Improving the OL a top priority

T.J. Clemmings is the only Minnesota Vikings tackle under contract heading into free agency. Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Jake Long, and Jeremiah Sirles—the rotation of subpar 2016 starters—are all set to hit the open market next week. Some will become restricted free agents, others exclusive rights, and a few unrestricted, but one thing remains true: the Vikings are lacking any sustainability at a position critical to long-term success.

That’s a problem.

Even if general manager Rick Spielman were to retain their talents, he’d still enter 2017 with arguably the league’s worst rotation of tackles. Fortunately, the Vikings are flush with cash, thanks in large part to the decision to forego Adrian Peterson’s future contract option.

The NFLPA also did the Vikings—and the rest of the NFL—a favor by raising the salary cap to $167 million. An increase of seven percent over the 2016 figure gives Spielman nearly $38 million to spend on premier tackles, running backs, and other positions of need — if he so chooses.

It goes without saying that Spielman must be aggressive in his pursuit of upgraded personnel, especially at right and left tackle, where patchwork options nearly had Sam Bradford killed in 2016. Last week, he spoke with the media and revealed some of his thinking on the subject.

“I have to assess, are we doing things the right way to address the offensive line?” Spielman said, per ESPN’s Ben Goessling. “Other teams that have not invested—and I have the list of those teams that have not invested in early rounds—probably have been a little bit more aggressive in free agency and signing significant offensive linemen in free agency.”

A shift to the model above would be a change of pace for Spielman. In recent drafts, he’s shied away from selecting offensive linemen early. Since taking Matt Kalil fourth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, Spielman’s next highest selections were T.J. Clemmings (2015) and Willie Beavers (2016) in the fourth round.

And before the draft, he’s often invested in middle-of-the-road options like Alex Boone along the offensive line. Think back to last year at this time; the Vikings were reported contenders to sign high-profile free agent Kelechi Osemele but were outbid by the Oakland Raiders. Then, in the draft, Spielman squandered a selection on Beavers and suffered the consequences in 2016.

According to Eric Smith, the Vikings started 12 different offensive linemen last season — far too many to foster any chemistry or consistency over the long haul. Adding one or two stalwarts to the unit could solve some of these rotational issues and give the Vikings breathing room to expand Pat Shurmur’s playbook.

Yesterday, Spielman spoke to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine, revealing his mindset as the free agency period makes its way to the forefront. “I think we can go out and attack some of this,” he said, per Matt Vensel. “We have the flexibility to do that with the money that we’ve cleared up over the last couple of weeks…but I still think we have to be patient. You have to be smart.”

Knowing there is cap flexibility and a desire to “attack” free agency, who are some of the names to watch over the next week?:

Ricky Wagner, OT — Baltimore Ravens: Darren Wolfson reports Wagner is on Minnesota’s radar, but Baltimore will do what it can to keep him in a Ravens jersey. Wagner started 14 games last season and was the eighth-best right tackle in 2016, per Pro Football Focus. The 27-year-old has a market value of $6.7 million, though the Vikings would likely pay more for a top-shelf right tackle than they did for Boone a year ago.

Russell Okung, OT — Denver Broncos: We covered this a few days ago, but Okung is drawing interest from a few more teams this time around. Add the Rams and the Seahawks to the list of franchises in play for Okung’s services.

T.J. Lang, OG — Green Bay Packers: The Vikings need tackles, but adding a Pro-Bowl guard to the roster couldn’t hurt, right? According to ESPN, Lang intends to test the market and could find a new home with either the Vikings or Broncos. Having released Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris, pursuing a player like Lang is in Minnesota’s best interests — at the right price.

Kevin Zeitler, OG — Cincinnati Bengals: No reports link Zeitler to the Vikings, but he’s a top free agent and surely on the team’s radar. Unfortunately, a $10 million-plus price tag per year would break Minnesota’s bank.

Even with $38 million available, the Vikings still lag behind some teams—13, to be exact—regarding cap flexibility. Their spending power is limited in the larger landscape of the NFL, but there is room to add some significant pieces this offseason. Just don’t expect Spielman to “rob Peter to pay Paul” and leave other parts of the roster in disarray.