The Vikings spent the 2016 season shuttling through offensive line combinations in search of stability. They guaranteed $36.8 million this spring to two tackles they hoped could provide it in 2017. So it would be understandable if, over the past three weeks, they’d felt a foreboding sense of “here we go again.”
New left tackle Riley Reiff missed most of training camp with a back injury before returning for some limited work in team drills over the weekend. Rashod Hill, who’s been getting most of the first-team snaps at left tackle with Reiff out, dodged his own knee injury in the Vikings’ night practice on Aug. 5. And while the Vikings have been trying both Nick Easton and rookie Pat Elflein as their starting center, they had to give both players work at left guard on Sunday with guard Alex Boone not at practice.
Even if the Vikings’ ailments are likely to clear up before the regular season, they’re still limiting the time the team can spend solidifying its ideal five-man combination on the offensive line. For now, though, the Vikings are choosing to find in the offensive line changes a dose of serendipity.
“Certainly sooner is better [to find a permanent starting five], but we feel like we’re getting good work from all the players in there,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “The unintended consequence of this is that they’re getting used to playing with one another in different lineups, and I think that’s good. We like what we’ve seen from the players that we got out there.”
The Vikings’ line play left something to be desired in their preseason opener against Buffalo on Thursday night, when quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked twice in a quarter of work. Both Shurmur and coach Mike Zimmer, though, spoke highly of Elflein’s work at center (apart from an errant snap to Taylor Heinicke and one missed block), and Easton also got positive reviews.
“Right now, we don’t have the people in there that we want to, so we’re kind of making substitutions, which I think is good on some level,” Boone said Saturday. “These young guys are getting good reps, they’re starting to get into games and they’re kind of being matured faster than normal. But at the end of the day, everybody has to be on the same page, and that’s the one thing we’re trying to get across to everybody: If the center thinks this way, everybody else has to think this way, as well.”
The identity of the Vikings’ starting center might be the most important question they have to answer this preseason. They’ve used Joe Berger at right guard for most of training camp, and they appear to be planning for him to play there while either Easton or Elflein starts at center.
The 35-year-old Berger, who started 14 games for the Vikings in 2016, could return to center if needed, but as the Vikings try to identify an offensive line beyond this year, they could look to one of their younger options to anchor it.
“I think young or old, the center position has to get everybody on the right page, first of all,” Berger said. “Especially in protection, they have to be on the same page with the quarterback. They have to be firm with their calls, and confident with them. I think both of those guys have been able to get to that point, for the most part. The games are when you get to tell if it’s really in there or not, and that wasn’t a problem this week in the game at all.”
Both Zimmer and Shurmur said they’d like to get their starting five settled soon, but neither wanted to rush the process at the expense of identifying the best solution to a position that’s bothered the Vikings for several years.
In the meantime, the fluctuations on the line — and the rough spots in the preseason — are temporary problems the Vikings believe will go away.
“You give up two sacks in the first game, and a lot of people want to throw shade on us, and rightfully so,” Boone said. “At the end of the day, we come back and say, ‘How do we keep him standing?’ As long as everybody sticks to the code, we should be all right.”