Free agency came and went without the Minnesota Vikings addressing a critical need -- the offensive line.
Well, that's not entirely accurate. The Vikings did re-sign three players who help bolster depth on the offensive line in veteran swing tackle Rashod Hill and guards Dakota Dozier and Brett Jones. But when it comes to Minnesota's starting five -- the players who are responsible for protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins most often -- there's still a problem.
General manager Rick Spielman admitted the line is a "work in progress" two months ago at the NFL combine. Coach Mike Zimmer echoed those sentiments, noting just how important continuing to tinker with this unit will be for the success of the offense.
"I really believe in my heart that if we continue to give Kirk [Cousins] time, he's going to continue to ascend. That's part of it," Zimmer said. "Just continuing to improve the offensive line, whether it's technique or players that are here or players in the draft and free agency."
Minnesota was one of the most prolific play-action teams but struggled without it last season. According to ESPN's pass block win rate using NFL Next Gen Stats, the Vikings sustained their blocks through 2.5 seconds on just 48% of their non play-action dropbacks, which ranked 27th in the NFL.
That's not sustainable, and the Vikings know it. Until they make significant improvements to the offensive line, either by adding a free-agent veteran or the draft, their $66 million commitment to Cousins with a two-year extension last month may all be for naught.
This is nothing new, as the Vikings have aimed to solve this problem for years. How might they go about it this time? Let's take a look at their options.
Find a fix with the current roster
Minnesota has a spot to fill at right guard after Josh Kline was cut as a result of salary-cap issues in free agency. A good place to start in finding his replacement will be with the talent already under contract.
Dru Samia, a 2019 fourth-round pick, was the epitome of the draft-and-develop philosophy. Samia and former rookie tackle Oli Udoh were given a season to learn Minnesota's offense from the players in front of them.
"I think we got some young guys that we basically redshirted this year that I think will have opportunities to be good football players," Zimmer said at the end of the season. "I'm hoping that becomes even more of a strength for us next year."
In Samia's case, that means a chance to compete for the job at right guard. Left guard Pat Elflein struggled last season (32 pressures allowed) after moving from center. It's possible a mix of Elflein, Samia and Dozier (who appeared in 16 games in 2019 with 263 snaps at right guard and 70 at left) will battle it out for those two spots.
The topic of Riley Reiff moving inside to guard surfaced again this offseason. But if that happens the Vikings would need to add a left tackle who could start right away or move Brian O'Neill over from right tackle and draft his replacement, with Hill expected to fill that void in the immediate term.
The possibility of a shortened offseason makes the jobs of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison more difficult.
Trade, veteran free-agent market
The trade buzz surrounding Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams has quieted in recent weeks, which leads some sources to believe that talks will pick up closer to or during the draft. Teams that miss out on a tackle in the first round could be willing to work out a trade for Williams. The Vikings aren't in position to land one of the tackles expected to go in the top 10 (Alabama's Jedrick Willis Jr. and Louisville's Mekhi Becton), but they could be in position to acquire Williams.
The Vikings have about $12 million in cap space. If they were to trade safety Anthony Harris, who carries an $11.41 million cap hit on the franchise tag, they'd free up the space needed to take on Williams' $14.5 million cap hit. The type of long-term deal Williams may be seeking could be anywhere in the $15-20 million range. That's expensive, but gives the Vikings an instant upgrade at the most important position on the offensive line and would allow other dominoes to fall, like moving Reiff to left guard.
Either way, the left side of the line is going to turn over after the 2020 season when Elflein's contract is up and Reiff enters the final year of his deal. Coming up with a two-to-three-year plan at left tackle would shore up a major need.
There are still several players available on the free-agent market, such as former Eagles left tackle Jason Peters. But at 38 years old, he doesn't fit into the long-term plan.
Look to the draft
The tackles are the strength of the offensive line draft class. With picks at No. 22 and 25, Minnesota could select another first-round offensive lineman and have him serve as an understudy to Reiff (or even O'Neill) for a season before assuming one of the starting tackle jobs in 2021.
Using high draft capital on an offensive lineman may be the best strategy to allow the Vikings some flexibility down the line to move around their current personnel. At worst, it can be viewed as another redshirt year for a player who will then be ready to make an impact in 2021.
The interior of the offensive line will most likely be addressed on Days 2 and 3 given the guards projected to come off the board (such as Oregon's Shane Lemieux, Kentucky's Logan Stenberg) in those rounds. Minnesota has found value in the second round (O'Neill) and third (Elflein). They've also found promising prospects like Udoh, who was selected in the sixth round in 2019 and made the final roster.
But there's an important caveat to consider. Given the likelihood of a shortened offseason with the potential for no rookie minicamp, OTAs and mandatory minicamp, NFL teams may go from the draft straight into training camp, cutting out 10 weeks of offseason training.
That would be critical time missed for younger offensive linemen, especially rookies.
Garrett Bradbury, Minnesota's first-rounder in 2019, had an inconsistent rookie season, struggling in pass protection -- and that was after having May through August to make the transition from college to the NFL.
"If there's no OTAs, you're going to see a lot of rookies that don't play very much at all this year because if you remember in the lockout when there was no OTAs and then you had the rookie class that came in, they just showed up to camp," former Vikings tackle Jeremiah Sirles said on ESPN affiliate SKOR North.
"And at camp time there's no more babysitting, there's no more ‘How do we help you get to where you need to go?' It's time to win football games. For a rookie, that's dang near impossible to try to digest and pick a playbook up and everything, really in six weeks. I think it's really going to affect the rookie class."