Transformation To Contender: The Alex Boone Effect

Alex Boone is quite the character, but does he have what it takes to help the team get to the next level? Can he be considered a transformational player that this team so desperately needs? Just how big is this signing for the Vikings?

In my most recent post, I highlighted the elements of the 2015 Vikings roster that, if left unfixed, could limit the team’s ability to transition from a very good, up-and-coming team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Some issues were identified as critically important to address in the offseason (OL, WR) while others, while able to be camouflaged in the short-term, would become no less serious over a slightly longer time horizon (SS, WLB); regardless of the urgency of the need, it was safe to assume that Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer would be exploring ways to improve in these areas in the offseason.

From the day the NFL season ends through the day the NFL Draft concludes, we most commonly hear draft prospects and free agents described as “a good fit,” “capable of filling a need,” and “a useful piece for the offensive/defensive coordinator” in relation to a given team; while descriptors such as those are not necessarily inaccurate, they’re useful only as far as identifying what teams could do, but not what they should do. Consider the following:
Prospect A has the attributes of an NFL left guard; Team X has a hole to fill at left guard; therefore, Prospect A is a good fit for Team X.
Is the statement true? Maybe. But many important dynamics are left unexplored, and potentially even unconsidered in this sort of black and white exercise: Is Team X a run-first offense in need of a road grader, or an air-it-out offense who needs light feet and intelligence on the blind side? How will Prospect A complement or conflict with the strengths and weaknesses of the center and left tackle around him? Does Prospect A have the proper attitude to mesh with the culture set by Team X’s veteran leaders?

To be clear, I get the fact that analysts, columnists and bloggers rarely venture into this depth of analysis is driven not by the purveyor’s laziness or incapability, but by the fact that the majority of football fans are very fairly not interested in much beyond that. The fact remains, though, that these (along with hundreds of others) are the sorts of questions General Managers, coaching staffs and their player personnel teams consider daily and are required to find answers to, because when they can identify players that represent the perfect strategic fit, the effect on the unit they’re brought into – and on the team in total – can have a multiplicative impact. Players like these are transformers, and it is these transformational players on which I’ll be focusing in coming posts, as I believe the Vikings did more to help themselves – and in one instance, potentially hurt themselves – this offseason than most realize. A logical place to start would be on the offensive line, where, thankfully, I believe one such transformer now exists.

Alex Boone and the Evolution of a Mike Zimmer Offense

In the Vikings’ quest to establish a consistent five-man group of starter-caliber players on the offensive line, a key to-do has been finding a proper fix at left guard after mercifully releasing Charlie Johnson prior to the 2015 season; Brandon Fusco proved to be a better right guard than left after spending the season at LG being exposed as a…well…bad pass blocker (according to Pro Football Focus, Fusco was the 10th-worst guard in the league in terms of pass pro, and for the season graded out as a back-up level player on the left side) and there was no other real option on the roster to be found, as Mike Harris is, at best, unproven in that capacity. Given the Vikings offensive line’s inability to keep their quarterback upright – particularly as it pertains to said quarterback’s blindside – it was going to be of paramount importance to bring in fresh, capable blood on the left side; once the decision to retain the incumbent LT had been made, the next step was clear: heavily pursue a LG that is highly-skilled as a pass blocker while also possessing the size, athleticism, and football smarts to seamlessly cover up for the mental mistakes Matt Kalil has proven prone to and which all too often have left pass rushers with a free run at Teddy Bridgewater. Oh, and in addition to all of those things, he also needs to be reasonably priced, as the Vikings have a cap-and-contract-savvy GM who is in the enviable position of having a ton of extension-worthy young talent accrued over the past four years with paydays coming soon, starting with Harrison Smith (which is why I never believed we were contenders for Kelechi Osemele). Rare as the species that meets the stated criteria would be – perhaps one or two become available per free agency class, if any become available at all – they would most certainly have been a fit for the Vikings, but in order to be the fit, I believe the Vikings brass had an additional, more intangible requirement in mind that mattered just as much as pass-blocking.

One of the strangest ongoing paradoxes for the Vikings over the past two years has been the discrepancy in attitude between the tough-guy head coach (I use “tough guy” as a compliment, in this context) working to build a team in his mold, and the borderline robotic indifference of his offensive line, a position group traditionally counted on to be the toughest guys on the field. It’s not that the group didn’t exhibit the strength and will to win the battle at the line of scrimmage – they did more often than not, and Minnesota had one of the better rushing attacks in the league as a result – but they seemed to lack the edge and mean streak that is often a trademark of the league’s best OL groups, and is most certainly the trademark of Mike Zimmer. I’m not advocating for dirty play, but the fact that the Vikings had the fewest offensive personal fouls in the league in 2015 by a wide margin – penalties most often perpetrated by the offensive line – tells me that the OL’s collective instinct is to neither instigate to gain an edge nor retaliate, even when an opposing player steps over the line; in short, the offensive line didn’t take it personally; they don’t seem to take anything personally.

Enter Alex Boone. On paper, Boone made sense for the Vikings: he’s among the league’s best pass-blocking guards, fresh off a strong season in protection for the San Francisco 49ers in 2015 (a Top 15 guard in pass pro, as graded by Pro Football Focus), he possesses the natural movement and footwork of a true left guard (which eliminates any potential position confusion, unless he’s needed elsewhere), and has the tremendous size and football IQ required to identify the ground that needs covering, and the mass and stride to cover it efficiently. Though not perfect – he has been only marginally effective as a run blocker – he solves a glaring series of issues for the Vikings from a football standpoint, and the team was able to acquire him at what is sure to be great value relative to what he’ll deliver, especially when considering that he’ll play on an offensive line rich in run blocking talent that should at least partially mask any of Boone’s deficiencies by alleviating the need to make him a focal point in the run game. And consider one more potentially significant impact: thinking specifically of the interplay between LG and LT, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Boone helps to raise Kalil’s game in pass protection by providing a reliable presence to his right that allows Kalil to narrow his focus after the snap (read: think less), and Kalil can play a similar role for Boone in the run game, portending a seriously symbiotic left-side pairing that may well be the key to the long-awaited return of Matt Kalil’s rookie form (and hopefully then some).

Even with the clear, measurable value Boone brings between the lines, the most significant impact made by Boone may be in the reverberations he’ll send through the organization, created by the fact that he takes it personally. He takes everything personally. He’s tough, he’s mean, he’s vocal, and he’s all of those things primarily in service of his teammates. His declaration during a post-game press conference that he’d like to punch Clay Matthews in the face after the Packer linebacker hit 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick late and out of bounds during a 2013 game between the teams is a fine example, but by all insider accounts, that was “Boone Lite” in comparison to the tenacity and aggression he commonly employs in his play. He is the definition of a bottom-of-the-pile guy, and it’s been a while since the Vikings have had that type of presence on the line.

So to recap, why should we believe Alex Boone will be a transformational player for the Vikings? Two clear, compelling reasons, with plenty of support:
Boone’s skillset fits what the Vikings need, and is highly complementary to the skillsets of his fellow linemen: Boone is the sorely-needed round peg in the round hole that was LG1 on the Vikings’ depth chart; his weaknesses are perfectly masked by the system he’ll play in and the players around him, his strengths are perfectly appreciated on a line starved for his skillset, and optimistically, he may very well be the complementary piece needed to make the entire offensive line click – temporary though some of those players may be – in a way that will allow Teddy Bridgewater to develop into whatever he’s capable of being, which should be the team’s top priority.
Boone’s personality and attitude all but guarantee that the offense will fall in line with the defense and special teams as units created decisively in Mike Zimmer’s image, finalizing a cohesive team personality: Even with John Sullivan returning in 2016 after missing all of 2015, Alex Boone will almost certainly emerge as the leader of the offensive line in both word and deed, setting the tone for the group that sets the tone for the team in terms of how physically and mentally tough all 53 active players are capable of being on a given day. His message will be well-received by a like-minded defense and head coach, and so in providing that message may serve to lock in the singular identity of this team. Look back through the list of recent Super Bowl champions, and in addition to competent quarterback play and above average-or-better defenses, you’ll find another common theme: the head coach, the offensive leaders, the defensive leaders, and the special teams leaders (at least, I assume the special teams leaders, but I can’t pretend to know much about special teams personas other than our own) all share remarkably similar personalities and approaches to their work. The addition of Boone should represent the tipping point in converting the offensive identity from the continuous loop of the short films “Adrian & Friends” and “Run Like Hell, Teddy!” that described the 2015 Vikings offense to a more cohesive identity that also serves as an underlying drumbeat for all to march to, and which supersedes play-calling philosophy and individual talent. We see it already within the coaching staff, the defense and on special teams, and guys like Teddy Bridgewater, Stefon Diggs, Jerrick McKinnon, and (I’ll assume) Laquon Treadwell will eagerly await the opportunity to usher in the new era of Vikings football on behalf of the offense.
If the idea of pinning the drastic improvement of an entire offensive line and the culture of an entire NFL team to the signing of a modestly-priced, undrafted guard with obvious limitations seems absurd to you…you’ll get no argument from me. It’s possible, though, and for now that’s all a Vikings fan needs.

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Neil S. Schwartz

Email: neilsschwartz@gmail.com

Jonathan Feinsod

Email: jonathan@sffootball.net

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