Free Agency vs. the Draft: Assessing the Minnesota Vikings' Approach to Improving Their Offensive Line

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

“Fix the offensive line!”

That’s been the offseason rallying cry in Minnesota for much of the Rick Spielman/Mike Zimmer era.

But only in the past five years have the Vikings devoted significant resources to address the situation. First there was the short-term plan of throwing free agency money at the line; more recently the Vikings have invested extensive draft capital in their front line.

Inspired by Bo Mitchell’s recent article on how the Vikings are handling their roster to avoid another “wide left” debacle, I dug into how those divergent offensive line strategies have worked for the Vikings as well as what other teams around the league are doing — and what results Minnesota’s current plan might yield.

Spending in Free Agency
Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

In 2016 the Vikings’ offensive line began to crumble due largely to injuries. Phil Loadholt never made it back from his Achilles’ tendon issues, and John Sullivan’s back problems had the team believing his NFL career was over.

With little in the way of depth to step in and replace the front-line starters, the Vikings opened the vault. First up was a four-year, $26.8 million contract for guard Alex Boone, followed by a one-year, $3.5 million deal for tackle Andre Smith.

Minnesota returned to the money pit in 2017, backing up the Brinks truck to the tune of a five-year, $58.75 million contract for former Lions first-rounder Riley Reiff. The Vikings then spent $30 million on a bookend tackle, bringing back Mike Remmers on a five-year deal. The Vikings had claimed Remmers off waivers three years earlier, releasing and re-signing him twice before letting him depart for St. Louis just prior to the 2014 season.

The Boone signing didn’t pan out as hoped, and Smith couldn’t shake the injury bug, so he offered little relief as well. Remmers battled injuries his first season back in Minnesota, then was pushed inside to guard in 2018 with mixed results and released the following March. The combo platter of moving to a less-valued position and him subsequently not working out at that position made Remmers’ deal look worse than it was.

But the Reiff investment remains solid, especially when you consider the deal’s annual average salary of $11.75 million ranks right in the middle of the pack for the league, currently 14th overall among left tackles. There is talk Reiff could be asked to follow the Remmers plan and move inside to guard, where that rate would make him the third-highest paid left guard were he to change positions with rookie Ezra Cleveland taking over at tackle.

Since that near-$90 million splurge in 2017 the Vikings have largely avoided spending big money on offensive line free agents, with Josh Kline’s three-year, $15.75 million contract last year the only such signing of note. After a quality campaign in 2019, Kline was surprisingly released earlier this offseason, though the door on his return has not been shut entirely.

Even with Reiff’s contract still on the books the Vikings ranked 28th in money spent on the offensive line for the 2019 season, with just over $24.1 million committed to centers, guards and tackles.

Based on 2019 results, spending up on the line was the way to go. The top four teams in share of salary cap devoted to the offensive line — Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and New Orleans — averaged 10.25 wins; that’s a win-and-a-half better than any other four-team range.

However, that second-best rate (8.75) belonged to teams ranking 25th-28th in O-line expenditures—a group that included the N.Y. Giants, Denver, Baltimore and Minnesota. And the next four teams above them in spending (Kansas City, Indianapolis, Detroit, Houston) ranked third, averaging 8.0 wins last year.

Interesting to note that six of the bottom eight teams in O-line expenditure last year increased the share of their budget devoted to the big fellas enough to move up in the rankings. The only two who didn’t were the Ravens, who dropped from 27th to 32nd, and the Vikings, who slid from 28th to 29th.

Baltimore’s dip can be traced to the retirement of Marshal Yanda, who garnered a $9.125 million cap hit last year. The Vikings’ decline is due more towards banking on players who have yet to reach a second contract: Based on the projected starting five, Reiff is the only cap hit north of $3 million and the only player with more than two years of NFL service.

Which takes us to…

Investing in Draft Capital
Photo Credit: Bo Mitchell

This millennium the Vikings have used a total of three first-round picks on offensive linemen. When they took Matt Kalil fourth overall in 2012 it was the first time they’d chosen an offensive linemen in the first round since Bryant McKinnie in 2002.

But beyond that, the Vikings hadn’t been using Day 2 picks on offensive linemen, either. From 2000 through 2016 Minnesota used just three second-round selections on the offensive line; worse, they missed badly — Marcus Johnson in 2005, Ryan Cook in 2006 — on two of the three.

Early on the Vikings took a quantity approach toward Day 3, using a fourth-round pick and four seventh-rounders on offensive linemen from 2000 through 2002. Even the most ardent of Vikings fan would be hard-pressed to recognize Malano, Kelly, Crawford, Ta’amu or Beasley as names from the team’s all-time roster.

From 2003 through 2007 the Vikings didn’t even bother with quantity, using just one pick later than Round 2 on an offensive lineman — and again, with all due respect to Nat Dorsey, missing the mark.

Minnesota nailed sixth-rounder John Sullivan in 2008 and sixth-rounder Brandon Fusco in 2011, sporting a hefty .500 batting average on Day 3 picks from 2008 through 2012.

Since then, however, the Vikings have essentially gone oh-fer on Day 3 linemen: Baca, Bond, Yankey, Thompson, Shepherd, Beavers, Isadora, Gossett… oof.

The Vikings are banking on last year’s Day 3 picks, Dru Samia and Oli Udoh, to bust that slump, and it’s far too early to write off this year’s Day 3 selections, Blake Brandel and Kyle Hinton. But when T.J. Clemmings is your one shining moment to date it’s obviously far from a favorable situation.

So over a 17-year span, the only offensive line help the Vikings mustered through the first three rounds of the draft were McKinnie, Kalil, and Phil Loadholt. That trio was complemented by just a pair of Day 3 hits, the most recent in 2011. No wonder the O-line cupboard was bare.

Spielman and the Vikings’ brain trust enacted a philosophical shift in 2017. The selection of Pat Elflein in the third round of that draft marked just the third offensive linemen taken by the Vikings in the first three rounds in 11 years, and it opened the floodgates.

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In adding Brian O’Neill (Round 2, 2018), Garrett Bradbury (Rd. 1, 2019), and Cleveland (Rd. 2, 2020) the Vikings have now taken at least one offensive lineman in the third round or earlier in four straight drafts. That’s a feat they haven’t matched in almost four decades, when they picked second-rounders Dave Huffman (1979) and Terry Tausch (1982) and third-rounders Brent Boyd (1980) and Tim Irwin (1981).

The Vikings are also stocking with quantity. They’ve selected multiple offensive linemen in four straight drafts and seven of the last 10; contrast that with the previous 20 years, in which they selected multiple offensive linemen in the same draft just four times.

More quantity: Minnesota has used three picks on offensive linemen each of the past two drafts; prior to that they had gone three deep on the O-line just twice since the draft was shaved from 12 rounds to seven in 1989.

With this commitment to building from within, the Vikings are projected to start four home-grown offensive linemen this season. Only the Saints, with all five O-line starters drafted by the team, would have more.

League-wide this proved to be a successful strategy last season. Four of the nine teams projected to start four or more linemen they drafted were playoff teams in 2019, with the Eagles and Patriots joining New Orleans and Minnesota. Three more — the Colts, Falcons and Buccaneers — won seven games, and the Jaguars won six. Only the Lions (three wins) failed to turn this strategy into a competitive lineup.

For the Vikings it’s an investment in the offensive line a long time coming — with the built-in bonus of less-expensive rookie contracts, leaving cap space to address other needs while the line gels. It’s an opportunity to build from within, and to do so on rookie contracts while $81 million is tied up in Kirk Cousins and another large sum likely slated for Dalvin Cook in the very near future.

And the quantity approach not only fosters competition, it yields low-cost backups who are familiar with the system.

Eventually, of course, you have to pay the piper. Look no further than the Colts, whose financial commitment to offensive linemen jumped more than $20 million from last year to this year as their three first-round picks climb the pay scale.

But it’s a more-than-acceptable alternative to throwing late-round darts and desperately needing them to hit, or chasing veteran linemen at the expense of cap space. If Cleveland lives up to billing and the Vikings can find two guards from amongst multiple in-house options, the line will be not only a strength but a young and low-cost one at that — allowing Minnesota to prop that Super Bowl window open that much longer.

At least that’s the plan.

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