Over the past few seasons, the only consistency associated with the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has been a consistent need for upgrades. But with Gary Kubiak and his long-time offensive line wingman Rick Dennison helming a unit that returns four of five starters and six backups who have all spent at least a season in purple, there’s reason to believe a corner is being turned up front.
Note: For the purposes of this data, “returning starters” refers to players who started Week 1 or played at least 50 percent of a team’s offensive snaps the previous season.
To kick things off, I turned to the Internet’s preeminent voice on offensive line continuity, Thomas Emerick. For the past few years, Emerick has been at the forefront of OL continuity research, providing analysis via his Twitter feed and outlets such as Rotoviz and Football Guys.
And as you might expect, Emerick’s data suggests that bringing back the bulk of a team’s offensive line from year to year yields positive results.
“Some of the most consistently good offenses have really emphasized and delivered high continuity in the trenches,” Emerick said. “The results really stand out at the ends of the spectrum.”
Continuity hits particularly hard on rushing statistics. Since 2012, the average number of offensive linemen returning in front of the top-five individual rushers each season is 3.6, and the average number returning in front of the top 10 is 3.5.
Those numbers work the other way as well. Over those same seven seasons, the five run-blocking units receiving the lowest grades from Pro Football Focus returned an average of 2.9 offensive linemen, and the bottom 10 returned an average of 3.1.
But it’s not just the running game that benefits from O-line continuity. Consider that since 2016, seven NFL teams have returned on average four or more starters each season. The seven teams include three (Saints, Patriots and Chiefs) ranking in the top five in total offense over that span and three more (Cowboys, Steelers and Eagles) ranking in the top 10 in that category.
On the flip side of that coin, eight teams have returned on average three or fewer OL starters from year to year. This quarter of the league includes three of the four worst teams in total offense (Jets, Cardinals and Bengals), and only one of the eight ranks in the top half of the league in total offense over that span — the Chargers.
Vikings Historical Continuity… or Lack Thereof
Continuity has not been a strong suit for the Vikings’ offensive line. In fact, with an average of 2.8 returning starters over the last four seasons, Minnesota falls into the bottom fourth of the league — into the group referenced above that, with the exception of the Chargers, falls entirely into the bottom half of the league in total offense over that span.
Just three teams — the Chargers, Broncos and Bengals — have averaged more turnover across the offensive front over the past four seasons than the Vikings.
Going beyond the surface, the Vikings have had 20 offensive linemen start multiple games for them over the past four seasons. Only three other teams — the Cardinals (23), Dolphins (22) and Texans (20) — have had as many different O-line starters.
None of those teams are known for stellar line play.
Contrast that with the Vikings’ division rivals: the Lions have had 15 starting offensive linemen over the past four seasons, while the Packers and Bears have had 13 each.
It’s been six years since the Vikings didn’t enter a season replacing multiple starters on the offensive line. In 2013 and 2014, Minnesota brought back all five starters in consecutive seasons: Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt at the tackles, Charles Johnson and Brandon Fusco at the guards and John Sullivan at center.
The 391 points the Vikings scored in 2013 also happens to be more than they had scored in any subsequent season until they racked up 407 last year.
When current Vikings offensive coordinator Kubiak and O-line coach Dennison were teamed up as head coach and OC in Houston, line continuity was the order of the day. Using 2010 — the first season Dennison worked under Kubiak in Houston — as the baseline, the Texans returned an average of four offensive line starters each of the next three seasons.
In 2012, the only season Houston projected to replace multiple starters along the offensive line, one of the spots was filled by Antoine Caldwell, who had started 10 games for the team over the previous two seasons.
Over the three-plus seasons Kubiak and Dennison teamed up in Houston, this continuity led to two division titles and three seasons ranking in the top 10 in scoring.
Turning Over a New Continuity Leaf in 2020
So knowing that continuity along the offensive line tends to be a good thing, and seeing that said continuity has been lacking from recent Vikings rosters, and noting that Kubiak and Dennison have a history of O-line consistency, where do the Vikings go in 2020?
Flying in the face of all those trends, the offseason surprisingly opened with a step in the opposite direction. In a move Nik Edlund tabbed as the Vikings’ worst of the offseason, the team kicked Josh Kline, a 13-game starter at right guard in 2019, to the curb. Seeing as the move created not only a void at guard but also created almost four times more dead money than cap space saved, it was a curious decision, to say the least.
However, Kline represents the only offensive lineman from last year not returning this season. In addition to the four incumbent starters — Garrett Bradbury, Brian O’Neill, Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein — the Vikings return three reserves who started games for them last season: Dakota Dozier, who started four games, and tackles Rashod Hill and Aviante Collins, who started the Vikings’ meaningless Week 17 tilt as the team rested Reiff and O’Neill.
Minnesota also returns second-year players Dru Samia and Oli Udoh, with Samia tentatively slotted into Kline’s vacant guard spot. Brent Jones, who started three games in 2018 but missed last season with an injury, also returns to the roster.
That’s 10 offensive linemen with experience in the Vikings’ system — eight of them with starts under their belts.
The Vikings are one of 20 teams replacing one lineman or less heading into the 2020 season. But for the first time in six years, Minnesota isn’t scrambling to fill multiple holes up front, which bodes well for the offense. And if the trend set by the last four years of Super Bowl entrants is to believed, returning four starters along the offensive line puts the Vikings on the right track towards Tampa.