As the final four teams remaining in the NFL take the field this Sunday, the other 28 clubs around the league will be looking for what they can learn from the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams. With work to do in the offseason up front, the Minnesota Vikings should have their eye on each team’s offensive line.
It should come as no shock that each remaining team ranked in the top half of the league in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus (though only the Chiefs cracked the top five). So let’s have a look at what we can take away from the construction of each O-line and how the Vikings can emulate them in the coming months.
An elite tackle can change your franchise
Certainly the hiring of Sean McVay marks the turning point of the Rams’ organization, but you could argue signing veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth ranks right behind the young coach in terms of importance to Los Angeles’s high-powered offenses, which have ranked No. 1 in 2017 and No. 2 in 2018. Whitworth finished as the fifth rated tackle in the NFL by PFF this season in pass blocking. His ability to shut down the league’s best pass rushers has helped give quarterback Jared Goff plenty of time to throw. Goff managed a 117.1 rating on 404 attempts with a clean pocket this season.
Only topping Goff’s clean pocket rating are Russell Wilson (122.1), Drew Brees (125.2) and Patrick Mahomes (134.2). The Saints’ quarterback has two top-notch tackles in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. The veteran left tackle posted the second highest pass blocking grade in the NFL and Ramczyk finished 21st. Armstead gave up just one sack in 10 games.
Kansas City’s left tackle Jake Fisher performed solidly for Mahomes, but the young QB’s right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was the star of the Chiefs’ line, giving up three sacks and only 21 total pressures in 16 games.
The Patriots are the lone team without an elite pass blocker by PFF. Right tackle Marcus Cannon was the highest rated at 25th.
Of course, 28th looks great when compared to the Vikings’ tackles, who graded 37th (Riley Reiff) and 53rd (Brian O’Neill).
It may seem like the Vikings are set at left tackle for the time being, but in both the short and long term, they should keep their eyes out for an opportunity to improvement. While Reiff wasn’t incompetent, he also didn’t improve his quarterback’s play by protecting the blind side effectively. And he either missed time or played through injuries on multiple occasions, forcing Hill to play left tackle — a tough ask even for one game.
Whitworth and Schwartz were established stars who signed in free agency with their respective teams while Armstead was a third-round pick and Ramczyk the 32nd selection in the 2017 draft. Without a Whitworth or Schwartz caliber player on the free agent market this year, the Vikings would have to pick a left tackle with the 18th overall pick or make a trade in order to take a step forward.
The fact that neither Armstead, Whitworth or Schwartz were first-round picks tells us that the Vikings should be patient with the development of O’Neill, who has a high athletic ceiling. It also suggests that waiting until the second round for a lineman might not be a bad idea when aiming for long-term improvement of the OL.
Interior line play isn’t as vital
The guard rankings all all over the map when it comes to the final four teams. Among players with at least 600 snaps, the Patriots and Rams had four of the top 15 guards and New England’s Shaq Mason was No. 1 in PFF’s rankings, but the Chiefs and Saints struggled in the middle. Kansas City guard Cam Erving ranked 51st (of 55) and Andrew Wylie 29th. Center Austin Reiter was solid, ranking eighth.
New Orleans did not get exceptional play from center Max Unger (15th of 27 centers) and guard Andrus Peat rated as the second lowest guard in the entire NFL.
Center Pat Elflein ranked 27th of 27, guard Mike Remmers was 36th and Tom Compton 33rd(of 89).
It’s clear that teams can cover up some weaknesses inside with scheme or pocket presence from their quarterbacks. But the Vikings could not make up for three weak positions. Remmers and Compton both finished in the top 15 in pressures allowed by guards.
Elflein is likely to remain in the middle with hopes he can build on a solid 2017 season. Having a full offseason to improve strength should give him a better chance than he had this year coming off multiple surgeries and missing all of training camp.
While the Chiefs and Saints survived mediocre-to-bad interior O-line play, the Vikings will need quality play inside to excel in a zone running scheme. They could attempt to sign L.A.’s Roger Saffold, who ranked eighth. Otherwise there are a handful of players on the market who would be upgrades like Mark Glowinski, Ramon Foster and Mike Person.
The best way to find guards, it seems, is to develop them. The Rams’ Austin Blythe was a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2016 who only played 196 snaps in 2017 but jumped in as a starter and performed well this year. New England’s Mason was a fourth-round pick in 2015 and his partner on the inside Joe Thuney was a third-round selection in 2016.
Minnesota does not have a bevy of developmental interior linemen. Nick Easton missed all of 2018 with injury and Danny Isidora mostly struggled in his appearances over the past two years. Even if the Vikings sign free agent guards, they should still pick them in the mid rounds of the draft.
You don’t always have to spend top dollar
When it comes to finding the right fixes up front, sometimes an under-the-radar player who fits the system is a better choice than the biggest free agent name. Blythe is a good example. He was picked up off waivers in 2017 and spent his first season in L.A. mostly on the bench and then took advantage of an opportunity at right guard and became a solid starter.
New England tackle Trent Brown wasn’t one of the elite players at his position, but he was mostly solid. The Pats picked him up from San Francisco in a trade for a third-round pick.
The Vikings traded for Nick Easton in 2015 and he eventually became a solid starter in 2017. Could they find another interior lineman for a mid-to-late round draft pick who might fit their needs?
There’s no way to predict health on the O-line, but it’s a factor for success. The Vikings played without Elflein starting for the first three games and without Easton the entire year. They also had to shuffle pieces for Reiff at times.
In comparison, all five Rams starters played 16 games and four Patriots starters played 16 and the other played 14 games. New Orleans has been forced to shuffle a bit more and still had three starters with 15 games, another with 13 and another with 10 starts. Kansas City had injuries on the interior but both starting tackles played the whole year.