Vikings Territory contributor Drew Mahowald introduces his “State of the Vikings” positional series with the Minnesota Vikings offensive line.
The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line was arguably the worst in the NFL during the 2016 season. As injuries piled up at every position and forced more and more inexperienced players into starting roles, Minnesota’s offense sputtered and was unable to reach its potential, despite the talent of quarterback Sam Bradford and receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
General manager Rick Spielman noted the negative impact of the offensive line and took action. His first move in rebuilding the line was to add swing tackle Rashod Hill from the Jacksonville practice squad just before the end of the 2016 season. He then signed veteran tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers last offseason to solidify the bookends and used two draft picks on interior linemen in Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora.
Spielman’s work paid off.
Minnesota’s offensive line improved drastically, both in the run game and through the air, and played a focal point in the NFL’s 10th-ranked offense of 2017. The unit allowed 27 sacks in the regular season, though that number is inflated by Bradford folding like a flimsy armchair when he sensed an itch of pressure in the first half of the Week 5 game at Chicago.
On the ground, Minnesota’s attack ranked seventh in the NFL, as the lightning-and-thunder combination of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for over 1,400 yards behind the new-look offensive line. Additionally, talented rookie Dalvin Cook amassed 354 yards in three-and-a-half games before his season ended abruptly due to injury in Week 4.
Reiff and Remmers anchored the tackle position for most of the season — Reiff at left tackle and Remmers at right tackle. The 2017 season was arguably the best for both Reiff and Remmers. Reiff didn’t allow a sack through the first eight weeks of the season while Remmers earned the best pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus of his career (73.0).
At guard, Joe Berger did Joe Berger things; he rarely made mistakes and anchored the running game. Nick Easton mostly struggled as a run blocker but held his own in pass protection at left guard until an injury ended his season slightly early. Aviante Collins and Jeremiah Sirles provided solid depth options at both guard and tackle throughout the season.
Overall, the Vikings offense ranked 10th and 11th in points and yards, respectively, in the NFL. Additionally, Minnesota’s offense turned the ball over just 14 times — third-fewest in the NFL. These achievements are not possible without vast improvement in the trenches.
Think about it this way: the Vikings went from 23rd and 28th in points and yards in 2016 to 10th and 11th in 2017, despite losing their starting quarterback and starting running back for most of the season. That kind of jump in those circumstances doesn’t happen without a major boost from the offensive line.
Offensive line coach Tony Sparano deserves plenty of credit for the work he did in the past year to integrate the new players and create enough continuity to be effective.
2017 Position Grade: B
Minnesota will retain most of its key contributors from 2017 for the 2018 season. However, reports have suggested that Berger is leaning toward retirement, leaving an opening at guard in the starting lineup. The Vikings can choose to fill that spot with a player already on the roster, such as Sirles or Collins, or they can add a player via free agency or the NFL Draft — which seems like the more likely scenario.
The 2018 NFL Draft class provides many possible situations to Minnesota’s empty spot at guard. Vikings Territory’s Jordan Reid has already highlighted a couple of high-caliber interior offensive line prospects in Ohio State’s Billy Price and Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn. Guard continues to be one of the most overlooked positions at the NFL Draft every year, so it’s quite possible both Price and Wynn are available at No. 30 overall if the Vikings choose to draft a lineman with their first selection in April.
Spielman and Co. may decide to use free agency to fill the open guard spot. Former Packers and Bears four-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton will reportedly not be brought back by the Bears and would be an excellent fit in Minnesota. Carolina All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell is also an unrestricted free agent and another possibility to join the Vikings.
Spielman and salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski have done a phenomenal job manipulating salary cap to put the Vikings in terrific shape this offseason. Despite the question mark at quarterback, Minnesota can still get aggressive to sign an expensive free agent at guard if the opportunity presents itself while still retaining most, if not all, of the valuable assets already on the roster.
Price, Wynn, Sitton and Norwell are four tremendous possibilities to fill Minnesota’s void on the offensive line. Regardless of who is ultimately chosen, the fact that Reiff, Easton, Elflein and Remmers are slated to return means the offensive line performance on display in 2017 won’t be going anywhere in 2018.