An Overlooked Reason Why the Vikings Need to Improve the Offensive Line
The Vikings’ 2020 season had a lot of disappointments: disappointing defense, disappointing special teams, disappointing injuries, and most of all, a disappointing offensive line. That said, the offense overall was surprisingly great in 2020 despite all the odds. A major cog in making that wheel turn was Dalvin Cook.
Cook faced many questions, at least from me, going into the 2020 season. Would he be able to maintain the success that he found in 2019, or will defenses figure him out? How would he hold up as he approached the latter half of his 20s? Could the injury history that plagued his early career come back to haunt him? Other than the game and a quarter that he missed due to injury (during which the Vikings were outscored 46-30), Cook managed to eliminate all my doubts.
Cook’s season was one of the best of any RB in 2020, and arguably the best Minnesota has seen since Adrian Peterson’s MVP year in 2012. One argument that I’ve seen circulate recently among fans is, well, if Dalvin Cook can be quite literally the second best running back in the league without a good o-line, why waste the money and resources in making it better? Why not let Dalvin cook (buh-dum ching) with what they’ve got and use draft capital and money to bring in more defensive pieces or other skill pieces? Well, let me counter that: why do we deep fry Oreos at the fair? To make something that’s already great something that’s impeccable.
The Vikings O-Line Compared to Others
Here are the facts. Dalvin Cook was the second best running back in the league last year, statistically. He ranked second in the NFL in all of rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage. The leader of all these categories was, of course, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans.
That said, Minnesota’s offensive line was worse than the offensive line of Tennessee. In fact, one could argue the Vikings’ run blocking was the worst among all those blocking for each of the top five running backs in terms of yards from scrimmage. The five RBs in this discussion are Henry, Cook, Alvin Kamara, David Montgomery, and Jonathan Taylor. Here is how their top five snap leading o-linemen averaged out in terms of PFF run blocking grade.
Indianapolis Colts: 72.1
Tennessee Titans: 70.9
New Orleans Saints: 69.2
Chicago Bears: 67.1
Minnesota Vikings: 66.7
While Minnesota’s blocking is pretty comparable to Chicago’s it is clearly worse than the other three. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone along Minnesota’s line was poor in the run. Brian O’Neill’s grade of 83.7 was 10th among all OTs and higher than any other tackle in this conversation. Garrett Bradbury was also respectable in this regard, posting a grade of 69.3. That said, the clear weak link in the run blocking was the left side of the o-line. G Dakota Dozier graded 52.3 in 469 run blocking snaps, and LT Riley Reiff graded 60.8 in 436 run blocking snaps.
Cook’s Production by Run Direction
This weakness is glaring if you look at the numbers. Sharpfootballstats.com breaks down the directional production of each team and each running back. Dalvin Cook’s lowest production came when he ran behind Minnesota’s guards, averaging just 3.9 yards behind both the left and right guards. Compare this to the whopping 5.2 yards per carry and 7(!!) yards per carry that Henry got when running behind his guards (both of whom graded in the top-14 at the position), and you can see how Henry found his way to another league rushing title.
Cook had much more success in other directions, though, including an average of 5.7 yards behind the right tackle, Brian O’Neill’s position. This is all fine and dandy, except for one thing. Once again per sharpfootballstats.com, Cook’s most frequent run direction was towards the left guard. Nearly 19% of Cook’s carries were of this variety while only 14% of his carries sent him behind right tackle. Dalvin Cook’s run success when going towards either the left guard, with a success rate of just 50% whereas he was far above average with a 61% success rate when running towards the right tackle.
Overall, the Vikings did a standup job of sending Dalvin Cook all over the field on his rushes. That said, there is certainly a path where the star RB is even more productive next season. The problem and its solution is clear: the Vikings would be a much better rushing offense if they improved the left side of their o-line, specifically left guard.
The frequency combined with the lack of production while running behind Dozier held Cook back (as crazy as it is to say that), and it only makes me wonder how much more production Cook could have had last season if he was running behind even an average guard. If the Vikings improve this area during the offseason, Cook could unleash an even more impressive campaign in 2021.