline, to get the best of the bunch rather than just settle with Elflein. 2nd place could be a backup guard along with Cleveland, and Jones as backup center if not starting guard.
That would’ve given them O’Neill - Osemele - Bradbury - RG Winner - Hill/Udoh for a starting five, and for less money than they’re (likely) paying Reiff-Dozier-Bradbury-Elflein-O’Neill after Reiff’s contract restructure.
They would’ve also have a decent starting candidate coming up in Cleveland, and if Osemele worked out, they could actually extend him another year or two or however long he plays well.
Too Much Status Quo
But from the moment he got here, Vikings’ offensive line coach Rick Dennison has seemed largely content with the talent on the Vikings roster. His style is to predetermine the starting lineup early to maximize practice time together. He did that last year, and that seems to pretty much be the case this year too.
The decision to make Dakota Dozier- whom Dennison brought with him from the Jets- a starting left guard seems to be a reach at best. Last season he gave up 18 pressures, including 2 sacks, with 2 penalties, in just 184 pass blocking snaps. That translates into a pass blocking efficiency of 94.6%. Guess where that ranked among guards with at least as many pass blocking snaps as Dozier?
Dead last. 81st of 81.
And where did Pat Elflein, the Vikings other starting guard, rank by the same measure last year?
Reports from training camp were that both of them were having trouble at times against the Vikings interior defensive line, all of which have mediocre PFF grades.
So there you go. Out of all the players and possibilities the Vikings had at their disposal the entire off-season, this is what came out on top.
Rick Dennison better be right in thinking Dozier and Elflein will be better, and I mean a lot better, than they were last year in pass protection. None of them were anything to write home about as run blockers either. If he’s wrong, he should be fired- along with Dozier and Elflein.