Late Wednesday morning, as Vikings players returned to work through the fog of Monday’s loss to Seattle, a long flight back from the West Coast and the sudden Tuesday firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, center Pat Elflein walked into the team’s locker room to break the silence of a group that had played a conspicuous role in DeFilippo’s dismissal.
“It’s a sad day,” said Elflein, the only Vikings offensive lineman to speak publicly the day after DeFilippo was fired. “But at the end of the day, it’s a production business. I wish as players, we could have played better, but we didn’t get it done. It’s tough news, but we’ve got an important three games coming up.”
It remains to be seen whether interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski can devise a scheme to mitigate some of the run blocking and pass protection issues that have plagued the Vikings all season, but there’s a case to be made that the issues along the Vikings’ offensive front contributed to the philosophical rift between DeFilippo and Mike Zimmer.
The head coach wanted the Vikings to run the ball more often; while DeFilippo believed in passing to set up the run, he also seemed cautious about basing too much of the Vikings’ game plan on the team’s ability to control the line of scrimmage.
Outside zone runs to Dalvin Cook and some of the screens the Vikings employed under Pat Shurmur could help mitigate the issues, but it’s probably too late for the Vikings’ problems up front to be solved completely this season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been pressured on 38.7 percent of his dropbacks (the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus), and Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings’ line 31st in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, which measures the contributions of an offensive line to a team’s overall success on the ground.
The Vikings made Brian O’Neill their first offensive lineman drafted in the top two rounds since 2012, and could have a promising running mate for Elflein in their attempts to get linemen to the second level of a defense and create space on perimeter plays. But as they appear headed into another offseason of addressing their line, following a season where the unit has ranked among their top issues again, it’s worth wondering if an ounce of offseason prevention would have been worth a pound of regular-season cure.
Guard Joe Berger, who played all but two of the team’s offensive snaps in 2017 and served as a steadying presence in the offensive line room, let it be known at the NFL combine he was rethinking his plans to retire and was open to playing in 2018.
Berger, who made just $2.2 million in 2017, talked with the Vikings (among other teams) about a return in 2018, but absent an offer he felt was worth taking, he decided to retire in the spring. Berger had started at both guard positions and center; his return might have helped the Vikings through Elflein’s return from a pair of offseason surgeries at the beginning of the year, or given them another option at left guard once Nick Easton was lost for the season. As it is, the Vikings moved Remmers from his customary right tackle spot to right guard, where his 36 allowed pressures are tied for the fourth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Though the Vikings were interested in bringing back Jeremiah Sirles, they did not place a restricted free agent tender on the versatile lineman, who signed with Carolina and wound up in Buffalo after he was injured with the Panthers. And four picks after the Vikings selected Mike Hughes, surprising an offensive staff that was clamoring for a lineman, Shurmur’s new team plucked UTEP guard Will Hernandez, who has started all 13 games for the Giants.
(We should also pause here and note the effect of offensive line coach Tony Sparano’s death in July; Sparano was a confidant of both Zimmer’s and DeFilippo’s, and some in the organization believed could have provided a bridge between the two.)
The Vikings had less than $1 million in cap space until they caught a fortuitous financial break last month, when defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd withdrew a grievance against the team that freed up $3.906 million. As it is, the Vikings have $4.235 million left in cap space, and can roll the amount over into the 2019 league year, where they could free up an additional $5.5 million by declining an option on safety Andrew Sendejo and look to rework deals for players like Remmers and tight end Kyle Rudolph. And while it might strike fans as particularly cynical after his battles with mental health issues, the Vikings could consider some kind of an adjustment to the deal of defensive end Everson Griffen, whose $10.9 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year.
Even though those moves could add significantly to the Vikings’ current projected cap space of $12 to $16 million, it would be tricky to land a pending free agent like Rams guard Roger Saffold, given the Vikings could look to re-sign Sheldon Richardson and rework Adam Thielen’s contract. The Vikings’ best approach might be to make some deep investments in the draft after devoting a pair of second-day picks (Elflein and O’Neill) to the line the last two years.
The line will be a source of great intrigue once again this offseason, as the Vikings appear faced with another round of decisions along the offensive front. This week, as Stefanski took over for DeFilippo, it was difficult to ignore the profound effect of one of the Vikings’ longest-running issues.
“Whether you’re trying to establish a passing game or a running game, you have to be physically dominant up front,” Elflein said. “We have to do a better job of that.”