So, it’s the offensive line, then. We all have suspected it for a couple years. And now after last season, we all know it. Seems as though the Vikings do, too. General manager Rick Spielman spoke to Vikings beat reporters last week and basically told them that he knows that the team’s offensive line has to be a main focus this offseason.
Spielman reported spent a lengthy portion of the media availability talking about the offensive line. Now, those of us who have followed him over the years know that Rick doesn’t like to show his cards too soon (or at all) when it comes to offseason plans. But we think this offseason is different. Spielman, Vikings fans and just about anyone else paying attention to the team knows that offensive line is a major emphasis this year—particularly since the team recently let go two former starting guards (Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris).
So, there is some work to do, and Spielman said he had a plan for how to handle it—and even showed some of it to the reporters. Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune described the “plan” that Spielman trotted out:
“It was printed in a single-digit font size on white, legal-size card stock with grades for every Vikings player, alongside their ranking of NFL draft prospects and lists of free agents and potential salary cap casualties from other teams. Spielman, wisely, kept that piece of paper at a distance.”
“At this point we do have a game plan in place,” Spielman said.
The Vikings need a plan in place about their offensive line. While they addressed it in the draft (Willie Beavers) and free agency (Alex Boone and Andre Smith) last season, numerous injuries to the unit decimated the offense and helped turn a 5-0 start into a 3-8 finish. A plan that will bring in some players who start now and others to build depth and become future starters is the key to anything this team will do in terms of the postseason in 2017.
According to the Vikings website, the plan includes a three-pronged approach: draft, develop and retain. The Vikings have tried to do that, hoping that players such as Fusco, T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson, Austin Shepherd and, most recently, Beavers would be drafted, developed and retained. There were others, but none of the players were taken above the fourth round in the draft.
The sixth-rounder Fusco, unfortunately, was drafted and forced into a starting role at right guard in his second season, moved to left guard then back to right. He kind of missed the normal development stage and as we now know, wasn’t retained (Clemmings is following a similar disjointed development track). Fusco lasted six seasons, but in the end, they were very uneven seasons, and he leaves with $1,600,000 dead money on the Vikings salary cap.
“I think just in general, offensive linemen take a little longer to develop, and it’s just the way the game has developed in college. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” Spielman said. “I think with the restrictions we have with the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) and our guys being able to take guys that come from spread offenses, 99.9 percent of the time, are working out of a two-point stance so teaching them out of a three-point stance and how to run block takes time and development, but we have such limited time with them now with the way the CBA is, I think offensive linemen are going to take some time.”
The Vikings did go higher with an offensive lineman pick, as Matt Kalil was taken with the fourth overall pick in the first round in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl his first season (when Adrian Peterson nearly set the single-season NFL rushing record). But injuries since then have derailed his career, and he is coming off hip surgery after the second game of last season.
Kalil is an unrestricted free agent and in a year when the free agent pool for left tackles is rather shallow, it will take the Vikings a pretty penny (well, quite a few of them, actually) to resign him—should they decide to do so. The decisions the Vikings make with Kalil and at the left tackle position, will impact the “Spielman Plan for the Offensive Line” greatly. Everything on the line stems from what they do at left tackle.
Regardless, in my mind, it starts with drafting a lineman higher than the fourth round. The late picks on linemen hasn’t exactly worked out for the Vikings. And Spielman acknowledged that a “much lower percentage” of linemen picked after the third round develop into quality players in the league. The Vikings history alone bears that out. So, it appears they have stepped up their analysis of lineman to see if they can grab a better prospect this offseason.
“There’s different ways that I had to look back and see, ‘What are we doing right or wrong with this offensive line and how do we get it addressed?’” Spielman said. “That was a whole focal point on a lot of the studies and a lot of the analytics that I have been doing since the end of the season.”
The Vikings are also likely to look at a running back, since the Peterson situation is up in the air, and the running back class is something be excited about, according to the general manager. So that (also) should translate into spending some higher picks on the offensive line of the future. Of course, then there is the speculation that the offensive linemen class is not that deep this season, so, that could put Spielman behind the eight-ball in his approach to the draft. In this regard, it certainly isn’t a draft that lines up well with the Vikings’ needs.
“To be honest with you,” Spielman said, “I wake up every morning ticked off that we’re 8-8 because I know that is not acceptable by the standards that we place on ourselves. We have to do everything we can heading into this offseason to address the needs and areas we [can improve].”
Right now, it seems like Spielman is saying that starts with the offensive line. But can we believe him? Our current president of the United States has been known to prevaricate when he speaks, and Spielman likes to throw out smokescreens. But I believe him this time. We don’t want protests in the street. Regardless, stay tuned—as the plan will be revealed.