Is it too much to ask to have one season of offensive line certainty in Minnesota?
A year ago, Rick Spielman changed the trajectory of the Vikings’ season by completely overhauling all five positions on the line. Through the draft and free agency, Spielman turned one of the league’s worst units into an adequate one. The Vikings in turn had a top-10 offense, won 13 games and made the NFC Championship Game.
As Spielman left the line relatively untouched in free agency this offseason, in conjunction with Joe Berger announcing his retirement, the assumption was the Vikings would take the next step in the transformation. That is, they would select an offensive lineman in the first round for the first time since 2012. Alas, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead, Spielman went potential and depth with Brian O’Neill in the second and Colby Gossett in the sixth. While both have starter upside, neither is a lock to start day one.
As such, there is truly only one man with a starting position set in stone: Pat Elflein at center. The other four slots are all subject to coaching decisions, future projection and training camp performance. Not even Riley Reiff, the Vikings primary line free agent acquisition of 2017, is necessarily locked into his spot from a year ago.
This is the pool of potential starters line coach Tony Sparano will have to work with:
Center: Pat Elflein
If one had to guess, here is what the presumed lineup will look like week one:
LT: Reiff LG: Easton C: Elflein RG: Remmers RT: O’Neill
But a lot will come down to development of young players. For example, O’Neill may step in as the left tackle day one. Reiff played some right tackle in Detroit before coming to Minnesota. As the Vikings’ answer to the blind side issues they had with Matt Kalil, Reiff was more than effective on the left side through eight games in 2017. Then in the second half of the season, his pass pro took a bit of a dip. This potentially opened the door for the rookie to step in.
For all the deficiencies the rookie O’Neill has, namely lack of mass, he had one of the highest pass block ratings in college football. His long frame and elite athleticism would indicate that left tackle is his destiny. However, experts say he is still raw and subject to slips in technique. O’Neill would probably have to blow the coaches away in training camp to bump Reiff to the right side this year, but the spot may be O’Neill’s to lose before long.
By the same token, O’Neill’s rawness could be beyond what analysts projected and Remmers returns to right tackle, rather than his switch to guard, like many assume. That would open up yet another guard spot for one of the young guys to fill.
Guard is the spot of greatest concern and a major reason why fans clamored for Billy Price and Will Hernandez to be the first round selection. Easton was a solid, if unspectacular left guard in 2017. But he also has an injury history and a relatively low ceiling. Isidora and Gossett, on the other hand, were selected in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively the last two drafts. Presumably, despite having one career start between them, the coaching staff feels either or both could step into starting roles soon. Easton was undrafted in 2015, though he has started 17 games in purple the past two seasons.
Then you add in Hill, who struggled as a starter last year, and Compton, who is a career backup, but close to Kirk Cousins. Entering the season with either as the planned starter is less than ideal. But it is still a possibility given the enigmatic nature of the offensive line room at the moment.
On the one hand, the mystery of the offensive line is exciting. It will add intrigue to training camp, ignite healthy competition and allow both coaches and fans to gauge development of first- and second-year players. But at the same time, the Vikings have been in similar situations far too often. Granted, it is better this go-around, as they will be selecting from a pool of some talent, as opposed to piecing together a patchwork group of castoffs. But with the team so close to Super Bowl-ready, one would have thought that certainty on the line would have been a top priority. Instead, it looks on paper that protecting Kirk Cousins was a secondary mission.
A lot will come down to Brian O’Neill. If he hits and reaches his enormous potential, then a tip of the cap to Spielman and staff. As is, we are left to wait and wonder.
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