The Vikings’ priority this offseason was as evident as ever Sunday as the offensive line was outmanned by the Chicago Bears during a season-ending 24-10 loss.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ season of duress ended with nine hits, including four sacks in critical moments. His response — “I don’t have 10 seconds” to throw — to a frustrated Adam Thielen, as seen on the Fox broadcast, said enough after a third-down incompletion late in the first half. Cousins appeared upset Thielen didn’t break on a corner route sooner, which the quarterback anticipated with a quick throw that fell to the turf.
“Just trying to say if you [double move on the route], I don’t have time to wait on that usually,” Cousins said. “And I don’t know you’re doing that.”
So went the final snaps of a disappointing season marred by lingering questions about the offensive line.
Can the Vikings get more out of left tackle Riley Reiff, who turned 30 this month? Could promising rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill take Reiff’s job? Will guards Tom Compton, Mike Remmers and Nick Easton be on the roster? Will Clancy Barone remain the offensive line coach after stepping in when Tony Sparano passed away?
The Vikings are now looking up at the Bears, in part because defensive linemen Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks thoroughly dominated the Vikings’ front this season. Hicks led with six tackles for losses, including 2 ½ sacks, in the two Bears wins.
Remmers was no match for Hicks, who breezed past the right guard for a run stop on Dalvin Cook and a third-quarter sack on Cousins.
“I think that we have proved that we are the best team in the division,” Hicks said.
If the Vikings want change, the offensive line needs to be the front office’s primary focus.
Much of the room can be overhauled by management. Three linemen with starter experience — Compton, Easton and tackle Rashod Hill — are set to become free agents in March. Remmers has three seasons left on a five-year, $30 million deal, but the Vikings can move on at little cost because there is no guaranteed money left.
“I haven’t thought about that at all,” Remmers said. “I love it here. We’ll see what happens.”
Reiff, the group’s highest-paid lineman and a team captain, had a down season that ended with a fourth-quarter sack by Bears linebacker Isaiah Irving. The Vikings might be stuck with Reiff for next season based on $6.6 million in dead cap space incurred if he’s cut.
The Vikings should keep all options open — including moving O’Neill to left tackle for Reiff — based on the offensive line’s porous play throughout the season.
“This group is not going to lay down and just accept that it happened,” O’Neill said. “It’s going to motivate us to work harder in the offseason to come back bigger, stronger and faster. That’s what I plan to do.”