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Zulgad: No worries: Vikings coach isn’t concerned about lack of focus on offensive line

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer stands on the sideline during action against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter in a NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

There are some who look at the left side of the Vikings’ offensive line and see nothing there. Left tackle Riley Reiff was let go to create salary-cap space and, although Dakota Dozier re-signed on Tuesday, his performance as the Vikings’ starting left guard in 2020 was so poor that he should be considered nothing more than a backup.

So there has to be a level of urgency to fill those spots at TCO Performance Center, right? Maybe not.

In a video call with reporters on Wednesday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer didn’t appear to be sweating who is going to protect quarterback Kirk Cousins’ blindside next season. Instead, Zimmer seemed like a kid on Christmas morning. A longtime NFL defensive coordinator before taking the Vikings job, Zimmer’s defense was awful during a 7-9 season in 2020 and that meant his wish list was filled with guys on that side of the ball.

His requests have been answered with guys like defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, defensive end Stephen Weatherly, linebacker Nick Vigil, safety Xavier Woods and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander joining the purple. The offense, meanwhile, added backup center/guard Mason Cole in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals and re-signed backup offensive tackle Rashod Hill, wide receiver Chad Beebe and running back Ameer Abdullah.

“Our offense has been pretty darn good, they were sixth in the league last year,” Zimmer said. “We do have some holes we’ll fill, but we’ve still got time to do that. There’s still a lot of players out there right now and there will be some in the draft.”

Zimmer then continued by talking about the side of the ball which he feels is the most important.  “… We looked at the defense after the season and evaluated it, it was pretty barren in there,” he said. “And so we had to address that and, honestly, at the end of the season I was kind of down in the dumps when I kept looking at the depth chart and knowing what kind of salary cap space we had.

“(Vikings executives) Rob (Brzezinski) and Rick (Spielman) have done an unbelievable job, and they’ve got me rejuvenated with the guys that they brought in. And then you’ve got players like Anthony Barr, who decides to restructure his contract because he wants to be here. You’ve got guys like Stephen Weatherly and Mackensie (who returned to Minnesota as free agents) and a lot of these other guys who really want to be here and Patrick Peterson. Those kind of things get me excited.”

But what about the offensive line? Left tackles aren’t easy to find and good ones cost a lot of money. Reiff had a very solid season in 2020 after taking a late pay cut so the Vikings could make room for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who was acquired in a preseason trade with Jacksonville and then dealt to Baltimore after six games. The Vikings again wanted Reiff to take a pay cut before free agency began, so he walked and ended up signing with Cincinnati.

Asked about Reiff’s replacement, Zimmer said: “At this point, we’ve got Rashod Hill back, we’ve got (Oli) Udoh back, we’ve got (Brian) O’Neill back, we’ve got (Ezra) Cleveland, so we’ll be able to take care of those situations. All of those guys are good players. We’ll continue to figure it out and go from there.”

Zimmer could be providing a smokescreen. Maybe the Vikings are still pursuing Orlando Brown Jr., who wants to be traded by Baltimore so he can play left tackle. Or perhaps the the Vikings will use the 14th pick in the first round on a tackle. When asked where Cleveland, a left tackle in college before being a second-round pick in 2020, might end up, Zimmer sounded like a guy who isn’t staying up nights worrying about the offensive line.

“Right now, he’s (the) right guard, but all of those things can change depending on what happens the rest of the way in free agency and what else happens in the draft,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in those places and obviously there’s other positions that we can draft. I’m sure at some point we’re going to try to address all of those things. I think what we’ve done in free agency so far has allowed us to be able to take the best player available wherever he is.”

In Zimmer’s perfect world, that’s probably on defense.