Vikings

Has Riley Reiff Lived Up to His Contract With the Minnesota Vikings?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

Since Riley Reiff signed a five-year contract to became a Viking in March of 2017 he’s watched the team draft a lineman in the first three rounds of the draft each season, two of them tackles that were thought to be potential replacement candidates. Yet entering Year 4 of his Vikings tenure, Reiff retains his post at left tackle.

The 31-year-old vet is coming off arguably his best season as a Viking, and for the second offseason in a row has stiff-armed the notion that he needed to be moved to guard to remain serviceable. Perhaps thought to be a liability at times in 2018, Reiff was healthier and more effective in 2019 and hasn’t dealt with the same level of scrutiny. Because of Reiff’s escalating cap number ($13.2 million this year), the Vikings could have cut ties to save nearly $9 million when they were squeezed for cash but opted to hang on to Reiff and retain offensive continuity. Now he’s the elder statesmen on a line otherwise characterized by its youth.

“Obviously, being the oldest guy … I’m an open book,” Reiff said a recent Zoom call with reporters. “If anybody has a question to me, I welcome it, actually. I don’t have everything figured out, either. There’s a lot of stuff that still even going into Year 9 where I’m asking questions. These young guys, I hope they reach out to me and ask me about this or that.”

It looks as if Reiff will play out the penultimate year of his contract and have a chance at playing out the string in 2021, depending on the progress of second-round pick Ezra Cleveland. So has Reiff lived up to his five-year, $58.75 million deal? Let’s explore it.

HIS PERFORMANCE

Reiff’s play in Minnesota hasn’t always meshed with the eye test. For example, the Vikings enjoyed great success in 2017 as Case Keenum routinely wriggled away from pressure and led the Vikings to a 13-3 record and division championship. But that was the season where Reiff struggled the most analytically speaking. Out of tackles with 20% or more of snaps, Reiff ranked 49th out of 92 tackles, per Pro Football Focus, and he was 71st in pressures allowed. Considering Reiff was being paid the eighth-highest tackle salary in football, his play was subpar for that level of expectation. Of the top 12 tackles with the highest salaries in 2017, Reiff only outgraded one: former Viking Matt Kalil.

Year 2 for Reiff looked worse with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, who was more susceptible to pressure than Keenum. Reiff’s rank in pressures dropped to 76th out of 85, and his Week 3 performance against Jerry Hughes was tough to forget as Reiff allowed an astounding 12 pressures in a Vikings loss to Buffalo. But overall Reiff saw improvement, particularly in his run-blocking where he rose to 27th in the league from 55th the year prior. That earned him a leaguewide rank of 25th out of 85 qualified tackles, placing him in the upper third.

While 2018 contained subtle improvements, Reiff was observably better in 2019. His pass protection was the best it had been as a Viking, though Minnesota’s interior protectors struggled with porous blocking of their own. Reiff’s pass-blocking jumped to 33rd out of 89 and his run-blocking came in at 28th, placing him 29th in aggregate among tackles. Notably, his pressure rate took a huge step forward. In 2018, he allowed a pressure every 13 snaps. Last year, just one every 19 snaps. For reference, Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari — considered the No. 2 pass blocker by Pro Football Focus — allowed a pressure every 19.5 snaps.

Reiff’s steady improvement over the past three years is likely the reason he’s still being counted upon in 2020.

HIS CONTRACT

The longer Reiff plays — and plays well — the better his contract looks.

As mentioned, Reiff was paid like a top 10 tackle in 2017 and barely played like a top 50 tackle. But as the salary cap inflated and new deals were doled out, Reiff’s deal became more and more pedestrian. Last year his average annual value was merely the 16th highest in the NFL, and he graded higher than eight of the 15 players making more than him. This year he sits 18th. It’s likely that if Reiff had negotiated his 2017 contract this past March, he’d have been worth around $15 million per year.

Tackles that hit free agency usually get overpaid, even if teams are risking regression at the end of their contracts. Nate Solder got paid $15.5 million per year to go to the New York Giants and has seemingly begun to decline. Russell Okung signed for $13.25 million per year in Los Angeles, began struggling, encountered health issues and was traded to Carolina. The fact that Reiff seems to be improving as he approaches age 32 is a perk the Vikings might not have expected. The team had the flexibility to cut him prior to the 2019 season with $6.7 million dead but didn’t have a quality alternative. Now it seems they are willing to move the rookie Cleveland to guard before usurping Reiff at left tackle.

Bottom line: The passage of time has made Reiff’s salary more and more reasonable.

OTHER FACTORS
  • Reiff has played through pain before, though not always effectively. But he’s managed to start 43 of a possible 48 regular season games, as well as four playoff games in his time with the Vikings.
  • The Vikings have had four offensive coordinators in Reiff’s tenure, but he played his best in the current system that Gary Kubiak will carry forward.
  • Minnesota has trotted out myriad left guards to play next to Reiff, from Nick Easton to Mike Remmers to Tom Compton to Pat Elflein. Presumably he’ll have continuity this year with Elflein if he earns the job back.
  • Reiff has never had an off-field incident.
THE VERDICT

Would you like to have a star at left tackle? Absolutely. Is Reiff a star? No. But he’s also been a top 30 tackle back-to-back years. That’s not inconsequential. He’s also been fairly healthy, which is more than the Vikings can say about other tackles in the Zimmer era like Kalil, Phil Loadholt, Andre Smith and Jake Long.

Of 61 tackles last season that played 50% or more of snaps, Reiff was in the top quarter in fewest pressures allowed, and he did so at a reasonable cost. Of starting left tackles that weren’t on rookie salaries last year, Reiff made around the median. With right tackle Brian O’Neill still on his rookie contract (probably for just one more year) along with most of the rest of the unit, the Vikings have stayed well under budget in offensive line spending, currently scheduled to spend the fifth-least at the position in 2020. Reiff’s salary has not been prohibitive.

While it’s reasonable to say Reiff’s start with the Vikings was rocky, his improvement has justified an eight-figure deal. And if he plays in 2020 like he did in 2019, it will only increase the value.

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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

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