After playing the NFC Championship Game last season, the Minnesota Vikings are primed to make another strong run at making the Super Bowl this season.
The Vikings had the No. 1 defense in the league a year ago. Every key defensive player is back and even a few upgrades have been made. The Vikings also invested $84 million in quarterback Kirk Cousins over the next three seasons, and he has some prime skill-position players at his disposal.
So, are all the pieces in place for the Vikings to win another North Division title and be among the elite NFC teams? Well, there is the matter of the offensive line.
Two years ago the Vikings’ season was derailed in part because they had one of the worst offensive lines in the league. The team addressed the situation prior to the 2017 season by signing free agents Riley Reiff (left tackle) and Mike Remmers (right guard) and then drafting Pat Elflein in the third round. Elflein immediately became the starting center and helped the line jump to the middle of the pack last season.
But this past offseason right guard Joe Berger retired and then starting left guard Nick Easton suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. And while the Vikings drafted tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round and guard Colby Gossett in the sixth round, neither appear ready to play a significant role in 2018. Minnesota native Tom Compton was also signed as a free agent in the offseason. In the previous five seasons in Washington and Chicago, Compton appeared in 71 games and made 15 starts, including six for the Bears a year ago.
Compton, a former sixth-round draft choice, has been healthy in camp and is slated to take over Easton’s starting spot at left guard. But as the regular season quickly approaches, the offensive line appears far from set and injuries have played a big role in the first unit playing much together.
“We’re not the only ones in the league to be having these issues, I’m sure,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We just have a few more than we should have at this point in time. It’s life.”
Life was supposed to be good for the Vikings in 2018 but looming questions about the line could prove to be worrisome the entire season. Elflein was injured in last season’s NFC title game and he started training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Remmers has missed time in the preseason due to injury as has new starting right tackle Rashod Hill.
“Obviously it’s not the ideal situation, but that’s football and that stuff happens so you have to live with it,” Remmers said. “You have to adjust.”
“Yeah, it’s hard especially when you get multiples (injuries), it’s never good,” Compton said. “But that’s football. We can practice a little more with who we’ve got and try to get some stuff cleaned up. That’s just part of the game.”
The Vikings do have versatile players who can play a number of positions along the line. That could be a key to the season, as well as depth. Due to injuries, Aviante Collins was forced to play three different positions along the line in the second preseason game.
“I mean being versatile in general just helps out the whole team,” Collins said. “I think it is valuable to have somebody like that. I mean we have had people like that in the past, like Jeremiah Sirles was able to play multiple positions, Nick Easton, Joe Berger and even Pat (Elflein) they can all play multiple positions, it just helps out the team, having those people that can play multiple positions.”
“That’s what a lot of us have to do,” Compton said. “You just have to step up and play whatever position you can at this point.”
Two other key backups, center Cornelius Edison and guard Danny Isidora, also made starts during the preseason due to injuries.
“It’s tough to see people go down like that, especially in the preseason,” Edison said. “But it’s the next-man-up mentality and guys have to step up.”
Dealing with injuries is a big part of being successful in the NFL. Teams with solid depth usually deal with injuries the best. The Vikings don’t have a lot of high draft choices among their offensive linemen, but they hope they have the depth to survive a starter going down.
“I have absolute faith in our entire group and faith that if somebody has to pop in they’re going to do the best they can and they’re going to do it the right way,” Remmers said.
“I think we’ll be all right.”
With Elflein having missed much of camp, the projected starting offensive line has had little or no practice time together. But that doesn’t seem to faze the linemen.
“We were in OTAs together and we’re all in the same room,” Remmers said. “We’re all on the same page with everything so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
“We’ve been together every day since spring time so we have a personal connection to one another,” Edison said.
“When we get out there, it’s all business and we know we have to play with one another and communicate and go from there.”
Compton thinks the line will be up to speed by the start of the regular season.
Compton said he also believes the unit will be successful, especially if all of the top players are on the field.
“We’re just all on the same page and use good technique and do what the coaches tell us to do,” he said.
“I think for us it’s going to be communication, just constantly communicating,” Edison said of the line playing well together. “When new guys step in there, we just all have to be on the same page.”
And for the offensive line, it will be a matter of trying to keep Cousins upright and healthy the entire season.
Cousins is by no means a stellar scrambler, but he did rush for four touchdowns and a career-high 179 yards last season.
“I think that the players who have come in in place of some of our starting offensive linemen and have done a good job and ready to play,” Cousins said. “While coach (John) DeFilippo has done a really good job with the game plan and play calling to accentuate our strengths and try to protect us from some of our weaknesses. That is what a great play caller does.”
And while the Vikings may have versatility and depth along the line, will it be quality? DeFilippo admits that shuffling healthy players along is an attempt to see who the not only the best fit, but the best players.
“We want the best five guys out there,” DeFilippo said.
“I think that’s why you’re seeing us move guys around. We’re trying a bunch of different O-line options. It’s a credit to the players.”