MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Vikings have one guard with NFL experience on the roster: Danny Isidora, who played 214 snaps in four games last season.
Within the last seven days, two holes were created on the interior when the Vikings terminated the contract of Mike Remmers, whose conversion (out of necessity) from right tackle to right guard in 2018 came with more negative than positive reviews. On Sunday evening, former Minnesota left guard Nick Easton signed a lucrative deal with the New Orleans Saints as Max Unger’s expected replacement at center.
Some might argue that these voids already existed before the two Vikings departed in free agency. Remmers never fully lived up to the $30 million contract with $10.5 million in guarantees when the Vikings signed him in 2017 at either position. Easton didn’t play in 2018 after a serious neck injury sidelined him for the year during training camp. While Minnesota wanted to bring Easton back after he was medically cleared, they couldn’t afford to match the 4-year, $24 million deal he signed with New Orleans.
It’s no secret the Vikings are in dire straits as it pertains to the offensive line, but the outrageous deals for average O-line talent in free agency coupled with Minnesota’s tight cap space point to the free agent bargain bin and the draft as their only options to fix this glaring problem.
Given what both coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have said about their expectations for Kirk Cousins in Year 2, bolstering the O-line in front of the quarterback is not just a major priority – it’s a complete necessity.
The O-line market went absolutely insane in the days leading up to free agency, starting with the Raiders executing the baffling decision to make left tackle Trent Brown the highest-paid offensive tackle in NFL history (four years, $66 million). The same goes for the Bengals doling out $21 million over three years to right tackle Bobby Hart.
And it’s not just tackles who are eating up all the coin. Teams are overpaying for guards at a high rate, too. In addition to Easton, the Packers also fall into that category after doling out a four-year, $28 million deal to Billy Turner. Jamon Brown might not be a top-tier starter, but he’s getting paid a decent amount of money (three years, $18.75 million) along with James Carpenter’s four-year, $28 million deal to show that the cost of finding two average guards is often times going to be pricey.
This isn’t lost on the Vikings' front office, which is aware that overpaying to correct flaws on the offensive line isn’t the best strategy going forward. While the answer to bolstering guard play might be found in the second and third wave of free agency with a more financially prudent option (let’s see what deals they might be able to work out with the likes of Josh Kline, Stefen Wisniewski and other guards), Minnesota may decide that the spending money they do have isn’t worth it when they can address these positions in April.
“There’s timing on everything,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “But I also know that we’re going to make sure we’re prudent with our decisions. I have a pretty good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of what’s in free agency, and I have a pretty good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of what’s in the draft. I know also with the addition of the new offensive staff that some things from a schematic point that we’ll do differently will also help. ... One thing about this staff and coaching in general is when you have players that maybe you have to play with sometimes that aren’t red or blue top-line players, they find ways to schematically hide some of those weaknesses."
The way the Vikings adjust their blocking scheme with their new offensive staff will play a role in the type of players they go after in free agency and the draft. But with such dire needs to address, this position only further becomes a top priority.
Finding players who will be able to fill these voids as plug-and-play starters is critical, but if they can’t find one at the right price in free agency, securing that type of personnel may take high draft capital in April.
Right now, the Vikings are slated to pick at No. 18. Depending upon what they want to do with their current personnel, possibly shifting things around further to where Riley Reiff finds himself playing guard for the first time since college, the options could be plenty. There are a handful of draft prospects who project at multiple positions, too, and could be capable of playing guard early on (Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Kansas State’s Dalton Risner, Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, for example).
With as little spending money as the Vikings do have, an extension or two may have to take place in the coming weeks to create more cap space so the team can sign a veteran offensive lineman. If that doesn’t happen, the draft is where Minnesota will have to focus all of its efforts – which might be the smartest bet for a team that simply can’t afford to overpay for these players in the first place.