When the Vikings offensive linemen assembled for their position group meetings this spring, among those who squeezed into seats were seven oversized newcomers.
There was also a familiar face that popped in much more than it had in the past.
“I want them to know I’ve got their back, so I’m going to sit in there with them,” said fourth-year head coach Mike Zimmer, who has resolved to be more involved with the offense this year. “I want them to know they’re my guys.”
So far, after 12 unpadded practices, Zimmer likes what he sees from his guys. On Thursday, after the Vikings wrapped up their offseason workout program with the third and final practice of a mandatory minicamp, he gushed about that group.
Zimmer loves the quiet intensity and constant effort that Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, the two tackles the Vikings splurged for in free agency, brought to the practice field. He is pleased by the performance of draft picks Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora. And he also gave positive shout-outs to young veterans Nick Easton and Rashod Hill.
But, he says, “The proof in the pudding is all going to come out in training camp.”
That, of course, is when the pads get strapped on, giving a talented Vikings defensive front the green light to make those hot afternoon practices in Mankato torture for the offense. Zimmer and the Vikings, who could have as many as three new starters up front, then will get a much better idea of how much better the line has gotten.
It is difficult to imagine it getting any worse. Last summer, it was already a question mark heading into training camp. Then offensive tackles Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Phil Loadholt all endured season-ending injuries before Columbus Day.
Pass protection became a constant worry, and the Vikings set a franchise low in yards per carry.
The Vikings did not re-sign Kalil or Smith and instead added Reiff and Remmers to play left and right tackle. Those two are known for being better run blockers than pass protectors, but defenders came away impressed with their pesky play.
“They’re guys that are going to fight, claw, scratch and do whatever they’ve got to do,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “They may get beat, but they’re going to get in a shove, they’re going to do something. They’ve got an attitude about them.”
Ditto for Elflein, a third-round draft pick who is battling Easton, a third-year lineman, to start at center between left guard Alex Boone and right guard Joe Berger. In the six spring practices open to media, Easton got most of the first-team action. Elflein often snapped for the second team, including all three minicamp practices.
“I think they’re both smart guys. They know the offense and are making good calls and getting us in the right position,” said Berger, who could be a candidate to move back to center if neither one seizes the job. “They’re competing and playing well.”
With four starters seemingly set in stone, T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles, starting tackles for much of last season because of all the injuries, lined up as second-string guards. Hill and Willie Beavers, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick who got cut after his first preseason, were the second-team tackles for most of this week’s minicamp.
“I think we’ve got a good group. It’s been coming together well,” Berger said.
Zimmer said he feels good about the direction of the running game this spring after the Vikings averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in 2016 and struggled in short-yardage situations.
On Tuesday, the starting offensive line got enough push in a red-zone drill to give running back Jerick McKinnon a big enough crack to slip through for a score.
The tackles have held up long enough to give quarterback Sam Bradford enough time to throw deep on several occasions, often to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. But it might be a different story once enemy pass rushers are actually allowed to touch Bradford.
And the communication has continued to improve as the top group looks to jell.
“We’re picking up blitzes and making adjustments on the line on the go,” said Remmers, back for a second stint in Minnesota.
“Communication is a big part of the game. It’s hard to just throw somebody in there and have everyone be on the same page.”
The linemen seem eager, after a welcome few weeks of vacation, to gauge their progress in padded practices and four preseason games. Boone, asked about their mind-set, used a staggering number of unprintable words in just a few short seconds.
Zimmer, after sitting in on all those spring meetings and also keeping a closer eye on his linemen in practice, sensed, too, that they are ready to put last season behind them.
“They seem pretty focused,” Zimmer said. “I think they just want to get it right.”