This morning, I took a look at some of the unheralded players in Sunday’s conference title games. The guys not calling themselves “Superman,” “Batman,” “Captain America,” “Hail Larry,” Brady or Manning.
You know, the offensive linemen.
As you might know, the Vikings clearly have established the offensive line as their No. 1 priority this offseason. Less than 48 hours into this offseason, coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and put every starter on alert that they’ll have to compete for their jobs.
Nothing and no one is off the table. For the Vikings to progress and reach their full potential with Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson in the same backfield, they need to protect that backfield a lot better than they have for some time now. Fans should take some level of comfort in the job Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman did two years ago when they put their initial focus on the defensive line.
By the time the 2014 season started, there were three new starters and four new backups. Kevin Williams and Jared Allen were bid farewell. Linval Joseph was quickly targeted as the prized free agent signing. A big financial risk was taken on Everson Griffen. Tom Johnson was one of the best under-the-radar moves of that offseason. And further reinforcement came in 2015 when Danielle Hunter, the heir apparent to Brian Robison at left end, became the most pleasant surprise of the Vikings’ draft class.
Now, it’s time to fix the offensive line. No change should come as a surprise because when things are broke, Zimmer tends to fix them.
A look at the 20 linemen still playing in this year’s conference title games shows a mixed bag of players. The bar isn’t exactly high either, although the Vikings are going to need to set their sights higher because they don’t have a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning to erase the blemishes up front.
Of the four teams left, the Patriots have the lowest-ranked offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). They ranked 25th overall and 31st in pass protection. Carolina has the best offensive line still playing. The Panthers rank second overall (fourth passing, sixth rushing) while the Cardinals rank 17th (28th passing, fourth rushing) and Denver ranks 20th (23rd passing, 21st rushing).
In Denver, Manning’s 18 years of experience were thwarted to some degree by a change in systems, the preseason loss of left tackle Ryan Clady and a makeshift line that saw eight Broncos play at least 100 snaps. Try and remember that the next time you’re wondering, “What’s wrong with Peyton?”
Of the 20 starters up front this weekend, only nine were drafted by their current team. Of those nine, none was taken in the first round by their current team. Two were second-rounders: Carolina center Ryan Kalil (2007) and Patriots left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (2009). Two were third-rounders, three were fourth-rounders and there were one each in the fifth and sixth rounds.
Seven were acquired as veteran free agents. Three were signed as undrafted rookies, including Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein, a nine-year veteran and the son of former Vikings linebacker Robin Sendlein, a second-round pick in 1981. One was signed off another team’s practice squad.
The Panthers’ interior starters are the best of the linemen still playing. Carolina right guard Trai Turner, a third-rounder in 2014, is a reminder that their is value beyond the 1.5 gazillion first-round mock drafts you’ll read between now and April.
Carolina isn’t particular strong at tackle, but the Panthers show how a team can get by when it has to. Right tackle Mike Remmers was signed off the Rams practice squad and has started every game this season.
A journeyman who is on his sixth team at age 26, Remmers was signed by the Vikings for depth in November of 2013. He never played for the team and was released before the next season.
So there are plenty of ways the Vikings can improve their offensive line. It will be interesting to see who and how many they target.