The salary cap-strapped New Orleans Saints began the process of clearing space by releasing veteran guard Nick Easton on Friday. Upon hearing the news, the ears of Vikings fans everywhere perked up immediately. The 28 year-old Easton, who started 17 games in Minnesota across 2016 and 2017, has never been more than a low-end to decent starter in the NFL. But that alone would make him a major, impactful upgrade for the current edition of the Vikings.
Minnesota's interior offensive line play was one of its biggest weaknesses in a disappointing 7-9 season in 2020. The Vikings began the year with arguably the worst guard tandem in the NFL, with Dakota Dozier on the left and Pat Elflein on the right. Then Elflein got hurt after Week 1, and they suddenly had the undisputed worst guard duo in the league. Dru Samia was a disaster of epic proportions in the four games he started. Rookie Ezra Cleveland was an improvement at RG after the bye week, but Dozier remained the starter at LG all year despite consistently proving that he wasn't cut out for the job.
Even if the Vikings find a way to keep Riley Reiff around in 2021, thus keeping Cleveland at guard, they still need to replace Dozier, who is a free agent. Easton could be a low-cost option who makes a lot of sense. He wouldn't come in and be a fantastic guard –– and ideally he'd have to compete for the job with a rookie or someone else –– but at the bare minimum he'd be a lot more competent than Dozier.
Easton started nine games for the 2020 Saints, playing 562 snaps. He allowed 18 pressures and two sacks, committed three penalties, and finished with a PFF grade just shy of 60 (which is considered average). Dozier, who somehow played nearly 1,100 snaps, allowed 46 pressures and six sacks while committing nine penalties. His PFF grade was 44.6. Dozier's pressure rate of 7.5 percent wasn't much higher than Easton's 6.0 percent, but that's still a noticeable difference. Easton's overall track record is also more encouraging than Dozier's.
An undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2015, Easton bounced from the Ravens to the 49ers before being traded to the Vikings for linebacker Gerald Hodges in October. In 2016, Easton started the final five games of the year at center, playing fairly well. He started 12 games at left guard for the 2017 Vikings, posting a pass-blocking grade above 75 in seven of those. Penalties were a bit of an issue, but Easton allowed just 12 pressures and zero sacks in over 400 pass-blocking snaps that year. However, he dealt with a couple injuries, including one that ended his season prior to the playoffs starting.
A neck injury ended Easton's season prematurely in 2018. Still, the Saints saw enough to sign him to a four-year, $24 million deal in 2019. Injuries have limited him to 22 games and 15 starts over the past two seasons, and his level of play dropped off slightly from where it was during his time in Minnesota. Given his contract, it's not surprising that Easton was released by New Orleans for cap savings.
The question might be whether or not Easton wants to keep playing. He's only 28, but he's played just 45 of a possible 80 games over the past five years. Easton dealt with injuries to his ankle and neck in Minnesota, but more concerning are the multiple concussions he reportedly suffered in 2020. We saw with Josh Kline this past year that concussions can keep a player out of football entirely.
If Easton does want to keep playing, a reunion with the Vikings could make sense for both sides. He wouldn't be too expensive, has familiarity with the Vikings, and could come in and compete to be the starting left guard in Week 1.
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