Over the next couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom will dig into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
The Minnesota Vikings’ pursuit of improved offensive line play has been noticeable over the past three seasons. The organization has made an effort to find starting-caliber linemen earlier in the draft while supplementing the group with veterans on multi-year deals. Yet despite vast improvement from the 2016 group whose demise was one of the chief reasons for that season’s downturn, the Vikings enter a pivotal offseason once again pondering how to improve their protection — this time on a limited budget.
Let’s examine some of the key questions.
IS RILEY REIFF WORTH RETAINING?
Set to go into the fourth year of his five-year, $58.75 million contract, left tackle Riley Reiff represents another big salary for the Vikings to consider as they reevaluate their cap situation. Reiff’s contract was front-loaded with guarantees but back-loaded with an escalating base salary, making this his most expensive season yet at a $13.2 million cap hit. With $4.4 million of that dead, the Vikings could save $8.8 million by parting ways with the 31-year-old tackle. But there are other factors to consider with Reiff.
For one, he had one of his most effective seasons as a Viking. Reiff’s overall blocking grades ended similarly to his 2018 campaign — which might be better than people choose to remember — but his pressure rate dropped considerably in 2019, going from a pressure allowed every 13 snaps to every 19, per Pro Football Focus. His 25 pressures allowed on the season were his lowest in seven seasons of being a full-time player.
Then there’s the enduring question of who would replace Reiff if he was gone. Swingman Rashod Hill is an unrestricted free agent. Aviante Collins has been injury-prone with no clear position. Oli Udoh is an unproven enigma out of Elon. The former might depart, while the latter two only have a smattering of meaningful snaps. Finding a fill-in left tackle when dealing with a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who requires above-average protection to flourish seems like a risky maneuver.
Going out and spending free agency money on a new left tackle wouldn’t make much sense, not when they have an existing left tackle who grades in the top half of the league’s starters and possesses scheme knowledge. The only reason to cut Reiff would be to free up funds if the Vikings believe they need to replenish their defense, but they’d be doing so at the expense of a $31 million quarterback. It would be wise to invest in Cousins’ supporting cast if they believe the quarterback will be with the team beyond 2020.
An alternative could be to cut Reiff and attempt to sign 38-year-old Andrew Whitworth — one of the league’s best pass-blockers — to a one-year deal while grooming a draft pick at his replacement. That scenario wouldn’t save any money, as Whitworth would still command a high price, but it could give the Vikings an upgrade in pass protection without making a long-term commitment, and Whitworth should already possess some knowledge of the wide zone scheme from his time with the Rams. But on the flip side, Whitworth could be on the verge of decline at age 38. Do the Vikings want to get that much older at left tackle without saving any money? Seems unlikely.
WHERE CAN THE VIKINGS UPGRADE?
As we’ve laid out above, it would be hard to upgrade at left tackle internally without seeing a drop in play, or externally without locking yourself into another expensive deal. The safest bet is to stick with Reiff and stomach the cap hit, provided the Vikings clear cash elsewhere. Their other tackle, Brian O’Neill, was one of the stoutest blockers in the league last season and is likely one year away from a massive raise.
The center position is probably set for at least one more year. Just as the Vikings gave Pat Elflein two years at center before changing his position, first-round pick Garrett Bradbury will likely be afforded the same timeline or longer. Bradbury, the league’s lowest-graded pass-blocking center, folded too frequently against strong defensive lines and will need to gain some weight and strength in his first full offseason. Elflein, remember, didn’t get that chance in 2018 after undergoing a pair of offseason surgeries. The hope is that Bradbury can have a more successful second year than the previous young center.
Josh Kline was adequate at right guard in his first year with the Vikings and ranked in the top third of qualified guards in pressures allowed. His nearly $4.5 million in dead money also seemingly locks him into a spot on next year’s roster, since releasing him would save a mere $1.6 million.
Elflein is the starter most firmly on the hot seat. The third-year blocker was useful in the run game but struggled mightily as a pass blocker in his switch from center to left guard, clocking in 56th of 63 qualified guards, per PFF. He allowed the ninth-most pressures in the league and tied for the third-most penalties. While the former third-round pick has a personality beloved by his offensive linemates, the Vikings may have enough information to make a switch. Internally, 2019 fourth-round pick Dru Samia could have a chance to step in and fill that spot if he shows progress from Year 1, and of course, the draft is always an option to find talent.
But this is also a big free agency year at guard. Three of the top 10 PFF-graded guards are available on the market: Brandon Scherff (Washington), Joe Thuney (New England) and Graham Glasgow (Detroit). All three will likely be seeking large, long-term deals, which makes the cap-strapped Vikings an unlikely home. But if the Vikings can clear $20-30 million with some alterations on defense, they may view the left guard spot as a worthwhile place to splash.
WHAT WILL THEIR DEPTH LOOK LIKE IN 2020?
The Vikings have Udoh, Samia and Collins under contract, but with Brett Jones, Dakota Dozier and Rashod Hill hitting free agency, the Vikings will need to restock the cupboard with some veterans who can make spot starts in a pinch if their youth isn’t fully developed. Minnesota has frequently been forced to dip into its offensive line reserve, considering Jones started two games in 2018, Dozier started four games last year, and Hill started 16 games over the last three years.
If the Vikings sign or draft another starting guard, that could make Elflein their swing interior lineman and provide the team with security in that role. Finding someone as reliable as Hill at swing tackle, however, will be the challenge. If Hill can’t be retained, the Vikings will be on the hunt for a veteran that could vie with Udoh in training camp. Patrick Omameh, Marshall Newhouse or Dennis Kelly could fit the bill.