The Vikings have added Jake Long, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, to be the next next next man up at offensive tackle after their latest injury at that key spot.
Long signed his contract Tuesday morning then joined his new teammates on the outdoor practice fields at Winter Park. Long lined up at left tackle during the light practice, the team’s last before coach Mike Zimmer dismissed them for the bye week, though Long said he got “a few snaps” at right tackle, too.
Long, who was mostly a left tackle in his first eight seasons in the NFL and last played right tackle regularly at the University of Michigan, said he is ready to help wherever needed.
“That’s up to the coaches,” Long said. “I’m going to do whatever they want.”
General Manager Rick Spielman would not say if Long will start right away.
“Right now I’m just trying to get the [roster] filled,” he said with a laugh.
The Vikings initially reached out to Long’s representation late last week when it appeared that starting right tackle Andre Smith would need season-ending surgery on his injured triceps. Smith was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
The Vikings worked out Long and others Monday and conducted a physical to see if the 31-year-old was healthy enough to contribute to their offensive line before signing him to a reported one-year deal. Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, was one of the NFL’s top tackles in his first few seasons before a pair of knee injuries derailed his career.
The Baltimore Ravens agreed to terms with Long on a contract this summer. But after sending Long to get looked at by the renowned Dr. James Andrews, they were concerned about the condition of his surgically repaired left knee and asked him to sign an injury waiver. He balked and the deal fell through.
Long said, “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” adding that he was “jacked up” when the Vikings invited him in for a workout and said he “was like a kid in a candy store” after his first football practice since the end of last season. He seemed frustrated he had to wait this long for another opportunity.
Long began his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins. Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano was in his first year as head coach there when the Dolphins selected him over franchise quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.
The 6-7, 312-pound former Michigan star made a big impact right away, garnering Pro Bowl invitations in his first four seasons. Long was named a second-team All-Pro in 2009 and a first-team All-Pro a year later.
But the injuries started to mount for Long, who finished the 2011 and 2012 seasons on injured reserve because of a torn biceps and triceps, respectively. A back injury also caused him to miss time in 2011. His performance dipped, too. Pro Football Focus graded Long as their 46th-ranked offensive tackle in 2012.
The tackle picked the St. Louis Rams over the Dolphins in free agency in 2013 and protected the blind side of current Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford.
Long got his game back on track that year, ranking as PFF’s 11th-best tackle, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The following season, he was solid, ranking 35th among tackles, but tore that ACL a second time.
“Injuries happen and, unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share,” said Long, who spent 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons but played only 10 snaps on offense.
“Through all of them, I’ve put my head down, I’ve rehabbed, worked hard and haven’t given up. I know what I can do. I know the type of player I can be when I’m healthy. So I just put my head down and got through the frustration to get back. And now I got this opportunity and I have to thrive in it.”
The Vikings, who have given up 27 quarterback hits so far and rank last in the NFL in yards per run (2.5), might need him to thrive to make a deep playoff run.
T.J. Clemmings, generally a right tackle who has started the past three games at left tackle after Matt Kalil needed hip surgery and was placed on injured reserve, has struggled at that unfamiliar position. He was beaten on a pair of sacks in Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans.
Jeremiah Sirles, who was on the roster bubble at the end of the preseason, was pushed into action at right tackle after Smith got injured in the Week 4 victory over the New York Giants. He held his own against the Giants and Texans.
It is probably unrealistic to expect Long to recapture his Pro Bowl form but, at the very least, he might be able to provide needed depth behind Clemmings and Sirles if he doesn’t step into the starting lineup to solidify one of those tackle spots.
“He hasn’t had a training camp so he was relatively healthy when he came in for the physical,” Spielman said. “He passed our physical or we wouldn’t have signed him. I know he was a pretty good football player when he was healthy.”