One Move in 2016 Could Have Saved the Offensive Line

The Minnesota Vikings needed to address their offensive line heading into this offseason. Their guards had become turnstiles and their left tackle hit the open market, so Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer are entering a draft where they must beef up this unit.

The Vikings have limited means to address the issue because they decided to spend all their money on defense. While there are several linemen in this year’s class, the Vikings probably will have to get aggressive just to field an average unit.

However, there’s a scenario where the Vikings didn’t put themselves in this situation. They could have had a strong offensive line that could protect Kirk Cousins and clear paths for Dalvin Cook. But that process would have started following the 2016 season.

There were several reasons why the Vikings’ 5-0 start disintegrated into an 8-8 record that season, but the offensive line was a big part of the problem.

Matt Kalil was lost for the season with a hip injury, pushing T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles into starting roles. Free-agent acquisition Alex Boone wasn’t the answer to “Can he play guard?” and Brandon Fusco was barely a starting-caliber player at right guard. The only player who produced a decent performance was Joe Berger. The line was in a full-blown crisis.

The Vikings spent nearly $90 million to add Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers but there was one more move they should have made.

J.C. Tretter was hitting the free-agent market after spending the first three seasons of his career with the Green Bay Packers. Tretter was a serviceable backup but was especially good at pass blocking. The Cornell product’s pass-blocking grade would have ranked seventh in 2015 had he qualified and 12th in 2016.

This made him a target on the free-agent market, but not one that would have broken the bank. The three-year, $16.75 million deal he got from the Cleveland Browns proved to be a bargain. Tretter posted an overall grade above 70 in three of his four seasons in Cleveland; the one season he didn’t (2017), he had a grade of 69.1.

Even as his initial deal expired, the three-year, $32.5 million extension he signed after 2019 would have been a modest price to pay to add a player who ranked third in PFF’s pass-blocking grades last season.

With Tretter in the fold, the Vikings still could have signed Reiff and Remmers while moving Joe Berger to guard. They still could have added Pat Elflein in the third round of the 2017 draft and continued to put together their line the following year by selecting Brian O’Neill in the second round of the 2018 draft.

O’Neill was a great pick by the Vikings, but they shouldn’t have been done. Waiting in the fifth round of that class was Wyatt Teller.

Hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to Teller’s career. In his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills, Teller’s overall grade of 60.3 ranked 51st among qualifying guards. After being traded to Cleveland, the Browns were rewarded with a 56.7 overall grade that ranked 56th among qualifiers in 2019.

But things changed when Teller was placed in a zone-blocking scheme in 2020. In addition to becoming the NFL’s top-graded offensive lineman (92.3 overall grade), Teller was a mauler in the running game. His 93.6 run-blocking grade was also the best in the league, which would have dovetailed with the Vikings’ run-oriented philosophy.

Teller’s breakout coincided with his placement in Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, so it’s not a reach to think he could have had a similar impact with the Vikings. In fact, it could have taken place a year sooner — Stefanski served as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator in 2019.

Like Tretter, the cost to acquire Teller wasn’t much. The Browns gave up a fifth and sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft in a swap for Teller and a seventh-rounder. The Vikings made a similar deal earlier this month, giving up a sixth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for Mason Cole.

In this scenario, the Vikings would have added two strong players to the interior of their line but still needed to find someone to play left guard. Assuming Elflein was on the same career path, that left the Vikings to address the issue in the 2019 draft.

In that class, the Vikings selected Garrett Bradbury. Bradbury was a decent pick at the time but had limited upside entering the NFL at age 24. While it may have been a reach, the Vikings could have gotten a better player by selecting Elgton Jenkins over Bradbury.

Jenkins hasn’t been a Pro Bowler for the Packers but would have at least solidified the left guard position. His pass-blocking grades have gone over 70 in each of the first two seasons. While he ranked 41st in run-blocking grade (62.3) in 2020, the Vikings’ bigger issue is protecting the quarterback.

The Vikings could have also traded down to take Jenkins, which would have given Spielman more ammunition. Although Jenkins wasn’t a true guard coming out of Mississippi State, he’s worked well for Green Bay in the position and could have been serviceable for the Vikings.

Adding Tretter, Teller, and Jenkins would have given the Vikings’ O-line a strong interior trio. Even with Reiff on the roster, they still could have gone into the same succession plan at left tackle, where they considered trading for Trent Williams or drafting Ezra Cleveland in the second round.

In both scenarios, the Vikings have a better offensive line than the one they plan on entering next year with.

There are two things that should be pointed out about this plan. First, it isn’t that far-fetched. There are no big-money free-agent contracts the Vikings can’t afford. There’s no bonkers trade to reach for a lineman in the top 10. It’s just a smarter approach.

The plan also opens up possibilities for what the Vikings could do in this year’s draft. If they don’t think Cleveland is a fit at left tackle, they could still take Christian Darrisaw or Rashawn Slater at 14 and complete the process. It even could open the door for the Vikings to trade up for a quarterback or take an edge rusher to help Zimmer sleep at night.

This plan would have made the Vikings a better team next year. Instead, they’re reaching for straws and hoping their offensive line doesn’t get everyone fired.

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