The Minnesota Vikings have not had a lot of success drafting offensive linemen since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, which might be part of the reason he switched offensive line coaches this offseason, moving away from Jeff Davidson and hiring Tony Sparano.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they have had to deal with injuries to multiple starters the past two seasons, making depth an important factor. That has caused them to have to do some shuffling around with players, in part, because they have not used a high draft pick on a lineman who could just step up and fill in without missing a beat.
In 2014, the Vikings only drafted one offensive lineman, David Yankey. They selected him in the fifth round, prompting many analysts to believe they got a steal. Many experts projected him to go a lot earlier in the draft and there was a lot of hope that he would be able to land a starting role within a year or two.
He wasn’t able to cement himself as a starter coming out of training camp and even when the starters began bowing out with injuries, Yankey was never the one the coaches turned to. According to Zimmer, the reason as to why was because he just was not strong enough yet to be able to battle it out in the trenches of an NFL game.
Yankey’s second year wasn’t any better, though, as he found himself on the team’s practice squad following training camp and was then released by the team following the season.
In 2015, the team seemed to try to address the offensive line a little more. They drafted T.J. Clemmings in the fourth round, Tyrus Thompson in the sixth round and Austin Shepherd in the seventh. Thompson, however, was cut prior to the start of the regular season and has bounced around the NFL looking for stability, and Shepherd only ever saw the field in the team’s goal-line package as their jumbo tight end.
There was a lot of excitement about the Clemmings pick, though, because a lot of analysts had him pegged as a potential first-round talent until X-rays showed an old foot injury few knew about. He fell in the draft and the Vikings decided to take a chance on him, somewhat similar to the Yankey situation a year earlier.
When starting right tackle Phil Loadholt went down in the preseason with a torn Achilles’ tendon, it was Clemmings that filled in for the remainder of the year. He struggled for most of the season, but to his defense it was only his third year playing on the offensive line, making it a tall task/ask for any rookie.
The Vikings signed multiple free agents that can play right tackle this offseason and they have Loadholt returning. Instead of having Clemmings get lost in that mix of veterans, the plan right now seems to be moving him over to the left side and have him back up Matt Kalil.
The Vikings drafted another offensive lineman, Willie Beavers, in the fourth round this offseason. Some people saw that as reaching for him because he is still a pretty raw talent, but the team loves his size and athleticism, and believes the coaching staff will be able to mold him into the type of player they want.
It was made pretty clear this offseason that the Vikings’ top priority was improving the offensive line, as they signed multiple veteran free agents to contracts. Still, eventually the young players will need to step up or the Vikings are going to have to use a pick in one of the first three rounds to try and find an immediate starter.
Plenty of the Vikings’ offensive linemen are nearing the end of their careers, or, in Kalil’s case, nearing the end of their contracts. If Kalil does not perform well this season, he will likely have to find a job with another team, which could be another reason as to why the Vikings are thinking of moving Clemmings over to that side. Give him a year of experience in practice blocking as a left tackle and hope he can take over if they have to part ways with Kalil.
In Zimmer’s first two years as part of the Vikings’ draft, the team hasn’t had great success finding mid- and late-round offensive linemen that were able to make immediate, positive impacts. Their hope is that will change with Sparano offering his influence, both in the selection process and in developing players.
“I know Tony Sparano gave us some specifics that we need to look for at that position,” general manager Rick Spielman said, “and it’s size, it’s strength, and what he calls the ability to dent people when you hit them.”