It seems like an eternity since the Vikings last trotted out a dominant offensive line. Sure, the Vikings have had decent units that have helped propel them to the NFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2017, but both of those units had their flaws and were exposed to the point where both cratered the following year.
With the approach of using late-round picks to draft and develop talent proving to be mostly ineffective, the Vikings have pivoted in recent years to using big free-agent deals (Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers) and high draft picks (Garrett Bradbury, Matt Kalil) to try and fix the problem, but the result has remained the same.
Improvement in the trenches was notable in 2019, but there were times when the group was exposed against the Green Bay Packers (twice) and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoff round. With little cap space to upgrade the line, Minnesota will have to get creative in order to find a group that can finally give Kirk Cousins the time he needs to be at his best.
2019 in review
The bar was set awfully low for the offensive line in 2019 after the disaster that was the 2018 season. After the death of Tony Sparano right before training camp, the unit looked lost and with several players playing out of position, the Vikings went from an NFC contender to missing the playoffs.
With the additions of Bradbury and Josh Kline, the group went from bad to respectable last season. Bradbury had his share of growing pains, posting a pair games where he recorded a pass-blocking grade of 0.0, per Pro Football Focus, but was able to jumpstart the running game thanks to his athleticism.
Meanwhile, Kline was solid, filling a hole at right guard and allowing 21 pressures (107th among offensive linemen) this season.
The two newcomers helped add stability along with Brian O'Neill, who turned in another strong effort in his second year. O'Neill allowed just one sack all season and with 15 pressures, he was the Vikings' best blocker on the outside.
The weakest links may have been on the left side of the line, however. Riley Reiff wasn't bad, allowing five sacks and 25 pressures on the year, but his struggles may have been masked by the rough season of Pat Elflein. Although he moved back to his natural position of guard, he didn't possess the size or strength needed to be effective, allowing a team-high 32 pressures and six sacks.
The salary cap situation
- Reiff - $13.2 million cap hit in 2020
- Elflein - $2.83 million
- Bradbury - $2.9 million
- Kline - $6.0 million
- O'Neill - $1.2 million
The numbers listed above (via Spotrac) do not include backups such as Rashod Hill (who is a UFA), Dru Samia and Oli Udoh, who both were talked up by Mike Zimmer in his end-of-year press conference. The one number in the group that stands out is Reiff's, who played decently in 2019, but not to the level of a $13 million cap number in 2020.
One of the top priorities of the offseason will be to get Reiff's cap number down and hopefully strike a restructure to keep him on the team. If they're unable to get a deal done, it will create a big hole in the trenches that will need to be filled in the draft or in free agency.
Another name that could be on the chopping block is Elflein, but with his cheap salary and the limited resources the Vikings currently have in cap space and draft capital, he may stay to compete for his starting job in training camp.
Either that or the Vikings move Reiff inside to left guard, O'Neill to left tackle and give the right tackle job to Udoh, Hill or someone else.
Potential free-agent targets
With the Vikings $12 million over the salary cap, it's unlikely that they'll be big players in free agency unless they make some earth-shattering decisions. Unless the Vikings decide to let Reiff walk, they'll likely focus their efforts on interior linemen who can provide depth and/or competition in the middle heading into 2020.
New England's Joe Thuney and Graham Glasgow are the two names on top of the guard market, but also represent the issue with pursuing linemen in free agency. Most of the time, teams won't let linemen walk unless there's something wrong with them. In these cases, the money that would have to be invested wouldn't be worth it for a team like the Vikings who could have multiple holes.
Still, the Vikings could try to strike a deal with a player with questions, but considerable upside with Andrus Peat, Brandon Scherff, and Daryl Williams projected to hit the market. There's also a chance that if Washington makes Trent Williams available, they could go after him, but money would once again be a factor.
Potential draft targets
Once again, the Vikings should look to fill most of their holes in the draft over free agency this offseason. With a lack of picks (Thank you, Kaare Vedvik), it will be difficult to add top talent because the rush for offensive linemen (tackles in particular) has become an arms race.
If the Vikings want to invest in a tackle, a prospect that could fall to them is Lousiville's Mekhi Becton. Although he stands at 6'7" and 369 pounds, he's still agile enough to work as an anchor for the left side of the line and could be a major addition if the Vikings let Reiff walk or potentially move him to guard (a move that was experimented with during last year's OTAs).
As for interior targets, LSU's Lloyd Cushenberry III and Michigan's Cesar Ruiz project to be the top prospects, but with Bradbury already entrenched at center, they are likely off the board. An interesting flyer could be Fresno State's Netane Muti, who according to The Draft Network's Benjamin Solak, has "special movement abilities."
A lot of what the Vikings do with their offensive line will be determined by what they do with Reiff. If they decide to let him walk, it will be interesting to see if they cave in to the temptation to move O'Neill from the right side to the left or if they opt to go for an offensive tackle in the draft to replace him.
Also if Reiff stays, they could opt to move him to guard with a restructured contract, which could also pave the way for O'Neill to move to the left side. That being said, O'Neill is already good at right tackle, so there may not be much of a temptation to move him over in the first place.
The Vikings also have internal candidates in Samia and Udoh, who essentially were "redshirted" in 2019. If they continue to make a jump coming into OTAs, there could be a couple of solid battles on the inside and outside that could make this group better heading into 2020.