The Minnesota Vikings offensive line did not perform up to the standards that head coach Mike Zimmer set on it and that is clear. They allowed 45 sacks over the course of the season, and while not every sack was their fault they still did not play consistent enough over the course of the regular season. Zimmer has already hired a new offensive line coach and it seems safe to assume that a few more changes will be made at some point this offseason.
The most inconsistent position along the line throughout the regular season was right tackle. The Vikings were hoping they had a long-term solution at the position following last year’s draft, but it now all seems to be up in the air.
T.J. Clemmings was originally graded as a first-round talent coming out of college but an old foot injury caused him to fall to the fourth round, where the Vikings were more than happy to select him. The original plan appeared to be to have him sit and learn behind Phil Loadholt and then have him take over once Loadholt’s contract was up. Plans changed quickly, however, as Loadholt tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason, which meant the starting job for the rest of the season belonged to Clemmings.
The team was likely hoping the rookie would play at a high level and prove himself as their right tackle of the future, but that was not the case. He played inconsistently throughout the season and often needed extra help from a tight end lined up on his right side.
Zimmer has already said that there is going to be competition at this position in the offseason to determine a starter, but the competition could likely involve some new pieces to the mix. The team will give Clemmings more chances to prove himself, but it may be a different situation for Loadholt.
The seven-year veteran is now 30 years old and coming off two season-ending injuries. That is hard for a young player to come back from, let alone a player in the latter part of his career. He will also be owed $7.75 million dollars in 2016, but if the team parts ways with him before June then they will save $6 million in their cap.
It seems like that could be a very good possibility this offseason, and if it does the team will be looking for other players to bring in through either free agency or the draft to compete with Clemmings for the starting spot. Here are some possibilities:
Andre Smith – If the Vikings want to bring in a right tackle via free agency who could start from Day 1 in order to give Clemmings more time to properly develop, one logical choice would be the Cincinnati Bengal’s tackle Andre Smith.
He is arguably the best right tackle available in free agency this offseason and excels in run blocking, and with a back like Adrian Peterson the running game is going to continue to be the Vikings’ focal point. He also has a connection with Mike Zimmer since the two were in Cincinnati together from 2009-2013. Now, Zimmer was the defensive coordinator and Smith was an offensive lineman, but you can be sure the two still know each other well, which is a good thing for the Vikings since every player seems to respect Zimmer.
Another positive about Smith is the Vikings likely would not need to lock him down for any sort of long-term deal, which is ideal if they really are just trying to give Clemmings a couple years to sit, learn and develop. Smith is already 29 years old and in the later part of his career. The team could offer him a three-year contract, have him play at a high level through it and then roll with Clemmings or other options once it expires.
However, if the Vikings are looking to bring in a right tackle to compete with Clemmings for a starting job, then Smith may not be the best pick. His price tag will likely be higher than that of other tackles.
Byron Bell – If they are looking to bring in competition and not an outright starter, one player they could look at is Tennessee Titans tackle Byron Bell. However, Bell has been known to struggle in pass blocking from time to time throughout his career, and that is the primary area that the Vikings need to clean up on.
Bell does bring a lot to the table, however. For starters, the 6-5, 340-pound lineman has proven to be very versatile throughout his career. Not only can he play on the right side of the line, but he has spent time at left tackle as well, which is good for the Vikings if Matt Kalil were to get hurt. Bell also showed that he can hold his own on the interior of the line when put in at left guard last preseason.
At the age of 27, the Vikings would have some flexibility when it came to signing him. They could sign him to a one-year deal like he did last season with the Titans, or they could give him a few more years and still feel safe about it.
The team could also get Bell for relatively cheap, and even if he were to lose out on a starting spot to Clemmings his versatility would prove to be very valuable as the Vikings have had a lot of problems with their offensive lineman staying healthy the past couple of seasons.
Eric Winston – Another route the Vikings could take is to look for a veteran free agent to come in and act as more of a mentor for the young Clemmings. One viable option for this could be Eric Winston of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 32-year-old tackle has been in the NFL for 10 years, and while his best years when it comes to performance on the field are likely behind him he still could have a lot to offer as a mentor for a younger players. He will also come with a very low price tag, as his 2015 salary was just $950,000.
The problem with him could be that he chooses to retire after this season. Not many players make it past 32 years old in the NFL and he already has another job he could focus on as he was named the president of the National Football League Players Association in 2014. But if he would consider playing for another year he would be the perfect role model and mentor for the young Clemmings.
The Vikings have a lot of decisions to make this offseason regarding their right tackle position. It is clear that Clemmings will still be in the mix in one way or another, so first and foremost they need to decide what their plans are with Loadholt. Once they clear that up, they need to decide if they want to bring in a free agent and, if they do go that route, what they hope his role to be – and the same goes if they decide to address the position via the draft.