Addition by subtraction is just the first step in the Minnesota Vikings overhauling an offensive line that was consistently criticized in 2016.
The Vikings released Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris for different reasons on Friday. Fusco was scheduled to count almost $4.8 million against the salary cap and releasing a player that never seemed the same after a 2014 pectoral injury added $3 million in cap space. Solid guards can be had for that savings. Cutting Harris had little to do with salary-cap implications, but rather appears to be an indication that the Vikings don’t believe he will be fully recovered from his ambiguous medical condition.
Those two moves certainly cut into the options on the offensive line, but it also opened up new possibilities.
With all the injuries the Vikings suffered on the line – they had eight different starting combinations there in 2016 – Nick Easton eventually took over at center and Joe Berger slid over to right guard to fill in for a concussed Fusco. It’s possible that duo stays intact, but the Vikings would be better off looking to upgrade at guard, have Berger back at center and have Easton for depth.
“There’s always some adjustments. The looks are a little different [at guard]. You’re one spot over,” Berger said late last year after filling in for Fusco. “The way they attack the guard is a little different than the way they attack the centers. You’ve got a little more space to deal with. Yeah, there’s differences, but it’s part of playing the game. If that’s where they need me to play, that’s what I’ll play.”
With Fusco now gone, the Vikings will have at least one new starter among the three interior spots from how they expected to begin the 2016 season, but the major changes will occur at the tackle spots.
Last season began with Matt Kalil at left tackle and Andre Smith at right tackle (after Phil Loadholt retired prior to training camp). But the Kalil-Smith bookend combination made it only two weeks before Kalil was lost for the season with a hip injury. Two weeks later, Smith bowed out for the season, too.
It was the beginning of an agonizing time on the line.
T.J. Clemmings, one of the lowest rated tackles according to Pro Football Focus, was forced into duty at both right tackle and left tackle, eventually being kept at left tackle after emergency signing Jake Long became the latest accomplished veteran tackle to be lost for the season. Jeremiah Sirles entered the equation at right tackle and the Vikings were in full-on desperation mode.
The lineup in the trenches was in a constant state of flux and the offense adapted in an attempt to keep another mercenary move, Sam Bradford, clean while getting rid of the ball quickly.
The need for an improved offensive line is so obvious that both coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have admitted it’s a top priority. Those admissions don’t always come easy with a front office that loves the cloak-and-dagger game when it comes to offseason upgrades.
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It will require a reversal of the modus operandi of late. Since selecting Kalil in the first round of the 2012 draft, the Vikings haven’t used a first- or second-day draft pick on an offensive lineman. That has to change, even though the Vikings don’t have a first-round pick this year.
Either offensive tackle is addressed in free agency – re-signing Kalil or patching it together with aging but ultra-effective free agent Andrew Whitworth are the best options – or it has to be best-athlete-be-damned approach in selecting a tackle in the second round. And perhaps another in the third or fourth rounds (the Vikings have two picks each in those rounds).
Desperately trying to salvage the season by adding complementary parts on the offensive line as one player after another succumbed to injury, the Vikings ended the 2016 season with only $400,000 in salary-cap space, not even enough money to add a veteran-minimum player without mortgaging the future in other areas. That’s part of the reason they entered the offseason with only $20 million in salary-cap space.
On the surface, that might seem like a healthy amount, but it was sixth-worst in the NFL. However, there is a lot of flexibility in what they can do and releasing Fusco was just part of the plan that freed up a little more than $3 million. If they can’t come to a renegotiated contract with Adrian Peterson that lowers his cap hit and decide to release him, they would have more than $41 million in cap space.
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This offseason, the picks in the second through fourth rounds must be on point. No more getting cute with players like Willie Beavers. Safe, tried and true have to be the mantras when upgrading the offensive line.
Bradford has to be protected better. The offense has to have the opportunity to stretch the field with more time in the pocket. Whoever the running back is has to have viable lanes presented to him. It’s time for Spielman and company to take up a Brad Childress philosophy: “Damn the rough waters, did you bring in the ship?”
When it comes to the offseason roster building, the offensive line can’t wait.