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Since their inception in 1961, the Minnesota Vikings have spent a total of 104 draft picks on offensive linemen. With the 2020 NFL Draft on the horizon, and offensive line help expected to be on the Vikings’ agenda, it’s worth looking back at how drafting the O-line has panned out.
Here’s a rundown of those picks, focusing on the best selections in each of the current format’s seven rounds:
Teams using a valuable first-round selection on a lineman need to follow the same advice Omar Little dispenses if you come at the king: you best not miss.
Minnesota has picked an offensive lineman in the first round nine times over the course of its history, and only twice have they not notched at least a solid “B” with the selection. Steve Riley (1974), Todd Steussie (1994), Korey Stringer (1995) and Bryant McKinnie (2002) all started at least 91 games for the Vikings, anchoring offensive lines during some of the team’s most successful runs.
Matt Kalil (2012) opened with a Pro Bowl campaign as a rookie, but injuries and declining play punched his ticket out of town. John Ward (1970) didn’t crack the starting lineup until his fourth season in purple and lasted just one more year in Minnesota before wrapping up his career with the Chicago Bears and the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Garrett Bradbury (2019) started all 16 games as a rookie, and the hope is he’s just scratching the surface.
That leaves a pair of Hall of Famers.
The Vikings made Ron Yary the first overall pick coming out of USC in 1968, and he rewarded the team with 187 starts in 199 games over 14 seasons with the Vikings — including starting every game in the 1970s. Yary was named All-Pro six straight times, from 1971-76, and selected to seven straight Pro Bowls (1971-77). The right tackle also played in 20 playoff games and four Super Bowls before finishing his career with the Rams in 1982.
In 1988, Minnesota used the 19th overall pick on Randall McDaniel, a guard out of Arizona State, and it worked out quite well. McDaniel played 222 NFL games, 190 with the Vikings, and was named All-Pro seven times and selected to 12 consecutive Pro Bowls. McDaniel played in 15 playoff games, the final two with the Buccaneers as he closed out his NFL career in Tampa Bay.
After picking Bradbury 18th overall last year, it’s not out of the question the Vikings would choose another offensive lineman this year; they went back-to-back with Steussie and Stringer in 1994 and 1995. Expectations would be appropriately high for a first-round lineman, lifted by the Vikings’ sterling hit rate.
Minnesota’s hit rate dips a little with their nine second-round selections but still falls in the C+ range — with potential to climb as Brian O’Neill career progresses.
The Vikings’ first second-round pick spent on an offensive lineman was Archie Sutton (1965), who started just three games over three seasons in Minnesota. He’s the exception, as the Vikings’ other eight second-round linemen are split between solid starters and contributing backups with varying degrees of success.
Marcus Johnson (2005) and Ryan Cook (2006) combined to make 58 starts as each played five seasons in purple. Dave Huffman (1979) played 128 games for the Vikings, mostly in a reserve capacity, and was a popular media personality following his 12 seasons with the team.
Guard Terry Tausch (1982) started 68 of 81 games with the Vikings, plus six playoff games, before moving on to spend a season in San Francisco. Dennis Swilley (1977) locked down the middle of the Minnesota line for 10 seasons, making 101 starts in 139 games. Right tackle Phil Loadholt (2009) started all 89 games he played before injuries — a torn pectoral muscle in 2014, a torn Achilles’ tendon in 2015 — prematurely ended his career. And O’Neill (2018) is currently the Vikings’ best offensive lineman.
But easily the best second-round selection the Vikings spent on an offensive lineman came when they spend the 39th overall pick on Ed White following his All-American career at California as… a nose guard. Minnesota converted White to offensive guard against his wishes, then got 122 games (93 starts) and three Pro Bowls out of him over nine seasons with the Vikings. White was traded to the Chargers for Rickey Young prior to the 1978 season and added 117 starts and a fourth Pro Bowl selection to his resume. Don’t be surprised if White gets some buzz as a Hall of Fame candidate by the Seniors Committee.
In what appears to be a developing theme, the Vikings have spent nine third-round picks on offensive linemen. And for the most part, these picks have churned out more steady contributors.
A pair of picks, Tim Long (1985) and John Hunter (1989) played in the NFL but not for the Vikings. Long played with the 49ers, Hunter with the Falcons and Seahawks. Bart Buetow, the highest draftee of the five Gopher linemen the Vikings have selected, was chosen by Minnesota in 1972 but played seven games for the Giants in 1973 before returning to the Vikings for two games in 1976. John Gerak, the first pick of the third round in 1993, started 19 games at right guard over four seasons before playing his final NFL campaign with the Cardinals.
Brent Boyd (1980) was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team but blew out his knee three games into the following season. He ultimately played just 59 games (27 starts) before retiring after the 1986 season. Boyd founded the NFL player advocacy group Dignity After Football and, along with White and former Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp, serves on the board of directors of that group.
Pat Elflein (2017) straddles the cusp between those mentioned thus far, whose careers for various reasons fell short of expectations, and the top-end contributors the Vikings have drafted in Round 3. Elflein has started 42 of his 43 games in Minnesota as he enters a make-or-break season in the middle of the Vikings’ offensive line.
Minnesota received more than 100 starts from a third of their third-round linemen. Kirk Lowdermilk (1985) anchored the middle of the Vikings’ line for eight years, making 86 starts in 114 games before wrapping up his NFL career starting 64 straight games for the Colts. Wes Hamilton (1976) spent his entire nine-season career with the Vikings, starting 92 of 116 games at right guard.
But the unquestioned jewel among the Vikings’ third-round linemen is Tim Irwin. The 74th overall selection in 1981, the mountainous man out of Tennessee moved into the starting lineup midway through the 1982 season and made 181 starts interrupted only by the player’s strike in 1987. His career concluded in Florida, where he split 13 games in 1994 between the Dolphins and Buccaneers. Irwin locked down right tackle for more than a decade; among linemen drafted by Minnesota, only McDaniel has played or started more games than Irwin.
At the line where the draft has typically been divided — since 2010, the final four rounds have been relegated to Day 3 — so too does the Vikings’ success rate in selecting offensive linemen drop precipitously.
Let’s put it this way: expected to contend for one of the starting guard spots this season, Dru Samia — the Vikings’ fourth-round pick last year — doesn’t have a particularly high bar to clear to become one of Minnesota’s top-producing Round 4 linemen.
Two of the eight linemen the Vikings have taken in the fourth round never played a regular-season NFL game. Jay Humphrey (1999) toiled on the Vikings’ practice squad before bouncing through the Broncos, Panthers and Packers organizations as well as NFL Europe. Ed Ta’amu (2002) spent time on the Vikings and Texans practice squads as well.
Willie Beavers (2016) played in a pair of games as a rookie in Minnesota, then drifted through the Patriots, Vikings (again), Seahawks, Bears, and 49ers organizations. He was last seen with the XFL’s Dallas Renegades.
On the bright side, T.J. Clemmings (2015) played significantly more than most of his fourth-round brethren. However, his struggles in 16 starts at right tackle as a rookie and 14 (in 15 games) on the left side the following year punched his ticket out of town. Clemmings played in Washington the following season and in Oakland in 2018.
It’s been over 30 years since the Vikings found legitimate offensive line help in the fourth round. In 1988, three rounds after taking McDaniel as a standout at Arizona State, the Vikings selected his Sun Devil teammate Todd Kalis. The Stillwater, Minn. native cracked the starting lineup in his second season in Minnesota, but a preseason knee injury cost him all of 1992 and part of the following season. Kalis played five seasons (77 games, 45 starts) for the Vikings, then started for a season in Pittsburgh and another in Cincinnati. Kalis’ last NFL game was a win over the Minnesota team that drafted him.
That leaves guard Jim Hough (1978), who spent nine seasons with the Vikings. Hough played in 111 games and started 75, both high-water marks among fourth-round O-line selections. When you get nearly a decade of production from a fourth-round pick, that’s a hit. Not sexy, to be sure, but that’s par for the course for the trenches.
As the rounds get bigger, the hits get smaller. Of the nine offensive linemen the Vikings selected in the fifth round, four never played for the team — and two didn’t even play in the NFL at all.
Gary Kaltenback (1963) came out of Pitt and returned to the area to play for the Pittsburgh Valley Ironmen of the ACFL in 1964 having failed to crack the Vikings roster. Jim Barnes (1969) overcame a childhood bout with polio to become an All-American at Arkansas, but he too never played in the NFL. Chris Thome (1991) was a Minnesota product every step of the way: born in St. Cloud, high school at St. Thomas Academy, college at the University of Minnesota and a Vikings draft pick. However, his only NFL action came in Cleveland, where he played 11 games for the Browns in 1991 and 1992.
Stanford product David Yankey (2014) spent time on the Vikings’ roster and practice squad but only saw game action in Carolina. Chris DeGeare (2010) started five of eight games at left guard as a rookie, then was demoted to the practice squad before trying to catch on with the Titans, Giants and Cowboys without seeing further NFL game action.
Danny Isidora (2017) spent two seasons with the Vikings, starting three times in 21 games. He was traded to the Dolphins last season, where he started three games before landing on injured reserve. The Vikings will cash in on the Isidora trade on Saturday, as they received Miami’s seventh-round pick (219 overall, the fifth pick in the seventh round) in exchange.
Mark MacDonald (1985) played 43 games in purple, making four starts, and one game with the Cardinals in his final NFL season of 1988. At that point, MacDonald gave up his NFL career to study medicine; he became a doctor and is currently practicing locally. You’ve probably seen footage of MacDonald in college but just didn’t know it: he throws the final block in front of Doug Flutie on his famous Hail Mary pass to beat the University of Miami.
If you’re ever playing bar trivia and the question is, “Who started at right tackle for the Vikings before Ron Yary took over?” you can confidently identify Doug Davis (1966) as the correct answer. Davis played in 79 games for the Vikings, making 41 starts in his seven-year career.
Minnesota’s best use of a fifth-round pick on an offensive lineman came in 1993, when the Vikings tabbed Everett Lindsay out of Mississippi. Lindsay made 12 starts at left tackle as a rookie, then six more over 48 games across four seasons in Minnesota. Lindsay then started for the Ravens in 1999 and Browns in 2000 before returning to the Vikings for three more years. All told Lindsay played 136 NFL games, 104 as a Viking, with 31 of his 63 pro starts coming with Minnesota.
The sixth round has been a quantity round for the Vikings when it comes to the offensive line; Minnesota has spent 11 sixth-round selections on offensive linemen, more than any other round.
Quality is another matter entirely.
Oli Udoh (2019), by virtue of his one game played for the Vikings as a rookie, already sits firmly in the middle of the 11 picks when it comes to appearances in purple.
Four Vikings sixth-rounders didn’t play a single NFL game. Wilbur Aylor (1968) was drafted 83rd overall by the Vikings and 86th overall by the AFL’s Houston Oilers, but played for neither. Demarcus Love (2011) spent time on the Vikings’ IR before bouncing around amongst the Giants, Saints, Broncos and Falcons without cracking a regular-season roster.
Tyrus Thompson (2015) has a place in Vikings history: his draft spot (185th overall) was a throw-in from the Falcons in a deal that sent Minnesota’s fifth-round pick (137th overall) to Atlanta. Oh, and the Vikings also got the 146th pick in that draft, a fifth-rounder they turned into Stefon Diggs. Thompson passed through the Vikings, Jaguars, Lions, Saints, Panthers and Seahawks organizations, mostly on practice squads, before ending his career on Seattle’s IR.
Jeff Mickel (1989) played one game with the Rams in 1990.
Colby Gossett (2018) started his rookie season on the Vikings’ practice squad before being snapped up by the Cardinals. He made four starts over five games in Arizona, passed through the Patriots’ practice squad, joined the Browns’ practice squad, and currently sits on Cleveland’s roster.
Jeff Baca (2013) played in four games as a Vikings reserve, then bounced across three organizations (Bengals, Cowboys, Chargers) the following season.
The sixth round hasn’t been a complete disaster for Vikings’ linemen. Larry Bowie (1962) played in 92 games over seven seasons, making 69 starts at right guard. Brandon Fusco (2011) was the better of two offensive linemen taken by the Vikings in that year’s sixth round, making 64 starts over six seasons in Minnesota before closing his career with seasons in San Francisco and Atlanta.
But for all the misses, when the Vikings hit on sixth-round O-linemen they hit it out of the park. Matt Birk (1998) was a local-boy-makes-good story coming out of Cretin-Derham Hall and Harvard who ended up playing 10 seasons for the Vikings, making 123 starts and six Pro Bowl appearances. Birk went to Baltimore as a free agent in 2009, winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011 and a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012.
When Birk departed via free agency the Vikings turned to John Sullivan (2008), who sat behind Birk as a rookie before starting all but three games over the next six seasons. A back injury cost Sullivan the 2015 season, but he returned with Washington in 2016, then made 31 starts over two seasons with the Rams in 2017 and 2018.
If you’re scoring at home, that means in consecutive sixth-round center selections a decade apart the Vikings produced 363 games played and 312 NFL starts.
If the sixth round has been Minnesota’s low-average long-ball round, the seventh has been the equivalent of an American League pitcher batting in a National League park. Of the nine offensive linemen the Vikings have tabbed in the seventh round, four played in the NFL for a total of 42 games. Two did so for other clubs: Chad Beasley (2002) with the Browns in 2003 and Travis Bond (2013) for the Panthers during his rookie campaign. Bond also spent time on the Rams roster in 2014 without seeing the field.
Austin Shepherd (2015) played in 14 games as a Vikings rookie, his only NFL season. That leaves Lewis Kelly (2000) as the Vikings’ O-line crown jewel of the seventh round. Kelly was one of two seventh-round selections spent on offensive linemen in 2000, but he outshone Mike Malano by playing in 17 games and making five starts at left tackle over three seasons with the Vikings. Kelly played one more NFL game after leaving Minnesota, with the Giants in 2005.
ROUND 8 AND BEYOND
The NFL Draft peaked at 30 rounds during its history and was 20 rounds deep when the Vikings joined the NFL in 1961. It’s been at its current format of seven rounds since 1994, and in the 33 years of Vikings history prior to that Minnesota selected 40 offensive linemen. The vast majority are names you’ve never heard of, unless you took Bo Mitchell’s advice and used Godfrey Zaunbrecher (Round 11, 1970) in a game of Vikings Scrabble. But there were a few fun tidbits to come out of those selections:
- Three Gophers, two of them native Minnesotans: Delano’s Tom Fink (Round 9, 1969), Jeff Morrow (Round 12, 1978), and Bloomington’s Milt Sunde (Round 20, 1964). Sunde’s 147 games and 113 starts are the best totals posted by any Viking taken in the now-defunct rounds of the draft.
- Tennessee-Chattanooga is one of three other schools to have multiple linemen selected by the Vikings in Round 8 or later, yielding Dan Sheehan (1961) and Curtis “Boo Boo” Rouse (1982), who made 29 starts over five seasons and 58 games with the Vikings.
- The two remaining schools with multiple linemen tabbed by Minnesota in Round 8 and beyond are Boston College (Bill Stephanos, Round 11, 1981 and Dave O’Brien, Round 13, 1963) and Division III powerhouse St. John’s (Fred Cremer, Round 12, 1967 and Tom McIntyre, Round 18, 1963). Should the Vikings happen to draft current Johnnie standout Ben Bartch, St. John’s would move into a tie for second place among schools the Vikings have tapped for offensive line help; only the Gophers (five) have had more.
- The Vikings drafted Nebraska offensive tackle Monte Kiffin in Round 15 of 1964. While he didn’t play for Minnesota, he returned in 1986 as the team’s linebackers coach and in 1991 served as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator.
- The only other deep-dive Vikings selections to see more than 20 starts or 50 games were Brian Habib (Round 10, 1988), who played 64 games (23 starts) over four seasons in purple as part of an 11-year career; and Charles Goodrum (Round 9, 1972), who started 72 of 95 games at left guard and left tackle during his seven-year NFL career, all with the Vikings.
The Vikings’ current roster all but demands they add to this group during the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether fans will speak of them in reverent terms or relegate them to historical footnotes, we won’t know for at least a few seasons. On to the draft, where the speculation can begin in earnest!