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What changes are coming to the Vikings' offensive line?

Bring Me The News logo Bring Me The News 1/20/2022 Sam Ekstrom of Purple Insider

Once again, Minnesota has work to do to figure out its interior spots

If you’re looking for a constant affliction that plagued the Zimmer/Spielman era from Day 1, look no further than the offensive line.

From the fledgling play of Matt Kalil to myriad fourth-round draft whiffs to inexplicable position changes, the Vikings never figured out how to build an above-average group of blockers.

In eight years with Zimmer and Spielman, the Vikings average rank in pass blocking was 26th, per Pro Football Focus, and their peak was 17th in 2017. Even as a run-blocking unit, which the Vikings prioritized heavily, they averaged 19th over the tandem’s eight-year stretch with a peak of 12th in 2019.

To not accidently stumble into a top 10 ranking in any season over nearly a decade is tough to accomplish, especially when it was always an area of need that required investment.

The front office turned a blind eye to gaping holes in the offensive line’s depth year after year, ignoring a need that was annually an egregious issue. This held especially true in the regime’s final seasons, which leaves the Vikings’ future decision makers with a thin group of blockers despite some decent pieces in the starting lineup.

Based on current salary figures, the Vikings are projected to spend the seventh-fewest offensive line dollars in 2022, the fourth straight year they’ll sit in the bottom 10 of O-line expenditures. Spielman made a hard pivot around 2017 to finding offensive linemen high in the draft with Pat Elflein (third round), Brian O’Neill (second), Garrett Bradbury (first), Ezra Cleveland (second) and Christian Darrisaw (first), but toward the end of his run Spielman became too reliant on his own draft picks or in-house prospects after contracts given to Mike Remmers and Alex Boone didn’t pan out.

Over the previous three years, Spielman’s only attempt to find a starting-caliber offensive linemen in free agency was Josh Kline, who signed a three-year contract in 2019 but was jettisoned after one season. Meanwhile, the Vikings stuck with a struggling Elflein who was playing a new position in 2019, pitted Dakota Dozier against Aviante Collins in a training camp battle in 2020 and assumed Rashod Hill and a repositioned Oli Udoh could spot-start in 2021 while the team’s rookies developed. The end result in each of those years was a bottom eight pass blocking unit that left Kirk Cousins skittish.

While the team’s run-first philosophy has contributed to some depressed passing numbers, it’s wild that the Vikings have played with two elite-level wide receivers from 2017-21 and have not finished with a top 10 passing-yardage offense in any of those seasons. Cousins’ conservative nature, coaching decisions and, of course, poor blocking all deserve a fair share of the blame on that one.

Sure, Cousins has been eating up a lot of cap space along with some other huge contracts, but in 2021 the Vikings spent over $25 million offseason dollars on the defense, while their only moves on the offensive line were to cut left tackle Riley Reiff and re-sign… Dakota Dozier. It’s one thing if you don’t want to pay exorbitant money to Joe Thuney, but the Vikings opted not to acquire cheap stopgaps like Cameron Fleming, Morgan Moses or Jason Peters, instead using similar dollars to get Bashaud Breeland and Sheldon Richardson.

The Vikings seemed to turn up their nose at certain types of linemen, sticking to their pursuit of lithe, agile blockers that too often caved in pass protection. This often hamstrung the team’s revolving door of offensive coordinators once they realized Cousins struggled to handle interior pressure. It took until the 2021 draft for the Vikings to admit they needed some bigger bodies, which led to the picks of Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis. Spielman admitted as much in a recent podcast he recorded with Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks.

“If you have an immobile quarterback… those guys cannot get collapsed,” Spielman said. “Especially if the quarterback has to step up to throw the ball and you see some of these athletic quarterbacks that can make up for that.”

While it’s too late for Spielman to fix the problem that was largely his own creation, the next staff will inherit a few pieces that Spielman can take credit for. While his selections of Elflein and Bradbury were not home runs, the Vikings’ tackle pairing of O’Neill and Darrisaw could be locked in for years to come, assuming Darrisaw takes even a modest step forward from his solid rookie season. Cleveland quietly moved up the guard rankings as well, finishing 32nd of 90 qualified blockers, according to PFF. That comprises three-fifths of next year’s starting lineup before figuring out what to do with Bradbury and the right guard spot.

The former first-round pick Bradbury is almost 27 years old now. He is seemingly a finished product physically and has shown virtually no statistical improvement in three seasons. His PFF grades have been unfortunately consistent since 2019; most notably, he’s been last in pass-blocking grade each year among full-time starters. Declining his fifth-year option seems like a foregone conclusion, but Bradbury would still be a depth asset on the roster in his contract year if he doesn’t start. He could also be trade bait for a team needing a center with ample experience. With Mason Cole hitting free agency, the Vikings don’t have another center on the roster, but free agency is ripe with older veterans including Ben Jones (7th on PFF), Ethan Pocic (15th) and Justin Britt (21st).

Wyatt Davis is the biggest O-line personnel question for the next offensive decision-makers. Zimmer criticized his conditioning early last offseason, and Davis hardly even sniffed a second-team rep during training camp, much like the Vikings’ last flamed-out guard prospect Dru Samia. But the third-round pick should still deserve a long look from the next staff considering his pedigree. If Davis isn’t involved in at least an offseason competition for the starting right guard job, that would be a disappointment. Udoh will return for his fourth year on the club, but it’s hard to believe he’d remain a starting candidate after ranking 82nd of 90 in pass-blocking grade with a league-high 16 penalties.

As usual, there are numerous affordable guard options available in free agency who were effective last season like James Daniels (20th on PFF), Mark Glowinski (21st), Trai Turner (27th) and Michael Schofield (33rd). The draft is also rich with prospects on Day 2, much like last season, which should offer the new GM a chance to find a future starter.

The Vikings also face some minor decisions on what to do with free agents Dozier and Hill, and they’ll return a couple depth prospects in Blake Brandel and Kyle Hinton, but there are two bigger-picture questions this offseason will present.

1) What is the blocking scheme going to be?

This depends on a bevy of factors including the head coach hire and the quarterback decision. Coaching-wise, Kevin O’Connell from the Rams comes from Sean McVay’s wide zone system intermixed with spread concepts and lots of play-action. Dallas’ Kellen Moore isn’t married to a scheme and tends to orchestrate his offense around personnel. Doug Pederson is primarily a West Coast offense proponent who also designed an RPO offense with Nick Foles. Any of these schemes could influence which linemen get preference in the new offense.

2) Who is the offensive line coach?

Any new head coach may want to make their own choice around an offensive line coach, but Brian O’Neill gave a rousing endorsement for Phil Rauscher to return after Rauscher replaced Rick Dennison following Dennison’s refusal to get vaccinated.

“I’ll play football for Phil Rauscher any day, anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” O’Neill said after the season. “I respect him as a coach. I respect him as a man in what he was able to do in the situation with the fall, with Rick Dennison and how Phil was able to come in and do an unbelievable job with our group. I’m proud of the way he coached us and proud of how he grew throughout the year. He grew with us, and we grew with him. We went through the growing pains together, and I think we’re better now than at the beginning when he first got here. I think he’s going to be an O-line coach in the NFL for a long time, and I’d love to have him coach me and our guys because I know our guys in our room feel the same way.”

Fixing the offensive line may not be No. 1 on the new regime’s to-do list, but it has to be toward the top, considering it played into the downfall of the previous group.

At minimum, the new GM and coach have to give it the attention that it needs after being overlooked for too long.

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