This time, they hope they have everything in line with the line.
Last year, the Minnesota Vikings thought they had addressed their offensive line. They re-signed Phil Loadholt, signed Andre Smith in free agency and had Matt Kalil returning on his fifth-year option. John Sullivan and Joe Berger were coming back and Brandon Fusco was returning to his more natural right guard spot.
Then, injuries hit like an uninvited party-crasher. Kalil went down in Week 2, and may have been grappling with the bum hip before that. Smith exited for good in Week 4. And prior to that other moves were made, some by team choice and others by player choice.
Loadholt realized he was old and retired. The Vikings thought Sullivan was too old and kicked him to the curb. Fusco was playing like he was getting old and beat up.
A long-espoused mantra from General Manager Rick Spielman seemed to be tossed to the wayside. In previous years, Spielman had preached the wisdom of signing players coming off their first contract. That wasn’t the method employed on the offensive line, however. Perhaps he figured offensive linemen can hold up longer, and in some cases that appears to be the truth. In the Vikings’ case, however, many of them were just too bruised from years of dispensing and absorbing punches.
This year, Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer both admitted to the obvious – the offensive line was the top priority (again?), but this time they were putting Zygi’s money where their mouth was. And this time Spielman followed his own advice from years past – go young or go back on the free-agent heap.
Riley Reiff is 28. Mike Remmers is 27. They should each have years to play after their current Vikings contract expire, unlike previous versions on the offensive line whose NFL expiration dates may have matured (Loadholt is retired, while Smith, Jake Long and Sullivan might be there, too, and who knows if Fusco has seen enough NFL wear?).
The Vikings had to make some tough decisions in order to afford Reiff and Remmers as the new bookends in between Alex Boone, Berger and whoever is the blocker to be named later. Captain Munnerlyn, himself 28 years old, sought Buster Skrine-like money as a nickel cornerback, but the difference between Reiff and Munnerlyn can be found in the supply-and-demand section of NFL economics. Offensive tackles were in demand in free agency, especially on the Vikings’ roster. The Vikings had developing cornerbacks in the fold that they hope are ready to step up.
Mackensie Alexander had a year of limited playing time and learned valuable lessons about the differences between college ball and balling in the NFL. Zimmer loved his potential, even while realizing he needed seasoning. He still might, but it appears his time is coming, even if the Vikings bring in mid-level talent for competition.
Back at tackle, the supply list in the Vikings’ warehouse read “backordered.” They had no surefire starting tackles as Kalil left, and his departure seemed to be met with more joy than trepidation among some Vikings fans that still don’t seem to realize how hard it is to find quality starting tackles.
The question is: Was Kalil quality? In Minnesota, they don’t have to worry about that, but you may still need to regurgitate the question and replace the name – is Reiff a quality starting left tackle?
We’re about to find out. He played there for three years with the Detroit Lions before they replaced their 2012 first-round pick with the 2016 version in Taylor Decker. And then before the Vikings signed Reiff, it was the Lions replacing him at right tackle with Ricky Wagner.
The Vikings paid up, like any other team that signed a top-five free-agent offensive tackle. Or maybe they simply paid market value in a free-agent class that had some quality starters, but each with question marks or flaws. Andrew Whitworth is 35 but got a handsome three-year deal averaging 11.25 million. Russell Okung is 29 but got paid like none other this year, signing a legitimate five-year deal that averages $13.25 million annually. Reiff cost the Vikings an average of $11.75 million over the five years of his deal.
Remmers is averaging $6 million per year on his five-year contract.
The Vikings paid up to ensure that they got two of the top 10 tackles in the free-agent market. They aren’t “wow” names among the elite, but the best in their prime aren’t often allowed to reach the open market.
The Vikings simply weren’t willing to wait out the market at tackle like they were at other positions. There’s a logical reason. If they waited and were burned by being outbid, they knew – despite Spielman’s repeated comments to the contrary – that there wasn’t great top-end talent waiting to be had in the draft and they don’t have a first-round pick anyways. By the time they pick in the second round, they might just draft a lineman anyways and look to develop him into an eventual starter.
If they learned anything from the 2016 debacle that was the Minnesota M*A*S*H unit on the offensive line, it was that they can’t rely on old and oft-injured anymore. Ability is only as good as availability.
They hope this year they have both.