The Minnesota Vikings decided to adjust their personnel after being forced to adjust their strategy last year.
When the Vikings were forced to move to a quick passing game last year because quarterback Sam Bradford was being sacked or pressured so often, the logical assumption was that they needed to find better pass protectors. That was, and maybe still is, true; but the Vikings took a different approach.
With a weak draft class at offensive tackle and few elite pass protectors available in free agency – and many more teams seeking them than were available – the Vikings hatched a different strategy. Perhaps running the ball more effectively, they thought, would increase their ability to pass protect because defenses wouldn’t put them in so many unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
The Vikings already had an athletic left tackle in Matt Kalil. But when injury ended his season after only two weeks and he received a lucrative offer in free agency to join his brother with the Carolina Panthers, the Vikings ended up signing two of the top 10 available free-agent tackles.
First was Riley Reiff, who was moved from left tackle to right tackle in Detroit when the Lions drafted Taylor Decker last year. However, the Vikings plan to move Reiff back to left tackle and have another free-agent tackle, Mike Remmers, pegged as the favorite to win the right tackle job.
Neither qualifies as the most athletic tackle, but the Vikings found something else to like about them that they hope will suit their desire to become a more balanced offense.
“Remmers is a veteran guy that is going to change things up all the time on you – he’s not going to give you the same sets, the same things. He’s a smart guy; he’s a tough guy,” head coach Mike Zimmer said last week. “Riley Reiff is really the same way. They’ve done a great job in the weight room so far. They’ve done a great job in the one week of Phase II that we’ve had. I think [Pat] Elflein is the same way. He’s going to be that kind of guy. If we’re not the most athletic, maybe we’ll be the toughest and the most physical.”
Adding Latavius Murray in free agency and Dalvin Cook in the draft should also contribute to what the Vikings hope is a revived running game after ranking last in the NFL in rushing yards and rushing average.
Two more pieces were added in the draft when the Vikings selected Elflein, a center, in the third round and guard Danny Isidora in the fifth round. Elflein fits the Vikings’ mantra of toughness up front.
“Oh yeah, I like to play until the whistle blows,” he acknowledged.
Now that the scouting department has done its job by adding four new offensive linemen that can compete for starting jobs in free agency and the draft, the onus falls on the coaching staff to figure out where they belong.
Elflein might be the early favorite to win the starting center job, and if that happens it probably would move Joe Berger, last year’s initial starter at center, in a competition with Isidora and perhaps Jeremiah Sirles at right guard.
But with so many new pieces up front, knowing for sure who has the right mentality and where they fit best could take time.
“They do have background of what they’ve put on tape so far and kind of their personality that you know. I guess you kind of go on that,” Zimmer said. “It still comes down to, ‘I’ve got to block that guy and us two have to block those two.’ I mean, that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. Get your pads down and come off the ball. If we’re going to make a mistake, we’re going to make it full speed and aggressive.”
It might be foolhardy to think it will be smooth sailing throughout offseason practices and into training camp with the potential for new starters at four of the five positions on the offensive line, but the Vikings were searching for a certain brand of offensive lineman in free agency and the draft and believe they have a good foundation with the mentality of the new players they added.