The offensive line is a Vikings priority this offseason.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has made that point clear a handful of times. On Tuesday, Zimmer addressed the media from the NFL Owners Meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, and discussed additions made during free agency as well as current linemen.
Since free agency kicked off on March 9, the Vikings have acquired guard Pat Elflein and tackle Andre Smith. Boone (59 starts in the past four seasons) and Smith (68 starts in the past five seasons) are proven linemen who will help bolster Minnesota's offensive line.
Zimmer said that adding more depth and talent to the offensive line will increase pressure for the skills position players on offense.
"After we signed them, I texted Adrian [Peterson] and Teddy and said, 'OK – we got Boone; we got Smith. Now there's no excuses,' " said Zimmer. "You can't say, 'Well, we didn't have this or we didn't have that.' It's time to go now."
In addition to Bridgewater needing better protection, Zimmer also said the Vikings recorded way too many 1-yard rushes in 2015. By focusing on improving the offensive line, Zimmer hopes both Peterson and Bridgewater will reap the benefits by way of production.
The key to helping Teddy
When asked about the receiving game in 2015 and quarterback Stefon Diggs progressing to his third and fourth read options, Zimmer said the problem stemmed less from Bridgewater's abilities and more with how much time he often had to throw.
"He's not bad at [the third and fourth reads]," Zimmer said. "He knows where all the check downs are and everything. A lot of times he ended up getting to them too quick because of other issues that we had with our guys up front."
Plenty of conversation by analysts and mock drafts have revolved around the belief that Vikings need to add a wide receiver during the offseason. However, Zimmer still sees offensive line as the biggest priority and the most integral link in the chain of Bridgewater's development.
"I think that, if we fix this one area, it's going to help us a lot more than getting a receiver in here," Zimmer said. "If we can protect for [Teddy] and be better in our play-action game and [avoid short or negative] runs, then I think we can be more effective offensively. It will allow him to grow a lot more than having a great receiver."
Loadholt and Sullivan focused on return
The Vikings played their entire 2015 season without two starters in center John Sullivan and tackle Phil Loadholt. In an effort to return to the field as soon as possible, both have been rehabbing diligently. Zimmer said he's seen Sullivan and Loadholt in the Winter Park weight room regularly and is hopeful they'll both be ready for the 2016 season.
"[Sullivan] is moving a lot better, he looks a lot better, his body mass is changing, he's getting stronger," Zimmer said. "I think the things we'll be doing toward the end of phase one or phase two in the weight room, I think we'll have a fairly good idea at that point in time [if he'll be ready]. But, until you start pushing on 350-pound men, you really don't know. It's different than being in the weight room."
Zimmer said Loadholt is also working hard and progressing well, and he anticipates that the veteran tackle will be ready to go.
Deep respect for Calvin Johnson
Zimmer addressed a number of topics outside of the offensive line Tuesday, one of them being former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who **announced his retirement** on March 8.
"I'm glad I don't have to play him anymore – I can say that," Zimmer said, laughing.
Although only entering his third season as head coach with the Vikings, Zimmer faced Johnson a number of times during his time as defensive coordinator for the Bengals.
"He had several great catches against me in his career," Zimmer said of Johnson. "The guy's outstanding. He's always a competitor. You had to deal with him every single week [you played each other]. He wasn't a guy that you never game planned for. There were very, very few plays that you ever said, 'Hey – No. 81's not involved in the call.' "