The Vikings offensive line might have played its best game of the season during Sunday's 34-28 overtime victory in Carolina, so on Tuesday, General Manager Rick Spielman had reason to be optimistic about a position that's been retooled year after year.
"Hopefully," Spielman said, "this line is a very young group that we're going to be able to keep together for a while."
The offensive line has been an annual offseason priority for the Vikings front office. All five starting blockers have been drafted within the past four years, with everybody but right guard Oli Udoh being a first- or second-round pick. Udoh was a 2019 sixth-round pick.
The results have been mixed through six games, especially as an interior line of guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury and Udoh remain a work in progress. But they're trending in the right direction. First-round rookie Christian Darrisaw is healthy, and appeared to be an upgrade over Rashod Hill at left tackle, even as coaches helped scheme Darrisaw into good situations.
In Darrisaw's first NFL start in Carolina, quarterback Kirk Cousins wasn't sacked for the first time this season. Quicker throws and better protection have helped Cousins be one of only five quarterbacks to start all six games and be sacked fewer than 10 times.
A year ago, only five quarterbacks were sacked more than Cousins, who was taken down 39 times.
"That position maybe takes the most time to evolve, especially if you can keep all five together," Spielman said. "It was great to see Darrisaw out there. I think Ezra, this is the second year that he's ever played guard in his life, and he's going to continue to evolve, as Bradbury has taken a step forward this year. Oli, this is the first time he's ever played guard, and he's stepped in and is learning on the move."
'I wish I had a crystal ball'
The Vikings are hopeful cornerback Patrick Peterson's hamstring injury will allow him to return from injured reserve as soon as he's eligible, which would be the week of the Nov. 21 game against Green Bay, according to Spielman, who also said Cameron Dantzler will have to "step up" in Peterson's place.
Spielman was asked whether he regrets trading away Mike Hughes, the 2018 first-round pick whom Spielman dealt to Kansas City in May for a late-round pick swap. Hughes was coming off back-to-back seasons ended because of a lingering neck injury.
"I wish I had a crystal ball and all that," Spielman said. "I'm not going to get into injuries and things like that. A lot of times when you do make decisions, you have to make decisions based on the people who are experts in those specific areas.
"I didn't anticipate the [Jeff] Gladney situation. Peterson, he's never been hurt," Spielman added. "But I do think we still have — that's why we kept six corners."
Trade deadline approaching
The NFL trade deadline is Nov. 2, two days after the Vikings host the Cowboys on Halloween night at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings don't often acquire talent midseason under Spielman, who traded away defensive end Yannick Ngakoue after a 1-5 start last year.
Despite being 3-3 and in the "playoff race," as Spielman said, he made it sound as if they'll be busier fielding offers than making them. He cited what can be long transition periods for newcomers to build chemistry and make an impact.
"The way our defense kind of started out a little slow," Spielman said. "The last two games, we've created five turnovers. Well, that's a bunch of guys playing together for the first time, where now they're getting in game situations, and you see them getting more and more comfortable."
Nwangwu in, Abdullah out
Running back Kene Nwangwu could make his Vikings debut on Oct. 31 against the Cowboys after the rookie was activated from injured reserve Tuesday. Nwangwu, the speedy fourth-round pick out of Iowa State, suffered a hyperextended knee during an Aug. 21 exhibition against the Colts.
The Vikings released running back Ameer Abdullah, who had a 45-yard kickoff return in Carolina, to make room for Nwangwu on the active roster. Abdullah could return to the practice squad.