The Vikings OL is a cause for serious concern
By: Grant Schwieger
The words “Offensive Line” have become synonymous with many terms in the minds of Vikings fans in recent history. Garbage, embarrassment, abominable… the list can go on and on. If you ever need to insult someone who roots for the Vikings, just bring up their OL and they will be unable to form a rebuttal. The Minnesota pass-blocking unit has been unable to crack the top half of the league in PFF pass-blocking grade in Mike Zimmer’s entire tenure with the team.
From 2008-2013, the lowest the team’s pass block grade ranked was 18th. This is a team and fan base that was spoiled with offensive line play for years and is now apparently paying the price for it. Minnesota used to boast the likes of Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt at tackle, recent Hall of Fame inductee Steve Hutchinson at guard, and had Matt Birk for years at center before transitioning into John Sullivan. Looking back at it now, regression was going to hit the Vikings’ offensive line eventually, but one would hope it would not hit quite this hard.
There is more to OL play than pass blocking of course. Run blocking is the favorite part about the position for many linemen as they get to go right at defenders and be more physical. The bad news for Minnesota is their OL has not been any good at that lately, either. During Zimmer’s time as head coach, the Vikings’ offensive line has never ranked higher than 12th in team run-blocking grade (in both 2014 and 2019). You can debate why exactly it is the team has struggled to put together a complete unit across the offensive front over the last 7+ years, I am only here to tell you that 2021 is sadly shaping up to be another year of disappointment in that department.
Let’s take a look at the 2021 Minnesota Vikings offensive line position by position as it stands now from left to right. Left tackle, long considered the most important position on an OL, is currently a ginormous question mark. The long-term solution is still very much in play with first-round rookie Christian Darrisaw, but he is not yet healthy and on no pace to play at the beginning of the season. His outlook for the future can still be bright but expecting him to be a huge plus this year when he will already be well behind his peers once he gets healthy would be foolish.
That leaves long-time swing tackle Rashod Hill next in line to start the year at LT. The team has trusted him to start at both LT and RT over his time in Minnesota, so at least they will not be throwing an inexperienced player into the fire that is the pass rushers Minnesota plays early this season.
Hill got banged up last week which led to Blake Brandel, a 2020 6th round pick with 0 career regular-season snaps to this point, getting 1st team reps. Hill seems to be fine, so it should hopefully be safe to assume he will stay as the starter at LT for now. Assuming good health for Hill and recovery for Darrisaw, the two scenarios at LT for Minnesota in 2021 are either Hill playing all-season or Darrisaw coming in for Hill once healthy with no training camp or preseason reps to speak of. While those might not be disasters, they are not necessarily the brightest outlooks for the OL’s premier position.
We now move on to left guard. This time there is not much debate at all about who will be playing LG. It will be Ezra Cleveland. The question is how much, if at all, will he improve off of his rookie season at RG. He was drafted as a tackle out of Boise State, and most draft experts pegged him to stay at tackle in the NFL. The Vikings, as they have become accustomed to doing, decided they knew better and moved him to guard. Moving linemen to positions they are unfamiliar with has been a theme, whether it is flipping Pat Elflein from center to LG to RG (he had experience at both guard and center in college to be fair), Mike Remmers from tackle to guard, Cleveland from tackle to guard or now Oli Udoh from tackle to guard (more on that later). Former Vikings’ OL Jeremiah Sirles has said on Matthew Coller’s Purple Insider podcast that he is not a fan of switching linemen’s positions all the time, so take it from a player who has been in that situation himself.
All position-changing issues aside, Cleveland has the LG spot locked up, which the Vikings indicated when they held him out of the first preseason game along with many other starters. He did not blow anyone away with his performance during his rookie year, but he was much better than the Vikings’ other guards. He performed much better in run blocking than pass blocking, as most Minnesota linemen tend to do. Offensive linemen coming into the NFL from college very rarely hit the ground running and often take at least a year or two, sometimes more, to hit their stride. For this reason, any optimism surrounding Cleveland’s future is warranted. A 2021 performance at or above league-average should be considered a win but expecting anything higher than that would be giving yourself false hope.
Garrett Bradbury is going to be the starting center for Minnesota in 2021. Whether that will be positive or negative remains to be seen. He has been an overall negative for the team in his first two seasons, with his league-worst pass blocking massively outweighing his athletic ability in the run/screen game. I outlined why Bradbury needs to step up in 2021 here: https://profootballmania.com/2021/08/12/5-vikings-that-need-to-step-up-in-2021/. He has his work cut out for him every day in practice going against Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson.
Bradbury has shown the ability to be a quality NFL center, he just needs to be able to string together a full season of it. Plays like this show the positives Bradbury can bring to a Kubiak offense.
However, plays such as this that completely wreck the offense’s chance to succeed happen way too often.
Eliminating at least half of his reps where he gets man-handled like that is essential to keeping his job as the Vikings’ center. The issue is that expecting that to magically happen would be silly. One can hope Bradbury takes the year-three leap other linemen around the league have taken, but the expectations should be low until he can show a massive improvement protecting the QB.
Minnesota’s right guard position has been an open competition for much of the offseason, but Oli Udoh has seemingly snagged the driver’s seat as of now. To start the offseason, many assumed third-round pick Wyatt Davis would be a starter at guard. He was hurt during training camp much like Darrisaw and has been working mostly with the third team since returning. It has been a two-way battle between former tackle Oli Udoh and last year’s abomination of a guard in Dakota Dozier.
No disrespect to Oli Udoh but beating out Dozier should not be a difficult task. He gave up the most pressures of any guard in football last year and Minnesota’s most shocking offseason move was bringing him back. The fact that it was even a competition should scare all Vikings fans. As for Udoh, it is tough to know what to expect should he start. He has played in one NFL game, and it was at right tackle in a game where Minnesota sat most of its starters against Chicago. If your mindset is “it can’t get worse than Dakota Dozier!” I raise you the 272 snaps from Dru Samia last season. Be careful what you wish for. While Udoh may very well end up being impressive, the big question would be why have we not seen him sooner then? The Vikings’ best-case scenario at RG might be Wyatt Davis continuing to improve and snatching the job and running with it at some point in the season.
The Minnesota RG position will be the team’s biggest wildcard in 2021, and unfortunately, scenarios, where the position is a big plus to the team, seem unlikely.
Brian O’Neill wraps up the 2021 Vikings OL as their right tackle. Finally. Time for some positivity. O’Neill has been what feels like the only offensive linemen the Vikings have hit on in the draft in the last decade (Yes, Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis, this is an invitation to change that). He has improved each of his first three years in the league and was a top-10 graded run blocker among all NFL tackles last season per PFF. Minnesota’s joint practices last week with Denver led Von Miller to sing some high praise about the young Vikings RT.
The only issue involving Brian O’Neill is that the Vikings have yet to sign him to a contract extension, although one is surely coming. If the Minnesota OL is yet again a thorn in the Vikings’ side, it certainly should not be O’Neill’s fault.
A starting five of Rashod Hill, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Oli Udoh, and Brian O’Neill across the offensive line screams mediocrity at best. The Minnesota OL does have pieces to potentially be solid in the future, but for this year it is looking as if the team and fanbase are in for another four (maybe five?) months of discouraging play along most of the offensive line. But hey, things should turn around eventually, right?