Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY

Sunday slant: OL depth debatable for Minnesota Vikings draft

Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman likes the depth of the offensive line in this draft. Other GMs? Not so much.

Maybe it’s draft subterfuge. Perhaps he really believes it. Or maybe Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman simply has a different view of the offensive linemen in the 2017 draft class than other general managers in the NFL.

Whatever the case, this much we know: What Spielman says about good depth at offensive line in the draft is in contrast to the opinions of several others.

“I would say, without giving any trades secrets away, there is some depth in the draft, especially in the rounds we are picking,” he said at the NFL Scouting Combine when asked about the offensive line prospects. “I think having those extra picks this year, in particular the third and fourth rounds, will be a huge benefit for us in this draft because I think the depth of this draft in general, there’s going to be some pretty good players that get pushed down our way just because of the talent coming out in this draft.”

That might be true at other positions, but when it comes to the Vikings’ biggest need – help on the offensive line, and specifically at tackle – his stated opinion isn’t shared by all.

“There’s just a dearth at the position. There just has been for a number of years now. There aren’t a lot of guys that … I mean, you just have to be really careful to figure out those guys that have the mental aptitude, first, to come in and learn everything,” said Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider, whose team is also in desperate need of help at the position. “I think you saw it throughout the season with our younger guys. There’s a lot of stuff happening in there. And they have to figure it out. They have to be able to communicate. They just have to jell.”

Every general manager has his own biases and opinions. Some can be more truthful; others are in the business of lying (and that business is good), especially at this time of year when the priority that teams place on their needs are often best held close to the vest.

Maybe Schneider wants other teams to believe he doesn’t see great prospects on the offensive line so they don’t snap up a gem before him. Or maybe Schneider is just being honest. You never can be sure during subterfuge season.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock doesn’t have to worry about hiding his true assessments from other teams, but it’s clear what his estimation is regarding this year’s offensive line class.

“The offensive tackle class, as good as this class is, that’s where the weakness is. I think you can find some interior offensive linemen, but once you get past the first two guys [at tackle] there are some questions marks,” he said. “I look down my tackles list and after [Ryan] Ramczyk and [Garett] Bolles, I think [Antonio] Garcia is really interesting from Troy. I think Rod Johnson, and the guy that’s helped himself throughout the [predraft] process is Taylor Moton from Western Michigan. A lot of people thought he might be a guard; I think he’ll be a tackle.”

Beauty for the big uglies is in the eye of the evaluator, which is what makes the draft and the scouting process such an interesting grind. A perceived reach can turn out to be a gem months later, just as can’t-miss prospects really can miss … and big.

We saw living proof of that when former QB Ryan Leaf walk by and said hello to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in the halls of the NFL hotel in Indianapolis.

That’s why general managers, even when they are being honest at this time of year – hey, it could happen – can disagree at times. But the reality is that offensive linemen who fit into modern-day NFL schemes are becoming more difficult to find, especially the elite pass protectors.

“I think what the biggest issue is is most of these guys aren’t doing a lot of pass protecting when they come out because everybody throws the ball in college,” Spielman said.

“It depends what system they’re in. I think that’s a little bit of an adjustment for them because now, especially if you’re a left tackle, you’re going probably against the opposing team’s best pass rusher every week. It’s not like you’re going to have a week off like you’re having a homecoming game. But I also think the technical part, as far as technique – because what they were able to get away with in college because they’re just better athletes and they don’t have to be as technically sound – that shows up and that takes time to develop when you get to our level.”

Schneider believes part of the problem is that the best athletes gravitate toward the “skill” positions or those that generate more publicity. If you don’t hear the name of the offensive tackle called out on television while viewing your favorite team, it generally means he’s executing his assignment well.

“It’s just how the football culture is right now. The majority of guys aren’t like, ‘I’m going to be the best offensive lineman in high school football,’ you know what I mean?” Schneider said. “They want to sack the quarterback. That’s the one position where you’re like … look at us with George Fant last year. God bless him, but holy cow, man — the guy was playing basketball and now he’s out there playing against Robert Quinn. So, good luck!”

The Vikings could say similar things about T.J. Clemmings. He was a fourth-round pick that had played defensive line his first two years of college, then was expected to be a guard or right tackle in his rookie season in Minnesota. But desperation hit in his second year after injuries to Matt Kalil and Jake Long, and it was Clemmings’ job – for better or worse.

But if the Vikings are serious about improving their offensive with an immediate upgrade, it might have to happen via free agency.

“The offensive line depth in this draft probably isn’t as good as it has been. Traditionally, interior lineman, for whatever reason, guards and centers — there’s never a great number,” Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said. “There are always great players, but just not a lot of numbers. The tackle numbers are down this year, for whatever reason. There are some great players in the class, just not as many as maybe there have been in recent years.”

Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said the past two or three years have been “pretty strong” for offensive tackles.

This year? “Not as strong.”

Zimmer said the three toughest positions to teach for immediate production in the NFL are quarterback, cornerback and offensive line. Schneider agrees with that assessment when it comes to the offensive line and it might go beyond the differences in the college game and NFL game.

“It’s tougher now because we don’t have NFL Europe or a developmental league. … You don’t have guys getting those reps, and time is limited with the coaching staff and the Collective Bargaining Agreement right now.”

Whatever the reason, and there are likely several of them, most agree that this class isn’t as deep at the position and it might be unfortunate for the Vikings that they haven’t invested a draft pick on an offensive lineman in the top three rounds since 2012.

“There’s been an average of 10 offensive tackles go in the first three rounds,” Mayock said. “I’ve only got about four with grades in the first three rounds [this year]. Others are going to get pushed up, I think.”

That could be good for their savings account, but perhaps not as fortunate when it comes to coaches and fans having patience with their development.

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