Last year’s Vikings free agency was a time of action. Rick Spielman made multiple significant moves that inspired confidence and excitement in the 2018 Vikings. He threw money at Kirk Cousins to lock down the quarterback position. He strengthened the defensive line with Sheldon Richardson. For the first time in some time, Spielman did not sit on his hands when it came time to make deals. That is, with one area of exception.
Spielman stood pat with the offensive line, adding only Tom Compton. The results, as everyone knows, were not good. Cousins, notoriously pocket-unaware, struggled mightily against incessant interior pressure and Minnesota missed the postseason. So accordingly, fans clamored for Spielman to make splashy moves in free agency to fix the problem. There were plenty of names, big and small, who could fit into the Vikings’ system. Well, here we stand, well into free agency, and the Vikings have lost more linemen than they have added.
It seems Spielman has gone the route of maintaining the good areas, rather than fixing the bad parts in free agency. As such, his eggs appear to be in the same basket the Colts carried into 2018; that is, looking to patch major holes with rookies and hope that fixes the problem. It worked out exceptionally well for Indianapolis, as they turned the team around almost overnight. Minnesota may be attempting to navigate a similar road.
By bringing back Anthony Barr, Spielman tied his own hands a bit with regard to the Vikings’ greatest area of weakness. Barr commanded most of the remainder of the team’s salary cap. What little is left will go towards some low-level deals and signing draft picks.
There was faint hope that Spielman could keep a starter in either Compton or Nick Easton. Easton was the bigger target, given he greater success as a Vikings. But Compton, in a pinch, could have been a reasonable settle for a small price. Alas, both signed elsewhere: Compton with the Jets, Easton with New Orleans for an average annual salary of $6 million.
Easton’s new contract is indicative of the free agent market for offensive linemen. He was a solid pass blocker in Minnesota, but his overall value would best be described as “adequate.” Yet, he signed a fairly substantial deal with a potential Super Bowl contender. That is why, given the Vikings tight cap situation, it seems unlikely that they make any splashy moves for offensive linemen in the coming days.
The name bandied about recently is former-Titan Josh Kline. Minnesota has reportedly expressed interest in Kline, and he has started almost every game over the past four seasons. Yet, even with Everson Griffen’s contract restructuring, the Vikings are staring at remaining cap space of only $2.35 million, lower than Easton’s earnings from 2018. For reference, Kline made $7.25 million last year. If the Vikings hope to give him or another potential starter a number even close to that amount, they would have to make more moves. That could mean trading Trae Waynes, it could mean moving some of Kyle Rudolph’s money around. Regardless, on their current trajectory, things seem too tight to add impact pieces on the line.
Minnesota currently has one guard on their roster: 2017 fifth-round pick Danny Isidora. He has three starts in two seasons. As such, the Vikings very well may have only one avenue to fill the holes in their line: the draft.
For what it is worth, it is a pretty good year to do so. This year’s class is not as top-heavy with interior prospects as last year, but the tackle class is stronger. And more importantly, the o-line class is deep with starting-caliber players, especially at guard and center. So the Vikings could realistically pick up two immediate starters on draft day. What is more, they could do it without using the 18th-overall pick to grab one.
That is a vital thing to consider when evaluating the Vikings’ draft process. Under Zimmer and Spielman, Minnesota has slightly favored defensive players at the top of the draft. Given the amount of defensive line talent coming out this year, and the Vikings’ ever-dwindling talent in that area, it is reasonable to expect the Vikings to look to acquire a top defensive line prospect in round one. It may not be popular with fans, but o-line prospects often dip lower than analysts project, given perceived value of interior line versus tackle.
Talents such as Chris Lindstrom, Elgton Jenkins or even Dalton Risner could realistically still be available in round two. Defensive forces like Montez Sweat or Christian Wilkins will not be. This year’s offensive line class should allow the Vikings to be wait-and-see come draft day and more flexible with their plan. It is the one area this offseason where they can be flexible.
On the surface, it may appear that Rick Spielman has painted himself into a corner. He chose to build and maintain Minnesota’s strong defense and find his franchise quarterback above all else, and other areas have suffered as a result. Spielman largely neglected the offense line last season. But he seems to have hit the nail on the head with Brian O’Neill. O’Neill was viewed as a project; an elite athlete who needed experience and extra mass before he could start. Yet, he started earlier than expected, and played well. That and the selection of Pat Elflein show that Spielman is capable of evaluating line talent in the draft outside of round one. Theoretically, he can continue to build a young line that can have an immediate impact.
Frankly, at this point, it seems he has no other choice.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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