Vikings GM: Player Additions, Versatility Helped 2017 O-Line Rebuild

Posted Mar 7, 2018

The Vikings put forth considerable effort last offseason in boosting their offensive line.

Minnesota signed tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers early in free agency and traded up to make sure they drafted center Pat Elflein in the third round.

In addition to bringing in those three players, Minnesota also shifted some of what it wanted offensive linemen to be able to accomplish.

Pat Shurmur added a few more outside zone run plays, and Minnesota incorporated more screens into the passing game in 2017.

Shurmur has departed to become head coach of the New York Giants, and he has been replaced by Offensive Coordinator John DeFelippo. All other Vikings offensive assistant coaches are back in 2018, including offensive line coach Tony Sparano.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman spent more than 25 minutes of his time at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine as a guest on the 9 to Noon show on KFAN 100.3. In addition to an amusing anecdote about how much attention the Vikings quarterback position is receiving, Spielman also talked about offensive linemen with “Voice of the Vikings” Paul Allen and Paul Charchian.

Spielman was asked about the overhaul on the offensive line, the outlook for 2018 and trends in football that might be affecting players in the position group.

The Vikings opened the season with the starting combination of Reiff at left tackle, Nick Easton at left guard, Elflein at center, Joe Berger at right guard and Remmers at right tackle, and the unit had a considerable role in setting the tone for multiple types of improvements on offense.

“We were very excited about all five of those guys up front. We revamped that whole offensive line,” Spielman said. “I think when Pat Shurmur came in and we had a meeting with our scouts and went through our planning last year, we’re going to do a little more outside zone, so they have to be a little more athletic and get to the second level. You have to be able to block those linebackers, and the linebackers are athletic these days. Our screen game has not been very good, and Pat came in and we adjusted what we were looking for on the offensive line to match up with a system. All of a sudden, we became a pretty good screen team last year.”

The opening day unit was together for the first five weeks of the season but not so again until Week 16 at Green Bay.

Easton missed three consecutive weeks and was replaced by Jeremiah Sirles for two games and rookie Danny Isidora in another.

When Remmers went down in Week 8, Rashod Hill made the next five starts at right tackle before filling in at left tackle in Reiff’s only absence (Dec. 17 against Cincinnati). Remmers returned to the lineup that day and again opened at right tackle the following week at Green Bay, where Easton was lost for the season.

The following week, Sirles filled in for Easton at left guard, Berger started in place of Elflein, Remmers moved to right guard, and Hill played right tackle.

In the playoffs, Elflein returned to center, and Berger returned to right guard. The Vikings opted to start Hill at right tackle and move Remmers to left guard.

Berger moved to center when Elflein was injured, and Remmers moved to left guard.

Berger considered retirement and could become a free agent or re-sign with Minnesota. Easton and Elflein are on the mend from ankle injuries.

“I talked to Joe Berger, and I think that will clear itself up here,” Spielman said. “We have a meeting with his agent, so we’ll have to know a decision pretty soon.”

Some have wondered if the Vikings might again go with Hill at right tackle and shift Remmers to the interior of the offensive line.

Spielman said the Vikings have been pleased with Hill’s development and with multiple players capable of playing multiple positions.

“[Hill] came in, he’s only been here not even a year and a half yet,” Spielman said. “We picked him up [late] in 2016 off Jacksonville’s practice squad, and he got a full offseason with us and then played and started a lot of games when we had to shuffle the line. We’re excited about the trend he is going, but that goes back to the point, as we’re sitting, evaluating the offensive line here, one of the things that is appealing when you try to evaluate the offensive line is, ‘Can they play multiple positions?’ Because that is a big factor in our game now.

“ ‘Can guards go to center? Can centers go to guard? Can tackles slide into guards if they have to?’ A lot of the guys that we have on our roster are multi-position players,” Spielman continued. “Pat Elflein was a guard in his junior year and a center in his senior year. Nick Easton was a center who moved over to guard. Joe Berger has played guard and center. Those are the things as we go through the evaluation process in free agency or the draft, it really gives them an extra value if they can do multiple positions.”

Spielman also was asked about the jump for offensive linemen as they transition from college to the pros.

He was asked about why some high picks haven’t clicked across the league.

“I think a little bit [is] because of the evolution of where our game is going and because I think there’s been some injuries up there,” Spielman said. “The biggest thing, I think, is the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). In the past, the coaches would have time to develop these young guys, and now, the time constraints are so restricted, especially at that position, where probably when they’re coming out of college, they’re in a two-point [stance] every snap and are pass blocking, maybe they’re run blocking from a two-point. A lot of times, maybe the first time a guy ever puts his hand on the ground and tries to block somebody, but we don’t have the time during the offseason because of the limitations in the CBA to take time to develop those guys.

“A lot of times, those guys may not hit until year three, four or five, where before, when it was a little old school coming out of college, they were used to the NFL game because it was very similar,” Spielman said. “Now, it’s changed a lot, and the time that we can develop players has changed as well.”

Spielman noted an increase in spread formations and run-pass options, which were part of Philadelphia’s success, at the NFL level because it is what players have done recently in college.

“Some of that is being implemented into the NFL because that’s the skill set that we’re getting, especially at the quarterback position,” Spielman said. “There’s not a lot of drop-back-six-or-seven-[steps] throwers any more. A lot of these guys are athletic, and that’s what they’ve played since high school, so you still want to have your systems in place, you’ve still got to be able to run the ball, you’ve still got to be able to play good defense, but coaches and teams are evolving a little bit, especially to the quarterback and what he does best.”