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Sacks, quarterback hits, and injuries were a theme for the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line in 2016. Three new faces in the starting lineup will try to bolster a disappointing 2016 offense. Daniel House discusses the new additions and why average performance up front might be enough.
Updated: May 29, 2016 12:20 p.m.
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
Sacks, quarterback hits, and injuries were a theme for the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line in 2016.
The Vikings invested offseason resources into the offensive line during free agency and the draft to bolster this area. Now, they hope the additions will bring the unit back from the dead. Last year, the Vikings used eight different offensive line combinations.
Five different players suited up at left tackle alone. Every time you turned around, an offensive lineman was injured or ineffective. The offensive line allowed 38 sacks and a whopping 104 quarterback hits in 2016. Sam Bradford took a significant amount of hits and the offense lacked downfield spunk because of protection issues. With the free agent signings of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, the Vikings have addressed the edge protection weakness.
Many people are still concerned with the free agent signings because the Vikings added two mid-tier free agents at tackle. Only one player committed more penalties than Mike Remmers last season (15), according to ESPN Stats and Info. Remmers struggled as he made the position switch to left tackle. He had to learn opposite footwork and technique, which appeared to impact his balance, anchor, and overall fundamental skill-set. At left tackle in 2016, Remmers had a 66.1 Pro Football Focus ranking at left tackle. Remmers struggled the most in pass blocking, notching a 50.0 ranking in 2016. However, he was considerably better as a run blocker, posting a 73.5 ranking. These struggles are concerning, but Remmers switching back to his natural position leaves room for optimism. The previous two years at right tackle, he had 72.1 and 72.8 campaigns when playing on the right side. Thankfully, he’ll be playing there in Minnesota.
Riley Reiff struggled early in the season as he made the transition to right tackle with the Detroit Lions. As the season progressed, he improved, but still struggled with balance and footwork. Again, it might be another instance where the shuffling of technique inhibited Reiff from reaching his full potential. Reiff posted 75.3 and 77.5 marks at left tackle before notching a 67.5 on his switch to the right side, according to Pro Football Focus. His pass blocking grades were significantly better when he played left tackle, which is where he will play in Minnesota.
The rankings and film leave questions about whether these signings will actual provide any help. However, the data from last year is hard to evaluate due to the position switches. When the rankings are analyzed in consecutive seasons at their natural positions, consistency and serviceable production is shown. In addition, from tape I watched – Reiff in particular – improved the most as 2016 progressed. The point being: it took time for them to transition to their new position as they learned the opposite footwork for the position. Everything was flipped around for them and it is hard to believe this didn’t impact their performance slightly.
Aside from those two additions, the Vikings drafted Ohio State center Pat Elflein. He was one of the best centers in this draft class and will likely start immediately. Elflein made the transition from guard to center in his senior season and was still one of the best players in the country at the position. He is a smart, patient, and instinctive blocker, who plays extremely physical through the whistle. His hand technique and punch are excellent and his vision in the second level allows him to take on linebackers. Elflein brings a tough, physical, and smart edge to the Vikings’ offensive line, which fits the brand of football Mike Zimmer has established in Minnesota.
Later in the draft, the Vikings added Miami offensive guard Danny Isidora. Isidora was a reliable player that slipped through the cracks. According to PFF, Isidora didn't allow a pressure in 9 of the 13 games he played in 2016. He only surrendered 9 sacks in 1,376 snaps and was a solid anchor inside. What impresses me most about Isidora is his light feet and athleticism for a player with his size. He was very effective when he pulled and got to the second level quickly. He was very strong in pass protection and didn’t struggle diagnosing blitzes. Isidora lacks physicality in the running game and has a tendency to get washed away by stronger defensive lineman. Nonetheless, he has developmental potential because of his frame and impressive technique in pass protection.
The Vikings also have several promising players returning this season, including Rashod Hill. Hill needs to add more weight to his frame and continue working on his technique, but he has the traits to be a future left tackle. Not to mention, Jeremiah Sirles is a serviceable swing tackle and Nick Easton will provide depth and competition at center. I’m also intrigued to see Austin Shepherd and undrafted rookie Aviante Collins in training camp. Both players have strong upside if they are given an opportunity.
The Vikings added more depth and three capable starters to their offensive line this offseason. Pairing these players with Alex Boone and Joe Berger will substantially upgrade the entire starting unit. As I’ve noted numerous times, the Vikings don’t need a top-tier offensive line. They must perform at an average level in order to improve the entire offense as a whole. They need to trim 27 quarterback hits and 5 sacks off last year’s totals to be considered “mid-tier.” The Baltimore Ravens allowed 33 sacks and 77 quarterback pressures, which ranked near the middle of NFL offensive line units in 2016. As bad as the Vikings’ offensive line was last year, their offense will look significantly better if they can even perform at an average level. The offense line needs to protect Sam Bradford and get leverage in the running game for the offense to be a consistent threat. Eliminating negative plays in the running game is the major key.
If the Vikings can stay healthy and become cohesive up front, the pieces they added will be enough for positive results on offense. However, if they can’t, a heavy strain will again be placed on the defense and quarterback Sam Bradford’s sanity.