There was a fluidity about the Vikings’ offensive line this spring that’s become commonplace by now, at a position that has been a puzzle (and, at its worst moments, a calamity) for much of the past five years or so.
Still, when the team returns to its practice facility in Eagan for the start of training camp next month, there shouldn’t be nearly as much furniture to move around in front of quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Center Pat Elflein, who did not practice with the team this spring after recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries, figures to be back by training camp. The Vikings could then return Nick Easton to left guard, while counting on Riley Reiff to be a mainstay again at left tackle. At that point, their only tasks would be finding a right guard to replace the retired Joe Berger, and figuring out if Rashod Hill can start at right tackle should Mike Remmers move inside to Berger’s vacated guard spot.
That’s a relatively short to-do list, given how long the Vikings’ offensive line has been in a state of flux, and it probably doesn’t look that different from the agenda in many ports of call around the NFL this time of year. Still, as the Vikings spent the spring learning a new offense and breaking in their new quarterback, they had to do it with some moving parts on the line.
“There’s a lot of things technique-wise that you look at [in the spring],” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Pass protection, a lot of certain things with the technique. In the run game it’s a little bit tougher to evaluate those things because you’re not coming off the ball and all that. It’s always mental mistakes, going to the right guy, working together with the guy next to him. It’s all those things.”
After the first week of organized team activities, when the Vikings had Remmers at right tackle, they used him at right guard in every practice open to the media, including all three days of minicamp. He played right guard in the Vikings’ Week 17 victory over the Bears last season, then shifted to left guard in the playoffs with Easton out because of a fractured ankle.
Now, after three games at the guard spots and much of the offseason to work there, Remmers said he feels more comfortable playing inside.
“I like the position a lot,” Remmers said. “[The playoff games] helped build my confidence. The experience isn’t something you can really teach; you’ve just got to do it. It’s nice having that little bit of experience under my belt.”
If the Vikings do keep Remmers at guard, a year after signing him to a five-year, $30 million deal to play right tackle, they’d likely line him up inside of Hill, who started six regular-season games and two playoff games at right tackle last year.
It was the Vikings’ two playoff games in particular, Hill said, that taught him an important lesson about handling fatigue in the fourth quarter of a game. He said he dropped from 325 pounds to 313, mostly by cutting out late-night snacks, 10 p.m. Burger King runs and steaks at the Capital Grille.
“You know those rice cakes? Man, I’ve never eaten that in my life,” Hill said. “I’ve been trying them out and they’re amazing. I would think you’d eat less to lose weight, but you eat more of those smaller snacks — the metabolism comes and you burn off weight. I learn that I don’t eat nothing after 7:30 p.m. That’s my cutoff.
“You got to move better here. You got younger guys coming in, people coming in. You have to keep moving. That’s what I’m up to. I’m not worried about it.”
However the Vikings configure their line, they’ll have an expensive asset to protect in Cousins. Their new quarterback tied for an NFL-high nine interceptions under pressure last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and Cousins finished 16th in the league with a 66.3 passer rating in such situations.
Case Keenum, who was seventh in the league at 78.5, probably helped the Vikings with his elusiveness; he was pressured more than all but two QBs in the league, but had the NFL’s second-lowest sack rate among starters. No quarterback was better at preventing pressure from turning into a sack than Keenum.
And once the Vikings get their line healthy in training camp, they’ll have plenty of work to do with Cousins.
“That’s one of the many areas of development, and it’s been tough not having Pat Elflein out here every day because you want to build the rapport with the guy you expect to be there,” Cousins said. “Just trying to continue to make sure I get rid of the ball quickly and don’t make their job any harder than it already is.”