When is the last offseason where improvements to the offensive line weren’t high on the Minnesota Vikings’ wish list?
Maybe 2013, with the Vikings coming off a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance while returning the same starting five up front. That unit included Phil Loadholt, John Sullivan and Matt Kalil—all playing at a pre-injury, pre-decline level.
Every season since, the offseason outcry has been to upgrade the offensive line — and to the credit of the front office, the Vikings have gamely attempted to comply. With little cap space available to pursue big-ticket free agent help, upgrades to the 2020 version of the Vikings’ offensive line will have to come from the NFL Draft.
The Vikings have several positions battling for first-round attention, among them cornerback, wide receiver and the defensive and offensive lines. Corner and wideout are areas Minnesota has traditionally spent first-round draft capital on. Four of the 14 first-round selections during the Rick Spielman era — overseeing five drafts as vice president of player personnel and eight as general manager — have been spent on cornerbacks, including two of the last four. With three Day 1 picks the Vikings have tabbed receivers, most recently Laquon Treadwell in 2016.
So seven first-round picks have been spent on either cornerbacks or wideouts, exactly half of Spielman’s Day 1 selections. The only other positions Spielman has spent multiple first-rounders on during his tenure are quarterback (two) and the offensive line — including Garrett Bradbury last year.
Given the depth of this class of wide receivers, and the Vikings’ ability to find receiver help in the latter rounds coupled with their inability to hit on their last two first-round wide receivers — Treadwell in 2016 and Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013 — it’s reasonable to expect the Vikings to wait until the second or third day of the draft to address their pass-catcher need. Similarly, Minnesota’s track record of finding and developing defensive line help in later rounds — 2015 third-rounder Danielle Hunter being the latest example — suggests it’ll wait on that position as well.
That leaves the Vikings with needs at cornerback and offensive line to address, and a pair of first-round selections to do so. You know Mike Zimmer pounds the table for defensive backs, so bank on at least one of Minnesota’s two Day 1 picks adding a corner to the Vikings’ secondary.
And perhaps Rick Dennison’s voice will be heard with regards to the other first-round selection. The Vikings’ O-line coach has had a seat at the grown-ups table for 17 drafts, as an offensive line coach or offensive coordinator with the Broncos, Texans, Bills, Jets and Vikings, and Minnesota’s selection of Bradbury last year was just the third time his club used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman —and the first on an interior lineman.
The 2020 NFL Draft features a strong group of offensive tackles, deep enough that in various mock draft simulations I ran elite studs Andrew Thomas and Tristan Wirfs each fell into the Vikings’ overjoyed laps one time. Odds are, however, that both — along with Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton — will be off the board before the Vikings go on the clock at 22. But that doesn’t mean Minnesota will be forced to punt at the position. If the Vikings’ plan is to move Riley Reiff inside to guard — or get out of the remainder of his contract — they could still find an appropriate bookend to pair with Brian O’Neill with either of their first-round picks.
While the top-four tackles will likely be gone before Minnesota makes its first selection, Jones is hardly a consolation prize. A four-year starter at left tackle for Houston, Jones has plenty of size — with the frame to add weight — and the athleticism Minnesota’s scheme requires from its linemen. While Jones did take some Senior Bowl reps at other positions, his experience at left tackle would allow O’Neill to remain on the right side. Jones’ scouting profile resembles that of O’Neill coming out of Pittsburgh two years ago: athletic, with the ability to pull and make blocks on the second level, but technique needs work and strength is a question — both addressable via coaching and the weight room.
If the Vikings have a type, and that type is an O’Neill-like athletic tackle, then Jackson could be on Minnesota’s first-round radar. Many of the positive traits listed above for Jones — athleticism, a frame to build on, ability to pull and make blocks downfield — can also be applied to USC’s two-year starter at left tackle. And much like Jones, Jackson’s scouting report includes dings such as “technique needs work” and “ needs to get stronger.”
Jackson has drawn comparisons to Arizona’s D.J. Humphries, who essentially red-shirted his first NFL season after the Cardinals selected him in the first round in 2015 but has started all 43 games since — beginning on the right side and flipping to left tackle late in the 2016 season.
A similar plan would be difficult to implement if the Vikings believe their Super Bowl window is now.
Interior Offensive Line
The bigger immediate need along the Vikings’ offensive front is on the interior, with Josh Kline being released and Pat Elflein currently on the Kalil career path of peaking as a rookie and progressing downward. While this draft lacks a Quenton Nelson-esque interior stud, there are some fringe options who could get a need-based boost into the bottom end of the first round.
Minnesota’s interior was frequently overpowered; selecting Simpson would go a long way towards preventing that from being an ongoing issue. A 321-pound mauler, the Clemson second-team All-American isn’t the athlete you might expect a zone-blocking team to employ at guard but he has demonstrated the ability to reach linebackers at the second level and get out in front of screen passes.
Simpson’s strengths as a run blocker fit the Vikings’ current game plan, and the Vikings have a fondness for ex-wrestlers. Simpson is a former South Carolina state champion.
But Minnesota will have to be convinced his pass protection can improve to overdraft him on Day 1.
The Vikings’ selection of Bradbury last season, just two years after taking Elflein, suggests another potential route: drafting a player with center experience and moving him to guard. The two top-rated interior offensive linemen, Cushenberry and Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, both played more center than guard in college but could see a position shift at the NFL level. Ruiz resembles current Vikings Bradbury and Elflein, which is both good — plenty of athleticism and versatility — and bad — the same old struggles against bigger defensive tackles.
Cushenberry isn’t as mobile but does pack a few more pounds and was effective as an anchor in the middle of LSU’s national championship offensive line.
The release of Kline suggests Dru Samia, last year’s fourth-round pick, is slated for one starting guard spot; if Cushenberry is the pick, he would likely play center with Bradbury kicking to guard and Elflein offering depth. That’s a lot of moving parts in front of Cousins, but it’s also a healthy collection of talented parts the Vikings’ coaching staff can shuffle to provide the most effective unit.
The first domino to fall in this sequence is what Minnesota plans to do with Reiff and his remaining contract. If the Vikings intend to get out from under his deal or move him inside to guard, dipping into this talented tackle class on Day 1 seems like a solid bet. Odds are the plans for that particular domino have already been staked out inside of Vikings’ headquarters, with the results revealed at some point on April 23.