vikings

The future of the Vikings, part 4: The offensive line

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the offensive line…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)

PART 1: Quarterbacks

PART 2: Running backs

PART 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

The big picture

Throughout the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota, the offensive line has largely been an Achillies heel. Since 2014 the Vikings have ranked 23rd, 28th, 30th, 17th, 27th and and 27th in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus’s grading system.

And despite the general perception that the Vikings haven’t invested enough up front but it really isn’t for a lack of trying. The current line is made up of a left tackle who was signed in free agency to a $59 million contract, a third-round pick, a first-round pick, a free agent who signed a three-year $15.5 million deal and a second-round pick.

In 2017 the Vikings signed Mike Remmers to start at right tackle and eventually — in a failed move — pushed him in to right guard. In 2016 they signed Alex Boone to a $26.8 million contract and released him the next year. They also signed Andre Smith at right tackle and he played two total games.

Even going back to drafting Matt Kalil in 2012 and having him fall apart after a strong rookie year, the Vikings have had very little luck on the O-line. Other positions have seen undrafted players or late-round picks like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Anthony Harris, Danielle Hunter etc. turn into star players but the line hasn’t hit on any of the lottery tickets.

In terms of the 2019 group’s performance, Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s system helped cover up some of the issues with pass protection. The Vikings gave up the sixth fewest sacks and only had one linemen rank in the bottom half at his position in pressures allowed. But their performances in pass protection were sub par.

PFF Pass block rank Pressures allowed Run block rank
Riley Reiff 26th (of 60) 25 (15th) 22nd
Pat Elflein 56th (of 65) 33 (55th) 12th
Garrett Bradbury 32nd (of 32) 26 (26th) 19th
Josh Kline 42nd (of 65) 21 (21st) 33rd
Brian O’Neill 30th (of 60) 19 (5th) 15th

The fact that the line’s run blocking grades were solid tells us something about how the line was built. Last year’s first-round pick Garrett Bradbury was lauded for his zone blocking when he was drafted out of North Carolina State. Similarly Pat Elflein was praised for his mobility in run blocking. Both tackles ranked better as run blockers than pass blockers.

If there’s a question about how this year’s line was built, it wouldn’t be: “Did they invest?” Instead the question is: “Why did they invest in run blockers with a quarterback who lacks mobility?”

That brings us to the QB.

A PFF study last year found that quarterbacks own their pressure rates. Put another way: Even when a team has a good offensive line, quarterbacks who are slow to get rid of the ball will still be pressured a great deal.

We can see looking at Kirk Cousins’s career that his pressure rates have been very similar year to year and he only ranked in the top half of the NFL once in pressure rate and still was outside the top 10 with Trent Williams as his left tackle in D.C.

*Pressure rate rankings are from least pressured to most pressured*

Year Cousins time to throw Pressure rate
2019 27th (of 27) 36.4 (20th of 26)
2018 17th (of 30) 38.9 (26th of 30)
2017 12th (of 29) 36.6 (19th of 29)
2016 25th (of 30) 32.0 (13th of 29)
2015 13th (of 26) 35.9% (16th of 27)

Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton is the anti-Cousins when it comes to pressure. He had the fastest snap-to-throw in the NFL and was only pressured on 29.2% of drop backs despite having the 26th ranked offensive line in pass blocking.

What does that mean for the Vikings’ approach to the O-line going forward?

We can conclude that Cousins simply requires a far more talented offensive line to stay at the same pressure rate as a QB who gets rid of the ball quicker. And despite having decent numbers the last two years under pressure, Cousins had the fifth fewest scrambles in the NFL, so he won’t turn pressure into plays with his legs.

The way the Vikings choose to handle the line this offseason may determine whether Cousins can take them farther than his first two seasons.

Tackle

The Vikings have a difficult decision to make on Riley Reiff.

He is set to carry a $13.2 million cap hit next year, which would be among the highest at his position. If they elected to move on from the veteran tackle, the front office would pick up $8.8 million in cap space.

Reiff hasn’t been so good that they could never consider moving on or so bad that the choice would be easy to cut him.  Over the past three seasons he has ranked 26th (of 60), 22nd (of 62) and 38th (of 57) by PFF grades. He’s been the definition of an average player, performing well against average competition but struggling against top edge rushers. In three games against the Bears over the last two years, for example, he allowed 15 pressures. Reiff gave up five pressures in the divisional-round loss to the 49ers while matching up with Nick Bosa.

If they decide to release Reiff, there will be other options on the market. The free agent crop includes a number of quality left and right tackles.

Free agents (PFF grade): Jason Peters (6th), Anthony Castonzo (7th), Jack Conklin (12th), Bryan Bulaga (13th), Andrew Whitworth (24th), Demar Dotson (27th), Kelvin Beachum (33rd), Greg Robinson (34th), DJ Humphries (38th), Donald Penn (40th)

The Vikings could move Brian O’Neill to left tackle, where he played in college at Pitt. Signing a right tackle like Jack Conklin would make for an instant improvement in pass protection. Of course Conklin would require somewhere in the $13-$15 million range, which would take away from their ability to sign players in other important areas like cornerback and safety.

They could also spend a first or second round pick on a tackle and throw them into the fire but NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah only lists four tackles in his top 50 players in the draft, meaning that getting a Day 1 starter could be challenging. Plus if the Vikings are looking to compete for the NFC North again, it might not be prudent to ask a rookie to take on the likes of Khalil Mack and Zadarius Smith.

If the Vikings remain committed to a run-first approach with their offensive line, they could ask Reiff to restructure his contract and remain at left tackle. If they want to commit to improving the pass protection, they will need to take a different route.

The middle

The Vikings pass protection from their two guards and center was among the worst in the NFL but they were largely effective in run blocking for Dalvin Cook. They were simply incapable of handling top interior pass rushers like Grady Jarrett and Kenny Clark but also operated a fairly complex package of power and zone runs.

If Minnesota is willing to sacrifice pass protection for run effectiveness, they could keep the status quo on the inside and hope that Year 2 of the offensive line would improve with more chemistry and comfort with the system. But that would appear to be wishful thinking after two straight years of struggles against pass rushers from left guard Pat Elflein.

While neither Garrett Bradbury or Josh Kline were any better — in fact, the rookie center was the worst pass blocker in the NFL per PFF — we aren’t likely to see change at center or right guard in 2020.

The Vikings will hope Bradbury increases his strength and takes a step forward in Year 2 and cutting Kline would only create $1.6 million in cap space. So the only area in which the Vikings are likely to improve is at left guard. The free agent market for guards is very top heavy so the Vikings would have to win a bidding war. Last year they lost out on Rodger Saffold, who helped the Titans to the AFC Championship game.

Free agents: Joe Thuney (5th), Brandon Scherff (7th), Ereck Flowers (28th), Michael Schofield (30th), Mike Iupati (42nd), Daryl Williams (50th), Quinton Spain (51st), Alex Lewis (52nd).

It makes sense to look to the draft again and hope to build a line that will be sturdy for years to come. But the issue with trying to fill the left guard position with a draft pick is that the competition in the NFC North is stiff and we could see a repeat of Bradbury’s first season with struggles to get up to speed against elite players. The Vikings might have to pin their hopes on an under-the-radar free agent or someone they have been developing…

The “red shirts” 

Mike Zimmer said he was intrigued by some of the younger offensive linemen who didn’t see much of the field this year because the O-line was largely healthy all season. Namely fourth-round pick Dru Samia and sixth-rounder Oli Udoh. Both played Week 17 but there wasn’t much to glean from the glorified preseason game that mostly saw the Vikings run the ball with Mike Boone.

Samia is a large brawler type who made progress during last year’s training camp after a slow start. He spent the majority of camp on the third team and registered an underwhelming 62.0 grade from PFF in 193 preseason snaps.

His NFL draft profile noted some inconsistencies with technique. Lance Zierlein wrote:

“Samia is a loose-limbed, athletic guard whose foot quickness and second-level agility make him much more attractive as a move guard rather than a base-blocking option. His length and movement skills are a big plus, but issues with core strength and body control at the point of attack must be improved in order to survive against NFL power.”

That isn’t to say that Samia isn’t a candidate to compete for the left guard position — players regularly take big steps forward from Year 1 to Year 2 — but he shouldn’t be the defacto answer if the Vikings move on from Elflein.

Udoh showed pass blocking potential in the preseason and only allowed one pressure in Week 17. Last year the Vikings spent $2 million to keep swing tackle Rashod Hill but they might be so cash strapped that Udoh becomes the 2020 backup option and potentially a starter if he continues to develop. The Vikings saw him as a project with high upside coming out of the draft and have no reason to think otherwise after one year.

The future of the franchise

The Vikings offensive line took a step forward in 2019 and it showed in the improved run game. The offensive scheme helped to protect the weaknesses in pass protection for a portion of the season but Stefanski and Kubiak could only do so much when they were overwhelmed by teams like Green Bay and San Francisco. If there isn’t improvement in the overall talent level up front, 2020 is likely to offer more of the same.

No matter what the plan at quarterback is long term, having a top-notch offensive line is always a ticket to better offensive performance. The question is whether the Vikings took the right approach to building their line and if they would pivot to players who are better pass protectors. The amount of draft capital to spend on the line versus other key positions will also be highly debated within the walls of TCO Performance Center.





vikings