INDIANAPOLIS – As the Vikings begin the 2019 edition of what now feels like an annual exercise — attempting to improve their offensive line before the upcoming season — coach Mike Zimmer feels like he has an additional ally to help solve the problem.
In the postmortem of their disappointing 8-7-1 season, the Vikings have shed additional light on the degree to which the death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano affected their season. When Sparano died on July 22 from complications associated with heart disease, the Vikings lost a mentor for their offensive linemen, a sounding board for Zimmer and a bridge between the coach and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Zimmer said this week he sought out former Texans and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak as a teacher for new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, and sounded hopeful the addition of offensive line coach Rick Dennison — who will also be the Vikings’ run game coordinator — can make things easier for the Vikings linemen.
“I do think we probably have to get a little bit better there [on the offensive line],” Zimmer said. “But I also think part of coaching is helping these guys get better as well. I think scheme can help, I think plays that you call can help. So I think it’s a twofold situation. One of the things I like about these guys when I’m sitting in that room is they’re talking about being able to protect a guy a little bit more if he’s on a better player this week. Just how the scheme can help a player be better. And I believe that’s true at every position, really.”
It remains to be seen what kind of capital the Vikings will invest in their offensive line this year, after the additions of four veteran starters — Andre Smith, Alex Boone, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers — have produced middling results in the past three years. While the Vikings took center Pat Elflein in the third round in 2017 and selected tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round last year, they’ve taken just one first-round linemen (Matt Kalil) in General Manager Rick Spielman’s 12 drafts, and Zimmer demurred this week when asked if the Vikings might select a lineman at No. 18 overall this year.
Still, the coach sounded optimistic about this year’s offensive line class, and the Vikings have held meetings at the NFL scouting combine this week with a number of linemen, including Ohio State’s Michael Jordan, Mississippi’s Greg Little and Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom. University of Sioux Falls lineman Trey Pipkins — an Apple Valley graduate — said he talked with the team at the East-West Shrine Game.
The Vikings could look to bring back guard Nick Easton, who Spielman said will be cleared to return from the hernia surgery that ended his 2018 season, and they’re hopeful Elflein and O’Neill will be better after using an offseason to get stronger. And while Zimmer said the Vikings will have some power runs in their offense, their ground game will be based largely on the zone-running scheme Dennison has used for years under Kubiak.
“From what Gary says, Rick is unbelievable at game-planning the runs as far as formatting it different ways, getting at this, ideas going into the week,” Zimmer said.
Especially if the Vikings decide not to take a lineman near the top of the draft, or try to fit a free agent into a tight salary cap picture, their new coaching staff could be asked to make a big contribution.
“We’ll address everything in free agency and the draft,” Spielman said. “But since that [the offensive line] is the bone of contention with everybody, there’s some things, not only from maybe improving the personnel up front but also from a schematic standpoint, that we can do to maybe help the offensive line be more efficient as well. It goes hand in hand — the coaching, the scheme. Can we do things differently to maybe help them but also improving the personnel?”