Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman knows where to turn if he needs outside help identifying his team’s biggest need.
“I know what’s been written [by the media], where, you know, we want to play more consistent up front on the offensive line,” he said Thursday.
The Vikings’ first move of the offseason, coming within 24 hours of their wild-card playoff loss to Seattle, was to fire offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. One of the next moves was to replace him with Tony Sparano, a 54-year-old former NFL head coach and offensive line expert who has reshaped the team’s blocking schemes and thinking on what traits it should be looking for in a lineman.
So, yes, it stands to reason that next week’s trip to the NFL scouting combine would include kicking the tires on a lot of large young men who can satisfy Sparano, protect Teddy Bridgewater and open holes for Adrian Peterson sooner rather than later.
Spielman doesn’t dispute the need. But for the umpteenth time in his tenure as overseer of the Vikings draft since 2007, he warned that he will try to fill needs through the draft but will stay true to selecting the best player on his board.
The Vikings have the 23rd pick overall and eight picks total in this year’s draft. Spielman’s annual goal of having 10 draft picks means he will be entertaining offers to trade down to acquire more picks.
“The draft has always been our focal point; that’s how we’ve built this football team,” Spielman said of an 11-5 team that’s coming off an NFC North title. “I think building through the draft, you can maintain consistency year in and year out. Not saying we won’t dabble in the free-agent market, but I don’t have a big history of that.”
After firing Davidson, coach Mike Zimmer also put his starting linemen on notice that no job is secure. Center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt are over 30 and coming off significant injuries that wiped out 2015. Right tackle T.J. Clemmings failed to gain a long-term foothold on the job despite starting every game as a rookie. Right guard Mike Harris is a free agent. Left guard Brandon Fusco struggled in his switch from right guard. Left tackle Matt Kalil remains inconsistent and now has a tricky contract situation that includes a fifth-year option that’s too expensive relative to his production.
And the best lineman on the team last year was Joe Berger, a soon-to-be 34-year-old backup that filled in for Sullivan.
The Vikings drafted three offensive linemen last year, but none higher than Clemmings in the fourth round. Sixth-rounder Tyrus Thompson didn’t make the team.
Spielman said he thinks this year’s draft class will be “pretty deep” at offensive line. He also noted that many prospects have position flexibility and that the Vikings are in the process of identifying how those versatile players match what Sparano is looking for.
It’s not easy to project talent, particularly on the offensive line. Spielman said the prevalence of the spread offense in college football adds to the difficulty of evaluating today’s young linemen.
“Just in general, offensive linemen take a little longer to develop,” he said. “It’s just the way the game has developed in college. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. With the restrictions we have with the [collective bargaining agreement] … that takes time and development.”
So does it make more sense to pick them higher in the draft in hopes that they’re closer to being NFL-ready?
“If they’re there when you pick,” Spielman said.
It also depends on the depth of the talent at the position. If another position of need is thin and offensive line is deep, Spielman said, “maybe you wait in the first round and take a swing at it and get a potential guy in the second round or third round.”
Either way, the Vikings are expected to take their share of cuts when it comes to strengthening their weakest unit.