Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur held his weekly press conference at camp on Wednesday, and he fielded 20 questions. More than half (12) of those questions pertained to the offensive line (with two more questions concerning running back Dalvin Cook’s pass protection abilities), which goes to show just how many questions there are in that unit this season.
The Vikings are trying to remake their offensive line after a 2017 season in which 11 different players started games. Injuries cost them mightily as there was a constant juggling required to get five healthy bodies on the field. And the running game suffered greatly, as the team came in last in the league in rushing yards per game at 75.3 per game (the Vikings were 18th in passing with 239.8 yards per game).
For starters, the team brought in free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and selected center Pat Elflein in the third round of the draft. They have shifted Joe Berger from center to right guard and have Elflein and Nick Easton batting for the starting center job (while Elflein also works at right guard). There are still some moving parts with the team trying to find the best combination around returning left guard Alex Boone, but the hope is to solidify the depth chart and have the unit building some continuity soon.
Shurmur answered all kinds of questions about the line, but what he didn’t talk about was injured left tackle Reiff, who is being replaced by Rashod Hill. Shurmur figures the line is doing fine despite the Reiff (undisclosed injury) setback.
“I think we have covered a lot of ground,” Shurmur said. “We’re making progress. We really like, number one, the way our guys are competing, and I think even though we are mixing it up a little bit, I think those guys are getting a good feel for working together, and I think that’s as critical in an offensive line group as it is as just blocking your guy. How you’re coordinated, are you the front side or back side of a scoop, how you are by yourself because somebody is pulling, I think the coaches and the players in that group have done a nice job.”
Regarding Hill, who the team picked up last season off the Jacksonville practice squad and played just one game for Minnesota, Shurmur likes what he sees.
“Well, he certainly benefited from more reps than we thought he would get against our front line guys on defense, and he’s making steady progress,” Shurmur said. “We really like the path that he is on. I think we have more than a month before we play New Orleans. There’s a lot of water that has run under the bridge, but we see steady progress in him, and he is certainly a big body with long arms and is a guy that has a chance to be a good player.”
When Reiff comes back, which is hopefully very soon (as he needs time with his new team and teammates to really be effective in the early going), the practice time Hill has receiver will certainly help. The Vikings, after last season, want to have a squadron of offensive lineman ready to step up in the case of injury. Another player who will benefit from a lot of first team reps is the rookie Elflein, who comes to the team with experience at both guard and center, and is getting the reps at both in Minnesota. That rotation is designed to give the linemen versatility and the coaches some options in the case of another injury-plagued season last year.
“You develop a starting five and typically you take seven to the game,” Shurmur said. “So, you have to have a guy that can be primarily an inside guy or a backup center-guard. So, until you become a Hall of Fame starter at a position where that’s your position, if you’re say the sixth guy and you’re the inside kind of rotational guy you have to do both, and then you always have a guy that can play tackle and maybe guard. So, in the event you have injuries and we had a lot of practice at it last year, those guys slide in and do what they have to do.”
Berger also can play guard and center. T.J. Clemmings (who is working at guard this season) played both tackles last year. And J.T. Sirles has played both inside and outside on the line. That is about all you can do to prepare for injuries, which are a huge part of playing in the NFL. The unfortunate part this season is that Reiff, who came to the Vikings after missing just three games in six seasons, got hurt in the first practice of the year and hasn’t returned. The Vikings are preparing themselves for the worst, which they hopefully won’t have to experience.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the battle at center. Easton, who started camp at the top of the depth chart, only plays center, so, Elflein’s versatility could make him an excellent backup for two positions. But if he is the better center, he will get the nod there, no matter how transferable his skills.
“I think everything from the inside out tends to be more vocal and certainly the center and quarterback direct things,” Shurmur said. “So, we feel like they Easton and Elflein] are both very vocal. They both have a really good grasp on what we want to do, and we just continue to work on the details of it.
“We sort of refer to it [as] you can’t be a slow blinker, you’ve got to make a good decision and roll with it. If Sam [Bradford] doesn’t like it, he can trump it. But go with it and we’ll all run off the cliff together. But the center has to be able to do that, so if you’re a guy that’s indecisive or you’re a little bit, kind of a slow blinker that’s not a spot for you. But, I think the two guys we’re talking about, Pat and Nick, are both fast blinkers.”
Don’t blink fellas. Stuff begins to get real, real soon for the Vikings offensive line.