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Commentary: Wobbly offensive line will determine Vikings' fate

Minnesota Vikings center Nick Easton (62) against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Aug. 10, 2017. Minnesota beats Buffalo 17 to 10. Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings fans are nothing if not fatalistic, so news of Nick Easton's season-ending surgery Thursday, Aug. 9, might send some of the bravely optimistic into here-we-go-again mode before the team plays its first preseason game on Saturday.

And let's face it, not without good reason.

Heading into training camp, the Vikings' offensive line was probably the biggest question mark on a team still expected to compete for a Super Bowl berth this season, and now the left guard is headed for injured reserve after Thursday surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.

Center Pat Elflein is expected to be ready for the regular season but has yet to practice while he recovers fully from shoulder and ankle surgeries, and right guard Mike Remmers is nursing an ankle injury heading into Saturday night's preseason opener against the Broncos in Denver.

This wouldn't be of such great concern if offensive linemen, who collectively absorb more hits than any players in the NFL, didn't tend to go down every other week. That seems especially true in Minnesota, where problems up front derailed a 2016 season that started with a 5-0 record and ended at 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Even last season, when Minnesota won 14 games and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings lost a total of 17 combined games from their offensive line starters. They overcame that in large part because of Tony Sparano, a veteran offensive line coach who was about to start his third season in Minnesota when he died suddenly of heart disease on July 22.

That's a loss the Vikings will feel on and off the field for a long time.

Only guard/center Joe Berger played all 18 of the Vikings' games on the line last season, the last of his 13 in the NFL. So concerned are the Vikings, that, according to the Pioneer Press' Chris Tomasson, they called Berger this week to see if he's interested in coming out of retirement. He's not. And a very short list of free-agent offensive linemen includes Alex Boone (no way) and Richie Incognito (no f—— way).

When the Vikings lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season, general manager Rick Spielman, suspecting his team was solid elsewhere, traded for Sam Bradford. It was the right move, and almost worked; the Vikings won their first five games. Then the offensive line fell apart.

Mike Harris, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith were lost to early season-ending injuries, leaving the Vikings so thin they picked up unsigned veteran tackle Jake Long in October. He lasted a few games before tearing an Achilles tendon. Berger and Brandon Fusco, stalwarts on a makeshift line each week, both missed two games because of concussions.

By season's end, the Vikings had the NFL's worst running game, and Bradford been sacked a career-high 37 times. In an upset, the oft-injured veteran played the entire season and set an NFL record by completing 71.6 percent of his passes, but the team's 3.2 yards per rush and 75.3 yards a game were what mattered most.

One wonders if Spielman, with a better team than the one he had in 2016 — and a new, $84 million quarterback in Kirk Cousins — might spend some draft picks for another preseason trade. It wouldn't be as exciting as picking up a quarterback, but it would be just as important. Right now, the answer behind Easton appears to be Tom Compton or Danny Isidora, who have 12 NFL starts between them.

"We are always trying different things and looking for different people," coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday. "We will see what happens."

This is no time to panic, but it should be understood that as good as the Vikings are elsewhere, they're not going to win a Super Bowl, or even the NFC North, without a good offensive line.

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