Post-draft, Vikings still searching for fifth starter on O-line

Second-round pick Brian O'Neill is quite athletic at tackle but might not be ready to start for the Vikings immediately. Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings entered the NFL draft with one overarching priority: Improve the offensive line by finding a starting-caliber right guard.

Above all other areas that they aimed to address with a new crop of rookie talent, this was the most pressing, immediate need -- for good reason. With Joe Berger's retirement, Minnesota is forced to search for his replacement. How else can a franchise protect its $84 million quarterback than by finding a guard who is capable of the task, and able to do so right now?

This draft could have provided an early solution and allow the Vikings to focus their efforts elsewhere, like finding depth pieces to create an effective rotation on the defensive line -- which they did. With the deepest guard class in years, all signs pointed to Minnesota being able to land one of their top choices in the first round.

Instead, the bread and butter of this team took precedent with the 30th overall pick. By drafting cornerback Mike Hughes, the rich got richer, allowing Mike Zimmer's defense to be as explosive and unpredictable as ever with its sub packages. The Vikings secondary now has four first-rounders it's drafted between Hughes, Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.

Prioritizing a cornerback to combat a passing league is important. But as the Vikings look toward training camp in three months without an answer to their biggest offseason question, they'll face another: did they make the right choice?

By the time Minnesota was on the clock in the first round, Mike McGlinchey, Frank Ragnow, Billy Price and Isaiah Wynn -- four players high on the Vikings' board -- were gone. Austin Corbett, another target, was still available at No. 30. Minnesota opted to go with Hughes instead.

The run on interior linemen continued early in Day 2. Corbett was the first player off the board to Cleveland at No. 33. Will Hernandez was next to the Colts, followed by Braden Smith three picks later.

"I know sitting there watching [offensive linemen] peel off at the top of the second round, they were flying off the board quicker than any time I can remember," general manager Rick Spielman said.

By not finding a team to trade back with from 30 and without a fourth-round pick at the time, Minnesota didn't have a lot of leverage to trade up into the early part of the second round to cash in on the guard run. To do so might have required the Vikings to dip into their pool of 2019 picks.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but in a case where the Vikings walked away from the draft with two O-linemen (second-round tackle Brian O'Neill and sixth-round guard Colby Gossett) who appear to be developmental prospects rather than players ready to contribute immediately, it raises several questions. Most notably -- should they have addressed the guard position earlier to land a Day 1 starter instead of a cornerback whose main role his rookie season will likely be on special teams?

"You wish you could address a lot of things [but] you just have to address whether it comes to you," Spielman said. "I will never reach to fill a void if they're not developed on our board that way, that's when you make mistakes ... Last year we re-did the offensive line and made some tough personal decisions, but that's what you do. I think we have enough viable bodies in there that it's going to be a pretty good competition where we can find our best-five combination before we open up against the 49ers."

So with the draft behind them and a new set of rookies coming for minicamp, the Vikings will soon learn the full scope of how much work they'll have to get O'Neill ready in the case he does need to start sooner than later.

Draft analysts praised the Pittsburgh tackle for having arguably the best athleticism of any lineman in his class. At 6-foot-7, 297 pounds, O'Neill has the frame and length desired to play the position. The next challenge he'll face is gaining the strength needed to hold blocks against NFL defensive linemen and learning a blocking scheme based on a lot of movement.

If he can do that ahead of schedule, O'Neill could join the ranks of offensive linemen taken later than the first round that panned out to be Day 1 starters. Minnesota's shining example is Pat Elflein, its 2017 third-round pick, who won the starting center job in camp.

The offensive line remains in a state of flux, and at the center of everything is a player whose versatility will be something the Vikings lean on. Had Minnesota drafted a clear-cut starting right guard, the team could have confidently moved Mike Remmers back to right tackle. Given that O'Neill might not be ready to start Week 1, Remmers might need to play right tackle out of necessity, thus leaving a void on the interior.

Let's examine two scenarios:

  1. If the Vikings determine the best fit for the offensive line is to move Remmers back out to tackle until O'Neill is ready to play, the competition for the right guard spot will be headlined by Danny Isidora, Tom Compton, Josh Andrews and Gossett. If O'Neill is ready later this season to take over at right tackle, Remmers could move back inside.

  2. If Minnesota chooses to keep Remmers at right guard, the competition at right tackle will start with Rashod Hill and include O'Neill and Aviante Collins.

The last thing the Vikings want is a revolving door at either position with Kirk Cousins playing behind four starting-caliber O-linemen. Not knowing the probable starting five creates that scenario.

Another thing to keep in mind as it relates to interior, both Elflein and left guard Nick Easton are coming off season-ending ankle surgeries. Addressing the need for depth along the O-line is another critical priority, especially considering how it came into play over the past two seasons when injuries arose. With rookie minicamp coming up this week, we'll see if Minnesota chooses to bring in any college free agents who might be able to help.

The Vikings could also look out for current NFL linemen on the verge of not making their team's roster due to a scheme fit (similar to what Minnesota faced with Alex Boone last training camp) or other players likely to take their spot. A quick scan around the league doesn't yield many eye-popping options between John Miller (Bills), Jermon Bushrod (Saints), Rees Odhiambo (Seahawks) or Zane Beadles (49ers) -- who could be in this situation in a couple months.

Given the number of elite defensive lines it faces this season (the Rams and Eagles, to name a few) and the fact that Cousins isn't as skilled at improvising as Case Keenum was when his protection broke down, Minnesota has to get this right. For a team in the midst of a small window to win now, fixing the offensive line can't wait any longer.

The Vikings walk away from the draft with a class that focused on beefing up its rotations on the defensive side of the ball, from Hughes to Jalyn Holmes (DT) to Ade Aruna (DE) and Devante Downs (ILB). Those draft choices checked off a number of boxes given how much the defense struggled to establish a pass rush throughout the final five games of the season and was picked apart in the last six quarters of the playoffs.

Minnesota landed a lot of solid depth picks -- guys that have the opportunity to become great players if given the time to develop -- but they're still at square one (or close to it) as it relates to the starting offensive line, left trying to find answers to the same questions the team had before the draft.