NFL Draft preview: Minnesota Vikings fortify OL in free agency, could take WR in round 1

By The Sports Xchange  |  April 12, 2016 at 12:28 PM
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have had a solid offseason because they've been aggressive in shifting their primary focus to strengthening the offensive line.

A weakness for far too long, the line has new direction, better talent and more competition today than it did during an injury-plagued 2015 season -- a season that saw Adrian Peterson hit often behind the line of scrimmage and Teddy Bridgewater throw under pressure more often than any other quarterback in the league.

"Here's a quote for you," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "I feel like every other position group on our football team has a tough-minded personality. I don't know that our offensive line did."

Zimmer gave that quote after the team signed 49ers 6-foot-8, 300-pound mauler Alex Boone, the primary target in free agency this offseason. Boone will start at left guard.

Zimmer could have given the same quote after every other move directed to upgrade the offensive line. A day after the season, he fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. Two days later, he put all of his linemen on notice that nobody's job is safe. Not long after that, he found his new line coach in Tony Sparano, a tough, no-nonsense leader who has been a head coach.

Besides Boone, the Vikings also signed former Bengal Andre Smith, who is the presumed starter at right tackle, although the position won't be handed to him. The Vikings also re-signed longtime right tackle Phil Loadholt, who is motivated after missing all of last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon; and have T.J. Clemmings, who started every game there as a rookie in 2015.

The Vikings also have competition at right guard. They'll move Brandon Fusco back there from left guard, where he struggled last season. But they also gave last year's starter, Mike Harris, a one-year, prove-it deal. So he's motivated, too.

"I just want to get as many bodies (on the line) and let them fight it out," Zimmer said.

And that included left tackle Matt Kalil, who, despite his inconsistency, is the presumed starter because the team committed $11.96 million to him in the final year of his rookie contract. Asked if Boone or someone else could take Kalil's spot, Zimmer said, "Possibly."

The Vikings have fortified themselves in other areas. They re-signed 12 of their own free agents. They brought back veteran leaders in linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Terence Newman. They avoided potential holes by bringing back reliable role players in punt returner Marcus Sherels, backup running back Matt Asiata and several special teams standouts.

The Vikings also looked to the outside to upgrade their depth at linebacker (Emmanuel Lamur and Travis Lewis), tight end (Brian Leonhardt) and strong safety (Michael Griffin). Coaches would like Griffin, a 31-year-old veteran, to seize control of the position next to free safety Harrison Smith. That's been a weakness for years.

One area the team couldn't fix before the draft was receiver. They cut Mike Wallace because he made too much money for too little production and they still lack a big, physical receiver with prototypical No. 1-wideout skills. That will be addressed in the draft, possibly in the first round.

But Zimmer is OK with waiting for a receiver as long as the offensive line issues were addressed.

"I think if we fix (the offensive line) it's going to help (Bridgewater) a lot more than getting a receiver in here," Zimmer said. "Teddy was running for his life half the time. We had a whole bunch of 1-yard runs. I just felt like we needed to make some changes there."

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