Welcome to the next installment of our Minnesota Vikings Free Agency Primer series: the running backs. Check out our other primers on tight ends, defensive ends, cornerbacks, safeties, quarterbacks, wideouts, defensive tackles and running backs.
Does everybody have their hard hats and tool belts on? Good, because we’re about to embark on the rebuilding project of our lives.
The Minnesota Vikings offensive line can only improve after the utter destruction that unfolded in 2016.
Improvement appeared inevitable for the Vikings offensive line when general manager Rick Spielman acquired Alex Boone and Andre Smith during the 2016 free agency period. Matt Kalil was finally getting the chance to play with a competent left guard. Additionally, Joe Berger and Mike Harris were set to return to the starting lineup after rock solid 2015 campaigns.
Instead, a catastrophically lethal injury bug permeated the unit and knocked Kalil, Smith, and Harris out of commission before Week 5. Spielman then acquired Jake Long to provide depth. Long made it exactly four weeks and three games before tearing his Achilles.
Minnesota was forced to move forward the rest of the 2016 season with TJ Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles starting at the bookends of the offensive line. Meanwhile, Joe Berger and Brandon Fusco sparingly missed action which called a laundry list of benchwarmers into action.
Here’s a fun stat that should bring to light just how bad Minnesota’s offensive line situation was in 2016: Clemmings wound up leading the Vikings offensive linemen in snaps played (882).
Vikings Offensive Linemen: Snaps Played
- TJ Clemmings (T) – 882
- Alex Boone (G) – 873
- Joe Berger (C/G) – 852
- Brandon Fusco (G) – 835
- Jeremiah Sirles (T) – 772
- Nick Easton (C) – 414
- Jake Long (T) – 209
- Andre Smith (T) – 182
- Matt Kalil (T) – 121
- Zac Kerin (G) – 118
- Rashod Hill (T) – 49
- Willie Beavers (G) – 11
The Vikings are now faced with multiple holes to patch up before the 2017 season begins. Spielman began the overhaul by releasing Fusco and Harris. How will he complete the project?
Here’s a look at Minnesota’s list of free agents.
The big decision the Vikings must make regarding this list is whether to retain Matt Kalil or not. The 2012 fourth overall selection has struggled to stay healthy ever since his fantastic rookie season. To his credit, Kalil had not missed a start before 2016, but nagging injuries have historically had an impact on his performance.
According to Spotrac, Kalil’s average annual value currently sits right around $7 million. Given the significance of the position and how difficult it is to find a capable blindside protector, it will likely take a larger figure to keep him in purple and gold.
Spielman’s history includes a pattern of loyalty towards his players, especially those he drafted. Handing out nearly $10 million to a player with Kalil’s history of injuries and underperformance is a risky move that Spielman would likely not make on a player he didn’t draft.
If ‘Slick Rick’ does bring Kalil back, it will require him to add another backup tackle—whether by free agency or the NFL Draft—for depth in the likely event that Kalil suffers another injury. The Vikings were ill-prepared for a Kalil injury last season, and another display of incompetence like that will place Spielman’s back side on the hot seat.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
Table of free agent offensive linemen courtesy of Spotrac.com (with market value pages included for applicable players).
|Luke Joeckel||G||25||JAC||TBD||$5,300,400||UFA||Market Value|
|T.J. Lang||G||29||GB||TBD||$5,200,000||UFA||Market Value|
|Matt Kalil||LT||27||MIN||TBD||$4,942,650||UFA||Market Value|
|Ron Leary||G||27||DAL||TBD||$2,553,000||UFA||Market Value|
|Riley Reiff||LT||28||DET||TBD||$1,998,425||UFA||Market Value|
|Kevin Zeitler||G||26||CIN||TBD||$1,886,050||UFA||Market Value|
|Austin Pasztor||G||26||CLE||TBD||$1,671,000||UFA||Market Value|
|Larry Warford||G||25||DET||TBD||$768,750||UFA||Market Value|
|J.C. Tretter||C||26||GB||TBD||$643,977||UFA||Market Value|
|Ricky Wagner||RT||27||BAL||TBD||$576,140||UFA||Market Value|
ANDREW WHITWORTH: The longtime Cincinnati Bengal is searching for his final NFL contract to sign. A three-time Pro Bowler and 2015 All-Pro selection, Whitworth will set the market for the left tackle position despite his age (35). He has anchored a strong Bengals offensive line for years and has not shown any signs of slowing down, adding another Pro Bowl selection in 2016 to his resume.
Is there any realistic chance Spielman can acquire Whitworth? Probably not. Even if Whitworth does test the market, Spielman has never been ultra-aggressive toward marquee free agents. Rather, he tends to target the second-tier players and hope said players can exceed their free agency value in purple and gold (See: Linval Joseph). Then again, maybe Spielman will finally grasp just how dire the situation is and go all-in.
If that’s the case and Whitworth does join the Vikings for what would be at least $12 million per year, many of this offense’s problems will be solved.
RICKY WAGNER: The former Wisconsin Badger turned in another excellent season at right tackle as a Baltimore Raven in 2016. Wagner’s film suggests he can fill in at right tackle in any scheme and perform competently, at the very least.
In pass protection, Wagner brings good footwork and hand punch to the table. His bruising strength also gives him the potential to be a mauler in the run game. But in Pat Shurmur’s pass-heavy scheme, Wagner’s pass protection powers would be an immediate fit.
The four-year veteran is expected to garner an average salary in the double-digit millions as the value of the right tackle position slowly catches up to the left side. A couple of months ago, Wagner would have been a perfect candidate for one of Spielman’s second-tier free agent acquisitions. But his stock has risen significantly since then, and several teams in need of offensive linemen are keeping their eyes on Wagner.
TJ LANG: The longtime Green Bay Packer is in search of a new contract and, according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, that contract will require at least $8 million per year. Lang put together his first Pro Bowl season in 2016 thanks to an elite effort in pass protection for Aaron Rodgers. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eastern Michigan alum didn’t allow a sack all season to Rodgers (although Rodgers’ supernatural maneuverability in the pocket probably helped).
Pairing Boone at left guard with a mean streak personality such as Lang as right guard could bring a feisty attitude to the Vikings offensive line that appeared to be lacking in 2016; that, and of course, an ability to block humans. The Oakland Raiders saw tremendous improvement from their offensive line thanks to the addition of Kelechi Osemele last offseason. Maybe Lang is the 2017 Osemele.
KEVIN ZEITLER: Another Cincinnati Bengal is on the loose. It appears as if Zeitler’s strong 2016 season earned him several millions of dollars, and with good reason.
Zeitler is another former Wisconsin Badger offensive lineman enjoying a fabulous NFL career. While not quite the pass protector Lang is, Zeitler holds the crown as the top guard available in the 2017 free agency period. According to PFF, Zeitler only allowed one sack in 2016 while also continuing to pave running lanes for his teammates. While the Vikings are destined to be a pass-heavy team, they probably still need to rank better than 32nd in yards per carry like they did in 2016. Zeitler’s run blocking would alleviate many of those issues.
Minnesota’s gigantic hole at right guard will be one of Spielman’s first priorities when free agency begins. Adding Zeitler would not only fill that hole, but it would suddenly make right guard arguably the strongest position on the offense.
RUSSELL OKUNG: The former Pro Bowler is hitting the market again after an underwhelming 2016 season in Denver. Okung was a vital part of Seattle’s 2013 season that resulted in a Super Bowl win. His size and footwork make him a solid player on the ground or through the air.
For Okung, Minnesota’s situation has to be enticing. There isn’t a ton of pressure to regain his form before 2016 because a bottle of mustard is better than Clemmings. Meanwhile, the Vikings clearly have the pieces in other areas to win with an average offensive line.
And reports have already surfaced that include the Vikings among teams interested in Okung. At this point, every free agent offensive line should be receiving interest from the Vikings. But it’s good to see concrete proof of Spielman and Co. being active trying to bring on a player with Okung’s resume.
RILEY REIFF: Versatility will be Reiff’s calling card during the 2017 free agency period. The former Detroit Lion has now spent significant time at both left tackle and right tackle after his shift over to the right side in 2016. Coincidentally, the Vikings need starters in both positions, so adding Reiff could be a win-win proposition for the Vikings.
The 2012 first round pick experienced a few struggles with the move to the right side, but his athleticism and power also created flashes of brilliance. If the Vikings do land Reiff, they can still go after tackles from both sides in free agency and in the draft and move Reiff to the vacant position.
Minnesota’s coaching staff and front office have fallen in love with players that can pull off multiple positions at a high level. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Reiff draw some interest from Spielman.
I took to Twitter to gauge the opinions of Vikings fans and see how they feel about various topics surrounding their team’s offensive line free agency situation. Responses ranged from what they would do to what they think Spielman will do and everything in between.
@DrewMahowald The smart move is to resign Kalil to a 2 year prove it deal, and go after Wagner or Reiff at Right Tackle. Draft a G and C
— Mike Sullivan (@MikeSullivan68) March 6, 2017
@DrewMahowald I'd re-sign him if he's truly healthy. I think his was playing injured the last 2 years
— Jason (@jmkind24) March 6, 2017
It appears as if many folks in the Vikings Twittersphere are for re-signing Kalil (as long as he is healthy as his father says). Re-signing Kalil is a likely scenario given Spielman’s history. If the fan base is expecting much better than Kalil at left tackle to begin the 2017 season, it is setting itself up for disappointment.
— Tyler Carmer (@Carmered) March 6, 2017
Speaking of setting oneself up for disappointment, here’s a take. I won’t say it’s impossible, but that would be one massive splash for Spielman after a career of signing second-tier free agents. I think one top-tier player such as Zeitler or Wagner is certainly in play, but I won’t get my hopes up for two top-tier guys until I see Spielman break from his old tendencies.
— mnsportsfan (@mnkingsfan) March 6, 2017
For all of this to come to reality (acquiring a top-tier tackle, second-tier guard, and Nick Mangold), the Vikings would have to shovel nearly their entire cap at the offensive line and worry about other issues later. This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, but head coach Mike Zimmer has remarked that he doesn’t want to address the offensive line if it means ignoring the defensive side of the ball.
— Flipmazzi (@Flipmazzi) March 6, 2017
Ahh, now this is more of my style. Pessimism is the best approach. Why? Because if Spielman does make a big splash and bring in a top-tier player, it will justify throwing a party. And the Vikings rarely do anything that’s worth throwing a party.
Speaking of party, I’m getting back to spring break.