Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman lit the fuse on Friday afternoon, effectively blowing up one of the team’s weakest position groups before the start of free agency. According to an official announcement, the Vikings released offensive guards Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris.
Spielman made clear his intentions late last month in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio. “Well, I think; obviously, we have to address the offensive line,” he said while elaborating on his offseason focus. “But I believe we have a lot of young pieces in place.” Spielman continued, confessing the franchise needs “to do a better job making sure that [it has] the quality depth not only at that position but every position.”
The team’s overhaul begins with a sudden shift from players like Fusco and Harris to young contributors in Nick Easton, Zac Kerin, and potential 2017 NFL Draft picks.
Minnesota’s struggles running the football began up front, and Fusco was no stranger to blame in 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 66th-best guard last season out of 77 qualifying players. His underwhelming performance in 13 starts at right guard was a bit of a surprise, as Fusco was slated to rebound after making the switch from his unnatural 2015 position of left guard.
Earlier this offseason, ESPN’s Ben Goessling reported Fusco was a potential “cut candidate” for the Vikings; if not released, he’d have likely earned a pay cut from the team. But with no guaranteed money over the final three years of his contract, Fusco was a longshot to stick with the Vikings through 2017. Releasing Fusco frees up $3.2 million in cap space for the Vikings, who could use the recouped money to pursue a free agent tackle or guard come March.
Unlike Fusco, Harris didn’t get the opportunity to play his way into a new contract with the Vikings. Before the season even began, Harris ended up on the Active/Non-Football Illness list, missing all of 2016 with an undisclosed illness. Last month, he spoke with Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, expressing a desire to return to Minnesota this season.
“It was a tough couple of months, not being out there, but I feel great,” Harris said. “I feel fine, but I need the trainers just to let me play. When that happens, I’ll let you guys know.” To prove his commitment and flexibility, Harris restructured his contract in October, allowing the Vikings the cap room to sign free agent tackle Jake Long.
The move, along with most of Spielman’s offensive line decisions in 2016, backfired. The Vikings lost Matt Kalil, Jake Long, and Andre Smith to season-ending injuries, then suffered the blows of injuries to Alex Boone and Joe Berger throughout the year.
It’s clear fixing the line, regarding both depth and dependability, is a priority for Spielman. The question is, how will he approach this crucial offseason to ensure the talent elsewhere on the roster isn’t let down by an underperforming offensive line? Today’s move of excavating the current unit paves the way for Spielman to select younger, cheaper pieces in the draft and add higher-profile names through free agency next month.