The Minnesota Vikings will look to improve their offensive line this offseason, but how can the team accomplish it through free agency or the NFL Draft?
It’s no surprise that the weakest link of the Minnesota Vikings is the offensive line. The Vikings have the best running back in the NFL to go along with a young, Pro Bowl quarterback, yet the offense as a whole was only ranked 29th in the league for yards per game (321.2 ypg), 31st for passing yards per game (183 ypg) and 4th for rushing yards per game (138.2 ypg). The Vikings were also 25th in the league for sacks given up with 45.
Pro Football Focus has a wonderful article, breaking down and ranking the offensive lines in the NFL for 2015. According to the article, Minnesota is actually ranked higher than I anticipated, coming in at number 14 thanks in large part to their 7th rated run blocking efficiency. As you know from reading my previous articles, I am a big fan of Pro Football Focus. If I have a gripe with them, it’s because I think my favorite players should be ranked higher. However, this is the first time I have ever disagreed with them because players from the Vikings were ranked higher!
While the Vikings’ offensive line may have been ranked in the top half of the league, much of that is due to Adrian Peterson and his uncanny ability to fit through small holes and break tackles. If you watched any Vikings games this season (and I’m assuming you have, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading an article about their offensive line in February), you know the offensive line could use plenty of improvement, especially pass blocking.
Let’s take a quick look at the Viking’s offensive line as it stands right now.
Left Tackle Matt Kalil was PFF’s 46th ranked tackle in 2015 with a 46.9 grade. After being drafted 4th overall in 2012, Kalil made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. However, his play has significantly decreased since. The Vikings have a month to decide if they are bringing Kalil back for his fifth year at a price tag of 11 million.
Right Tackle Phil Loadholt will be coming back from an Achilles tear and figures to take his starting job back. Rookie T.J. Clemming started every game this season at right tackle, but was PFF’s 62nd ranked tackle with a grade of 36.8.
Back-ups at tackle include Austin Shepherd and Carter Bykowski.
Left Guard Brandon Fusco finished the 2014 season on IR after tearing his pectoral muscle, and was moved from right guard to left guard entering the 2015 season. After a promising start to his career, Fusco had a down year. His PFF grade of 61.6 was good for 44th in the NFL.
Right Guard Mike Harris was a pleasant surprise in 2015. Harris started his career as a tackle, but did a good job when asked to move to guard. His grade of 76.9 ranks him as the 23rd best guard in the NFL. Harris will be free agent this off-season.
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Back-ups at guard include Zac Kerin and Jeremiah Sirles.
Center John Sullivan will be back from a back injury and, like Loadholt, figures to get his starting spot back. Joe Berger filled in this season when Sullivan went down and did a phenomenal job, grading out at 89.1 and PFF’s 2nd best center.
Back-up at center is Nick Easton.
So what can the Vikings do to improve the offensive line? One option would be to draft a lineman in the draft. In the most recent draft, 13 offensive linemen were taken in the first two rounds. Of those 13, five were rated higher by PFF when compared to the Vikings’ counterparts. Just glancing at those stats, one could make the case that the draft is the best way to improve the line.
Looking ahead to the draft, Matt Miller over at Bleacher Report has 12 offensive linemen in his top 64, so there is a good chance the Vikings will take an offensive lineman in the first few rounds. Looking strictly at tackle, the top two (Ronnie Stanley, ND and Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss) will more than likely be gone by the time the Vikings pick at #23 in the first round. With those two out of the picture, some possible candidates are Jack Conklin (Michigan State), Taylor Decker (Ohio State) and Jerald Hawkins (LSU) in the first round. In the second round, some names to keep in mind are Shon Coleman (Auburn) or Jason Spriggs (Indiana).
If the Vikings don’t like any of the tackles available to them in the draft, another route to go would be free agency. Cordy Glenn is the best offensive tackle available this off-season, but unfortunately for Minnesota, all signs are pointing to him re-signing in Buffalo. Another couple options would be Mitchell Schwartz, who is the younger brother of former Vikings offensive lineman Geoff, and Donald Penn, who originally signed in Minnesota as an undrafted rookie in 2006.
So if the Vikings don’t draft an offensive lineman in the first couple rounds of the draft or sign one as a free agent, should you give up all hope for next season? No! While I wouldn’t be unhappy if the Vikings added a top tier offensive lineman, I think they already have the pieces for an improved offensive line.
Kalil might have had a sub-par season, but it was still an improvement over the last couple years. Also, if the Vikings let him go, they will be giving up on the fourth overall pick without getting any sort of compensation in return. My gut feeling is that the Vikings bring Kalil back for one more year and give him one more opportunity to show he can be a franchise left tackle. With improved play next to him at guard, Kalil can improve his play.
Brandon Fusco also had a bad season, but he was coming off injury and was asked to switch from the right to the left side of the line. Prior to this year, Fusco was regarded by many as one of the best young guards in the NFL. Another year of learning the left side of the line, or possibly switching back to right guard, and hopefully Fusco can regain his top tier form.
John Sullivan is a solid center. When he comes back, there is a good chance we don’t see any improvement from the center position. However, Sullivan coming back means the Vikings can move Joe Berger to guard which should be a big help.
Mike Harris is one of the best linemen the Vikings have, but he is a free agent this year. If the Vikings don’t bring him back, Berger will be waiting to take his spot.
Phil Loadholt, like Sullivan, is coming back from injury and should provide a boost at right tackle. His return will move Clemmings to a backup spot, and after a year of playing in the NFL, he will be able to step right in when needed.
If I had to guess right now, I would say the Minnesota Vikings offensive line will be: Kalil and Berger on the left side, Sullivan at center, Fusco and Loadholt on the right side. I know there are many out there who would not be happy with the Vikings leaving the offensive line as the status quo, but I am not one of them. As much as I would like them to bring in a top tier free agent or a high draft pick, I think the Vikings have the pieces for a decent offensive line already in place. It’s just a matter of getting everyone healthy and continuing to improve the young players.