Of all the free agents the Minnesota Vikings have signed along the offensive line during the Mike Zimmer era — from Alex Boone to Andre Smith to Mike Remmers to Josh Kline — current left tackle Riley Reiff has probably worked out the best.
Prior to the 2017 season, the Vikings signed the former Detroit Lions first-round pick to a five-year, $58 million deal. During his three years as a Viking, PFF has ranked Reiff 38th (of 57), 23rd (of 62) and 26th (of 60). He has been the definition of an average tackle — which is much better than what the Vikings sported before Reiff arrived. In 2016, TJ Clemmings manned the quarterback’s blind side and rated 61st of 62 tackles.
The former Iowa mauler has been part of two teams that went to the playoffs and was about equal in terms of performance with second-year right tackle Brian O’Neill (28th by PFF). Unlike in past years with Clemmings and and the Matt Kalil Experience, the tackle position was not a major weak point for the Vikings.
But Reiff’s contract doesn’t look like it belongs to an average tackle who isn’t the major weak point. He is set to carry a $13.2 million cap hit in 2020, which makes him the 13th most expensive player at his position in the NFL.
Under different circumstances it would be reasonable to overpay for an average tackle. Average is still really hard to replace and anything less than average is problematic in a league full of monster edge rushers. The Vikings, however, are in a position in which they must look at every contract under a microscope to decide whether a player’s production will match their pay check. They are presently $11 million over the cap, per OverTheCap.com.
They can cut other players like Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph to create some space but only enough to possibly bring back current free agents like Anthony Harris, Stephen Weatherly and CJ Ham. Moving on from Reiff would create $8.8 million with $4.4 million in dead cap space.
The question the Vikings will be asking is: Can they improve at the position while spending the same amount or less?
First part first. If they looked for a tackle on the free agent market with around $9 million to spend, they wouldn’t have many options. The top two free agent tackles Anthony Castonzo and Jack Conklin are likely to demand huge dollars and elder statesmen Andrew Whitworth and Jason Peters will be seeking one final big (and likely completely guaranteed) paycheck. Players in the Reiff-savings price range include Tampa Bay’s Damar Dotson (27th by PFF) and Kelvin Beachum (33rd). Both are in their 30s.
Replacing Reiff with a draft pick — even in the first round — is a major risk. Last year the highest ranked rookie tackle rated 41st on PFF’s list. Even the highest ranked pass blocker coming out of college Andre Dillard struggled, giving up 25 pressures in just 183 pass blocking snaps. To put that in context, O’Neill didn’t give up that many in 514 passing downs.
There isn’t much for in-house options that they can trust at the moment — though there was optimism over the development of Oli Udoh this year. And trades for left tackles don’t happen very often — and the price tag, as the Texans found it, is incredibly high.
The Vikings also don’t have much leverage to restructure Reiff’s deal. If they cut him, he would quickly find a new home.
Last year the Vikings kicked around the idea of moving Reiff inside to guard and bumping O’Neill over the left tackle. Back in the day when right tackles were less valued, it might have made sense to take a risk on the right side. But today’s NFL has elite pass rushers coming off both sides and Kirk Cousins — who held the ball longer from snap to throw than any QB in the NFL — needs all the help from the edges that he can get.
That could leave the Vikings with their best option being an extension that keeps Reiff in Minnesota longer and lowers his immediate cap hit. That money would be best spent finding a replacement at left guard as Pat Elflein gave up the worst rate of pressure of any guard in the NFL last season. It isn’t the boldest move but it might be the wisest unless they are going all-in for one year of Whitworth or Peters and drafting an eventual replacement.