Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Which young options could slide into a starting role on the Vikings' offensive line?


The Vikings have a few question marks on the offensive line as they prepare to enter training camp. Daniel House takes a look at the options and discusses who could land starting roles. 

Updated: June 13, 2018, 9:40 a.m.

By: Daniel House

Much of the attention during training camp will be on the Vikings’ offensive line. The unit took a step forward last season, allowing just 27 sacks. It’s an improvement over the 2016 season where they surrendered the ninth-most sacks (38) in the league. The additions of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers were positive signings at the tackle spots. Not only that, but draft pick Pat Elflein was a key contributor at center, helping improve the running game and screen action in the Vikings’ offense. Those additions were major, but it still felt like the Vikings were one or two offensive linemen away from taking another step forward. Quarterback Case Keenum’s elusiveness and pocket presence also helped compensate for many small issues up front.

Despite Reiff’s 48.6 Pro Football Focus grade last season, he played far better than his grade suggests. Reiff started the season with grades in the 70s, but regressed as the year progressed. Mike Remmers finished with a 69.6 grade and was consistently in the upper 70s throughout the early portions of the season. This was the case with many of the offensive lineman as the year progressed. It’s clear when you watch the early stages of last season and compare the performances with the final six games. Injuries, along with wear and tear started to take their toll as the year progressed. Later last year, Rashod Hill was forced to start and proved he still needs time to develop if he’s going to become a permanent starter. There is hope another year of experience will have him in a better position to potentially start at right tackle soon.

Fans became even more concerned about the future direction of the offensive line when the team passed on selecting one in the first round of the draft. Instead, the Vikings’ drafted tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round, a player still developing his skill-set. However, as I noted in a recent article, he may be more “inconsistent” than raw.

The real question mark on the Vikings’ offensive line starts with the guard spots. Who will play each spot?

The top performer on the the Vikings’ offensive line, Joe Berger (75.7 grade), decided to retire this offseason. With that in mind, the coaches have been entertaining the idea of moving Remmers inside to guard. He played at the position during the late stages of last season, including the playoffs. Remmers has been working at right guard during OTAs, but has rotated to tackle for a few practices, as well. Mike Zimmer has indicated the team would like to explore as many combinations as possible during offseason activities. Although he is serviceable at guard, his play at right tackle might be needed if Rashod Hill isn’t ready to elevate beyond the swing tackle role.

Much of the team’s success this season will revolve around finding contributors at the guard spots. The coaches have a few options, but they’re all young and inexperienced. Danny Isidora, a fifth round pick in 2016, has been seeing snaps with both the first and second team at left guard. He was an intriguing player when he was selected by the Vikings last year. Isidora has been developing in the background and Mike Zimmer recently said Isidora "continues to get better." If he can show additional progress, it would be a major lift for an offensive line that needs an interior player to step up.

“I went back and watched all of [Isidora’s] plays from the past season and when he was in, he did a good job,” Zimmer said. “We'll just have to see how it shakes out when we get to camp."

Outside of Isidora, the team may consider starting Nick Easton, who started 12 games last year at guard and center. Easton suffered a leg injury last season and is easing back to football activities. When he is healthy, Easton has shown he can be a serviceable contributor as well. His position versatility and growth each year could have him in a position to snatch the job in camp. He also fits the zone blocking scheme well because of his movement skills.

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo also brought Philadelphia Eagles guard Josh Andrews with him to Minnesota. Andrews was on the Eagles’ practice squad, but many were impressed by his developmental trajectory. With 311-pound size to go along with above average athleticism, he would be a sound fit in the the Vikings’ blocking scheme. He can play both center and guard and his versatility will serve him well as he competes for a roster spot. Perhaps he is a wild card candidate to steal playing time if he has a strong training camp.

The Vikings also signed guard Tom Compton and he has been working into the starting rotation at both right and left guard, too. Compton played with quarterback Kirk Cousins in Washington and most recently was a spot starter for the Bears. He has been up-and-down during his six years in the league. He replaces Jeremiah Sirles who also had the versatility to play both guard and tackle. Compton feels like more of a spot starter, but in the right situation, he might play beyond initial expectations.

Many people also forget the team stashed away TCU undrafted rookie Aviante Collins, who made the team last year. He was primarily used as an extra blocker in the jump packages. The Vikings often ran 13 personnel with Collins serving as the extra “tight end” or blocker. He has experience playing tackle, but due to his playing profile, he is a natural guard. Collins doesn’t possess much length and has better measurements to play inside. He also needed to add more power last year, so maybe another year in the strength and conditioning program will be beneficial.

Finally, one underrated option is Colby Gossett, a sixth round draft pick. A small school player, Gossett has size, power and enough athleticism to fit within the Vikings’ zone blocking scheme. As I noted in a recent post, he needs to become more polished from a technical standpoint, but has many intriguing traits. For Gossett, it all comes down to how quickly he can develop at the next level. He might be ahead of those expectations and it will be worth monitoring him during training camp. Gossett can be a depth option early in his career with the chance to elevate to an eventual starting position. It all comes down to how quickly he can develop.

No matter how you look at it, the Vikings have question marks on the offensive line, especially inside. With such a large investment into a franchise quarterback, the protection and run blocking up front will be equally important. Young and inexperienced options are available and the Vikings need one of them to step up and contribute in 2018. Nobody knows who that will be, but a developing draft pick like Danny Isidora might be a dark house to land one of the starting spots. Like Mike Zimmer said, it all comes down to training camp performances to find the right combination.

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