Minnesota Vikings: Revitalized offensive line leads to playoff hopes

After a year of turmoil along the offensive line, the Minnesota Vikings reloaded with fresh faces looking to make an impact.

Imagine for a second that you’re the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. As a quarterback, you have to drop back into the pocket in order to scan the field, go through your progressions, and read the defense in order to make the throw. It’s an art that only some can do and even fewer can actually master.

Now, you have to take into account that there are supreme athletes just a body away from literally crushing you. From the blindside, all you have is a sense of feeling. That can be unnerving and being poised is one of the supreme traits that the NFL looks for in quarterbacks. That is exactly why having a great offensive line helps. Not only does it help when running the football, but your QB is going to feel a lot more comfortable. Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott, and Andrew Luck enjoyed that luxury this past season.

One quarterback that did not experience that same luxury was Kirk Cousins. The Minnesota Vikings signal-caller was sacked 40 times and pressured another 259 according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins was antsy in the pocket and it showed in his downtrodden play over the entire season. With a strong year in 2017, more was expected from the offensive line. Instead, the Vikings OL only regressed, surrendering 200 total pressures.

The Vikings moved on from some of the 2018 offensive line

The disappointment of the 2018 offensive line was met with enormous change. The Vikings moved on from Mike Remmers and Tom Compton in the offseason. Then, Nick Easton left for New Orleans after the unexpected retirement of Max Unger. The result? The Vikings were down to only a starting left guard for 2019.

The numbers for Remmers and Compton were not pretty. Compton surrendered 42 pressures and seven sacks over the course of the 2018 season. Remmers gave up 34 pressures and seven sacks. There is no doubt that both Remmers and Compton were suboptimal in pass protection and didn’t offer that much more in run blocking either.

Easton, however, is a stinging loss. After missing all of 2018 with a bulging disc in his neck, Easton will start at center for the Saints in 2019. When he was the starting left guard in Minnesota, he only allowed 12 pressures and two sacks. In 2017, that was the eighth-best mark among guards in the NFL. Cousins most certainly would have appreciated Easton last year on the line.

The Vikings addressed the problem

The Vikings will face some consequences on the OL because of the offseason maneuvers they made in the 2018 offseason. Sure, they added Riley Reiff to start at left tackle and drafted Brian O’Neill to start opposite of him. While Reiff is solid, he is better suited at guard by all statistical indications. Meanwhile, O’Neill was a rookie who had a lot of transitioning to do to make the impact the Vikings were looking for in year-one.

The good news for the Vikings is that O’Neill flashed last year despite giving up eight sacks and 31 pressures. O’Neill was a raw prospect but progressed as the season went on and will be the starter at right tackle in 2019. Reiff was also solid despite surrendering 42 pressures. That number looks bloated due to Reiff allowing 12 pressures in Buffalo. After that game, he allowed only 26, which was eleventh best among left tackles after Week 4.

Even with the tackle position locked down, the Vikings had issues on the interior. Pat Elflein, whose best attribute might be his mobility, was clearly a more natural fit at guard rather than the position of center. Meaning Minnesota needed a new ball snapper.

Enter the Vikings first-round draft pick, NC State center Garrett Bradbury. Bradbury was the top center in the draft, largely due to his incredible mobility in space and high IQ on the line. That should help the Vikings not only establish the run with Dalvin Cook but also help them with stunt exchanges, which was one of their weaknesses last year. Minnesota allowed 25 of their 40 sacks off of failed stunt exchanges. The Vikings made a statement that they were going to set the tempo up front with that pick.

Later in the draft, they took Oklahoma guard Dru Samia. The Vikings also lacked the necessary nastiness to truly impose their will up front. That physicality was something they had in the 2017 unit, and Samia should help that return. Even though he may not start right away, Samia has all the tools to be a starter as early as next year with his technical proficiency.

Lastly, they added former Tennessee Titans guard Josh Kline, who did not allow a single quarterback hit last year and only four sacks. Kline’s demeanor as a blocker up front adds to the same type of mentality that Samia demonstrates. He is a blue-collar tough guy who will get dirty and drive guys into the ground. It is that type of physicality that will set the stage for the entire offensive line.

There are still questions in Minnesota

The Vikings knew what they were doing when they addressed the offensive line as heavily as they did this offseason. That said, there are still questions that the will have to be answered.

It will have to be asked if Elflein can make the transition to guard. His play on the field has not been inspiring, even if the fit at guard seems more natural than the fit at the center position. Elflein is a former third-round pick, and the Vikings are obviously hoping that he can contribute after a lackluster 2018. Even if he does not pan out, the hope will be that Samia can plug and play. The Vikings look to have set themselves up well at guard with the added depth.

In addition, are we sure O’Neill will continue his development and ascend to be a valuable piece on this offensive line? The encouraging signs from O’Neill are going to be the main hope this hinges on, but if he fails to grow and struggles, it’s going to be a point of weakness on the line that will be extremely hard for the Vikings to hide.

This could lead them to the playoffs

If there was one problem in Minnesota, it was the offensive line. The Vikings knew it and every player in the locker room knew it. That is why it was so heavily focused on by the front office.

Minnesota was 30th in rushing last season and in offensive line efficiency, which combines pressures, rushing totals, and pressure rate, ranking them 23rd according to Football Outsiders. Nothing about this was good as Cousins was running for his life, trying to get the ball to the talented weapons Minnesota possesses.

In 2017 when this offensive line was among the upper tier in football, the Vikings went to the NFC Championship behind the arm of Case Keenum. Now, with Cousins having an even better command of the offense and the potential for the line to return to where it was two years ago, this team could find itself in the thick of winning the NFC.