The Vikings made their first veteran cuts of the offseason Friday, signaling the start an overhaul of their underperforming offensive line by releasing a pair of former starters in Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris.
Neither cut was surprising. Fusco was not the same player after tearing his pectoral in 2014 and his release freed up $3.2 million in cap space. Harris, meanwhile, missed last season with an undisclosed medical issue and as of last month still had not been cleared by team doctors.
The two linemen had made 85 combined starts for the Vikings.
The next decision the Vikings must make up front — and they may have made it already — is whether to try to bring back Matt Kalil or Andre Smith. Both tackles, Week 1 starters in 2016, will be free agents.
Kalil, the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft, was a popular target of criticism after too often giving Teddy Bridgewater a reason to show off his running ability. But the play of Kalil’s replacements in 2016, T.J. Clemmings in particular, showed that, yes, the Vikings could do worse at left tackle.
With no internal option ready to take over that critical position and not many difference-makers available in free agency, the Vikings could opt to re-sign Kalil to a short-term deal and hope that after he missed most of the 2016 season with a hip injury he will be refreshed and rebound.
Smith was also placed on injured reserve early in the 2016 season, with a torn triceps. Before that, he struggled in his first year in Minnesota.
While the prospect of either of those guys starting Week 1 of next season probably wouldn’t inspire much optimism, the Vikings must sign a couple of veterans, whether they are their own free agents or ones from another team. If not, Tony Sparano himself might have to suit up.
At the scouting combine early next month, the Vikings will get a better idea of what the market might look like in free agency, which unofficially starts March 7 with the two-day negotiating window for free agents.
Ideally, they land someone like Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who at 35 was one of the league’s best pass protectors last season, or Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner, a solid run blocker when he healthy, to solidify one of their tackle spots for at least a couple of seasons.
Or perhaps they spend on a guard for a second straight offseason. Kevin Zeitler, Whitworth’s talented Cincinnati teammate, may be available.
But if they are unwilling or unable to give big bucks to one of the top free agents and instead plan to actually use one of their top picks in April’s draft on a lineman, the Vikings will need somebody back as a stopgap.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts here. The release of Fusco and Harris are just the first of what could be several moves up front.