The Vikings have cut guard Alex Boone after he started the entire preseason, presumably in favor of Nick Easton at guard. This may have more to do with money than it does “keeping the best 53 on the roster,” as Ben Goessling from the Minneapolis Star Tribune explains.
Boone was one of the top-40 guards in the NFL last year (ranked 37th by Pro Football Focus, and 30th by Bleacher Report’s Top-1000 project), and performed far better by the end of last year than he did at the beginning, when he struggled. In pass protection, Pro Football Focus gave Boone a 97.7 score in Pass Blocking Efficiency, which tied for fifth-best among guards.
Even after a down year in performance as a run blocker, Boone performed like a lineman who deserves to start on a roster.
The Vikings did switch run-blocking schemes this year, and are focusing on zone running in order to best enable players like Dalvin Cook generate additional yards. While Boone is not best positioned to produce in a zone blocking system when compared to his ability in a power blocking setup, he’s still performed fairly well in zone running systems.
Most people point to how athletic offensive linemen tend to play better in zone running schemes, but Boone is more athletic than most guards, with a faster 40-yard dash, more explosive vertical leap and quicker agility times than more than half of the guards on NFL rosters. All of those traits have consistently shown up on the field, too.
Boone had a lot of trouble pulling in the preseason, but zone schemes tend to require less pulling than power schemes, and he generally did pretty well on his other assignments. Against the 49ers, he only made two mistakes in his 16 snaps. Though his game against the Bills was poor, he was having a strong training camp and often looked like the best offensive lineman in camp — despite the change in schemes.
Easton, the presumed left guard, had a decent showing against the Seattle Seahawks but had an absolutely terrible time against the 49ers, worse than Boone looked in either preseason game he played in.
While the offensive line looked better overall against the Seahawks without Boone on the roster, his individual play was not the reason why — that would be like arguing that Riley Reiff shouldn’t be on the roster, because he didn’t play in that game either. Even so, basing that kind of decision on 20-odd snaps is not smart decision-making, especially with evidence to the contrary in other preseason games.
Though Boone was not living up to his $6.7 million contract, the question the Vikings were asking was not whether he was worth $6.7 million, it was whether it was smart to absorb $3.4 million in cap space to cut him, because his contract was partially guaranteed. If the question is entirely on-field, I’m not sure it is. He’s a fine guard who had been playing like an above-average lineman for long stretches of time last year, and repeated that performance in training camp. His preseason was up and down, but certainly not definitive, while his competition had a higher rate of poor reps.
The Vikings also have experience with players improving substantially in their second year on the team, with Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph standing as shining examples.
If the Vikings made this decision because of locker room behavior, chemistry or some undisclosed off-field problem, it makes much more sense. The Vikings weren’t glowing about his leadership when asked; offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was asked about Boone’s leadership during training camp and gave a less-than-enthusiastic response:
Well, they all exert what they are as leaders in their own special way. In order to be a leader you just have to have great courage and compete. You don’t have to do anything extraordinary. Sometimes the noisiest guys in the room are the ones that have the longest way to go. But I would say that group is coming together well. They find a way to lead each other.
Not only that, fans might not have been the only ones annoyed with Boone’s affinity for entertaining quotables. Boone’s brash behavior isn’t entirely an act; it’s something that carries over into his everyday interactions with the people around him. If that rubs too many people the wrong way, the Vikings may come to the decision that his worth requires renegotiation. Richie Incognito played well for Miami but was toxic to that locker room. In Buffalo, his strong personality seems to have been a much better fit.
While Boone’s strong personality is not likely comparable in its negatives to Incognito by any reasonable means, Incognito’s case may demonstrate what coaches are thinking of when they make moves in favor of team chemistry over individual performance.
Another explanation that could be appealing is if the Vikings have a deal in place with another offensive lineman, though that’s surprising as well, because the Vikings still chose to absorb half of Boone’s cap hit.
If anything, it’s most surprising that the Vikings couldn’t trade Boone to another team while the league is low on quality offensive linemen. Not getting any return on a lineman who has proven to be starting-quality (and possibly better) is a black mark on the front office.