In 2018, the Vikings finished 30th out of 32 teams in the NFL in total rushing with only 1,493 yards. They were well behind their NFC North counterparts in that category.
The Bears finished 11th in the league with 1,938 yards. The Packers were 22nd with 1,667 yards. The Lions were 23rd with 1,660 yards.
But the bigger issue is the Vikings’ poor running game stretches back over several seasons. In 2016, they were last in the NFL with 1,205 yards. Combined with last year’s total, those are two of the four worst rushing seasons in franchise history.
The Vikings line fared a little better last season when it came to pass protection. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked 40 times, tied for 15th in the NFL. The Packers allowed 53 sacks, tied for 29th in the league. The Lions gave up 41 sacks and the Bears allowed only 33.
And now the big question is: Will the Vikings try to improve their offensive line with their first-round draft choice Thursday night to improve their running game and better protect Cousins? The team has much rebuilding to do, after losing guard Mike Remmers, tackle Tom Compton and guard/center Nick Easton this offseason.
When the Vikings picked tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round last year, he was only the third offensive lineman the team has selected in the first two rounds since General Manager Rick Spielman took over the draft in 2007. Starting center Pat Elflein was a third-round pick in 2017. And the coaching staff and front office will tell you that when they selected O’Neill and Elflein, they didn’t expect them to have to start so soon in their careers.
The Bears and Packers, by comparison, both expect to have four offensive line starters who were drafted by the club. The Lions probably will have three.
Spielman said the decisions to sign guard Josh Kline and center Brett Jones was meant to give them line depth before considering what kind of draft picks they can target Thursday through Saturday in Nashville.
“We were wanting to build the depth up in the offensive line,” Spielman said. “From a schematic standpoint, we may be looking for a little different type of offensive lineman than we have in the past [with the team’s new coaches]. Some of the guys we have signed fit what we’re going to do from a schematic standpoint, and we’ve been really honing in on the draft picks.
“I believe there’s a lot of good offensive linemen in this draft, and you’re going to get some great value throughout the draft that are going to fit the traits we’re looking for in the scheme we’re going to be running.”
Does Spielman have a preference in drafting a player who is immediately ready to start vs. someone with greater long-term value who might need more time to develop?
“I think as we [evaluate] each individual, there are guys that are ready to step in and play right now, we believe,” he said. “There are guys that may take a little time but halfway through the year or after a year or two, they may be better than the ones that are going to step in and play right now.
“As we sit there and talk about each offensive lineman, we’re trying to determine not only can they fit us from a schematic standpoint, but are they first-day starters when they walk in the door, [or] is he a little bit of a project that may take a little bit of time but has tremendous upside?”
Dennison takes over
Maybe more important than the draft or free agency was the Vikings’ decision to change their offensive coaches.
They brought in offensive line/run game coordinator Rick Dennison, who has been an NFL assistant since 1995 — getting his start under former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan — and also has worked with new assistant head coach Gary Kubiak for 18 of his 25 years in the league.
Dennison said when he looks at the offensive line, he sees some basic things that can improve the running game.
“Persistence is the key and then, you know, we’ll go out and see,” he said. “We’ll make sure we work on the same techniques over and over again and make sure we find some holes for the running back to find.”
Dennison has coached 18 different Pro Bowl players, and his rushing offenses have averaged 2,038 yards per season (about 127.4 yards per game).
The Vikings have rushed for more than 2,038 yards in a season 17 times in franchise history. In more recent seasons, the only times they have surpassed it were when three-time NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson was with the club from 2007 to ’16.
History with Kubiak
Dennison said Kubiak played a big role in getting him to Minnesota to help fix the offensive line.
“It was because certainly it’s easier and, I don’t know, it makes more sense to coach what you have done all the time,” Dennison said. “Gary and I have worked together and done the same kind of thing. I understand it. It’s faster. I know what he wants and kind of expects. It’s easy for me. I know what the end result looks like and I know how to get there.”
Dennison and Kubiak go way back, playing together with the Broncos before their coaching association.
What does Dennison think Kubiak will bring to the offense, along with new coordinator Kevin Stefanski?
“I think Gary does a good job of just understanding what the defense does and finding holes,” Dennison said. “I think he’s one of the better [coaches] that I have ever seen in finding a hole on game day. That is one thing that he does is make adjustments and help make adjustments. I think he, combined with Kevin, will be a great team as far as putting a plan together and making everything look the same and have the defense defend the entire field.”
There is no question the Vikings have one major issue to resolve if they are going to be Super Bowl contenders in 2019, and that is putting together an effective offensive line.