Note: This article is a counter-point to an amazing piece on our sister-site, VikingsTerritory.com by our senior writer and Vikings Insider, Dustin Baker.
If there’s one single issue that I’ve talked about more than any other since launching purplePTSD.com back in 2015 it’s … Well, to be fair it’s me but AFTER that it’s the offensive line of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s reached a point where I’ve worked with former and current NFL offensive linemen and coaches to get to the bottom of why this line has regressed each season.
Many Vikings fans felt some semblance of optimism in 2020 as then rookie Ezra Cleveland replaced unmitigated disaster Dru Samia at the right guard spot. Sure, many felt that Cleveland was the left tackle of the future and thus scratched their heads as to why the Vikings were yet again moving a promising player to a position they’d never played before (and on the side they weren’t used to), but he felt like an improvement on the right that lead some to proclaim that the right side of the line was finally settled.
Between stud right tackle Brian O’Neill, Cleveland and even a resurgent campaign by veteran left tackle Riley Reiff, there was some feeling that the Vikings may finally be on the right track in regards to the most important position group in the game (outside of the quarterback, of course).
That optimism was misguided, though, as the Vikings ended the season as the 29th-ranked line against the pass rush according to Pro Football Focus. That fact was noted by Baker earlier this off-season:
In reference to this Tweet from @PFF_Vikings:
That fact is astounding considering how atrocious the line was in 2018 and 2019. 2018 saw some of the worst line play in LEAGUE history.
This 2018 article from ESPN explains:
“According to Pro Football Focus, Minnesota’s offensive line has surrendered 81 pressures through four games, including back-to-back weeks with a league-high 29 pressures allowed. Left guard Tom Compton allowed seven pressures to Donald alone, including two sacks, while every starter gave up at least four total pressures.
It’s early, but those figures are on pace to eclipse the number of pressures given up each season by the average NFL offensive line (160-plus) by 70 or more.”
2019 wasn’t much better as there was a large stretch of games in which Kirk Cousins literally had to roll-out or run a bootleg to move the chains through the air. Despite that, Cousins had a great year and the Vikings even won a playoff game. However, the line was so outclassed against the San Francisco 49ers that the Vikings stood no chance and defensive coordinator George Edwards was fired/fell on the sword for head coach Mike Zimmer.
That lead many to believe that Zimmer, who was going into his final contracted year, would need to massively improve his team in 2020 if he wanted an extension. You can either include or separate general manager Rick Spielman from that narrative, as well.
Then the 2020 Draft happened.
In that draft the Vikings had the most picks of any team in modern league history with 15. That draft was an opportunity for Zimmer and Spielman (Zimman? Spielmer?) to show that they’d learned from the mistakes of the last squandered window of opportunity and to earn that/those extension(s).
Spielmer instead quintupled-down on their philosophy of team building by selected FIVE defensive backs and only selecting an offensive guard with the FIFTEENTH pick, which happened to be the pick before the last pick. Mr. Irrelevant meet Mr. Are You Kidding me?
That’s where Baker’s point emerges. The Vikings did use a second rounder on Ezra Cleveland, who many compared to Brian O’Neill in terms of their physical attributes. Cleveland played left tackle in college, and hadn’t player guard before, so of course the Vikings decided to plug him in at right guard.
Baker is right, the Vikings have spent more high draft picks these last few seasons on offensive linemen. That was after mostly ignoring the line from 2013-2016, where they didn’t use a first, second, or third on a lineman.
Call it the Matt Kalil hangover. The Vikings used their highest pick in team history on Kalil, who had a great rookie season but turned into a bust after losing weight (from an illness that turned into a lifestyle choice) and thus his ability to anchor.
Now, Baker’s point is correct. The Vikings have drafted player’s like center Pat Elflein (third rounder in 2017), right guard Brian O’Neill (second rounder in 2018), center Garrett Bradbury (first rounder in 2019), and Cleveland in 2020.
So, no, they haven’t ignored the line in the draft as of late. But, from what basically every former lineman or coach has told me about the tape they’ve watched on this line? They’ve ignored a crucial component in this process… Coaching.
Here are some quotes from those tape sessions (with context):
I initially hoped to learn thoughts on Bradbury as Vikings Twitter was split on whether he was a bust or just hitting speed bumps in the LONG (I think people said 4-5 years) learning curve that happens for most NFL centers:
“I have no reason to think Bradbury will necessarily be a bust but he is playing very poorly right now. Bad footwork, no anchor in pass pro, off balance constantly. The most shocking thing is the lack of awareness. Looks lost on the field a lot. When I say bad footwork too I mean it’s loose. He can move his feet but he’s taking massive steps on reach blocks and play action sets and making it so he literally can’t take a second step. Showed up over and over again against Tampa.”
Okay. So, Bradbury is struggling. That’s neither an indictment on the coaches nor a sign the line is being ignored.
“The reason that I asked about the OL coach is because the whole line plays like shit. They look completely unprepared to play to me. It’s bad right now dude. Really bad. I’m sure there’s plenty of talent but it’s not showing up.”
Plenty of talent, not showing up.
Next? The coup de gras…
“Anyone that blames Kirk for what is going on is out of their mind. He had an exceptional OL when they were healthy in Washington, aside from Spencer Long, and the OL there was run by a technician in Bill Callahan. When you watched the OL there things were intentional, every single guy on the Vikings OL plays with different technique. Sometimes a certain guy will do a certain thing different to suit his abilities/skill set but here it looks like the Vikings OL doesn’t even have a coach. It looks like they get handed a piece of paper and someone says, go ahead and figure it out on your own.”
When you add to that the fact that the Vikings have consistently moved players into positions they’d never played before?
I mentioned Cleveland. Matt Birk, for example, is an example of moving a rookie lineman to another position and having success in the process. I had Matt Birk and Mike Tice on my podcast and Tice described why he felt Birk would be a great center after playing tackle at Harvard.
The Vikings didn’t move Cleveland to right guard for those reasons. They did it because they are allergic to offensive line depth. Pat Elflein was released but could’ve helped at right guard. Ask TJ Clemmings about being moved around the line to avoid keeping serviceable linemen on the roster. Alex Boone was released right when it felt like the line had some promise and depth as well.
Mike Remmers signed during the same off-season as Riley Reiff. Despite the fact that the VETERAN had never played guard before, they moved him inside after Joe Berger retired. He was part of the aforementioned historically bad guard play in 2018.
Now? He’s succeeding at his natural position with the Kansas City Chiefs.
With Bradbury struggling and the Vikings having negative money to work with, we very well could see more of the same before the 2021 season. Riley Reiff may be gone, which means that the purple could move Cleveland to left tackle. That’d leave a massive hole in the middle of the line and no money to fill it.
That leaves the draft. However, with the holes currently on defense (let alone the anticipated holes from the combination of a lack of funds, players like Anthony Barr refusing to restructure or Danielle Hunter’s recent Twitter activity), does anyone expect Spielmer to focus on the interior of the line early?
Even if they do, recent history suggests they’ll either pick the wrong player or pick a player with potential and immediately force them to play a position they never have on a side of the line they never have while also returning punts and handling human resources.
So, Baker was right. The Vikings haven’t ignored the line in the draft. However, they’ve failed to develop the players they’ve drafted, moved them around to fill holes (due to a lack of depth), or cut them to avoid any semblance of that depth (and the $ that comes with it) and failed to coach up veterans who may have decent individual PFF stats (especially in the run game), but most importantly have failed to play as a unit.
But they have drafted fresh blood. Cleveland was boom or bust, Brian O’Neill improved mightily in the run game but regressed in pass protection, and Garrett Bradbury has been an unmitigated disaster. So, I will say that Baker and I differ most at the point of those three being a nucleus to build around.
That nucleus he mentions of Bradbury-Cleveland-O’Neill, to me, is really just a single proton/player that this, or any team, could build around: Brian O’Neill.
I’ll let out friend Luke Braun of Locked On Vikings and Zone Coverage explain:
In an article from the very end of December, Braun wrote of Cleveland’s play at guard (while arguing the Vikings needed to move him back to tackle):
“Ezra Cleveland was a left tackle throughout college, so his move to right guard took some time. The Vikings didn’t even decide to play him there until injuries to Pat Elflein and Dru Samia necessitated it. Even then, his debut was catastrophic, allowing five pressures, four of which found contact with Kirk Cousins. He has been up-and-down as a pass blocker from the right guard position, with more downs than ups. PFF has only given Cleveland two positively graded pass blocking games, two average, and four negatively graded games. He has graded below 40 in pass blocking three times in the eight games he has played.”
I’d highly suggest reading Braun’s piece (or our senior Vikings insider Nick Olson’s piece about Cleveland that Braun defers to).
To sum things up, the Vikings have drafted more linemen. Outside of that, though, they’ve not only ignored facets of everything outside of drafting players (coaching, maximizing their potential by not shuffling them around, adding or keeping depth, etc) but they’ve somehow ended up worse off than they were before they drafted Bradbury, O’Neill, and Cleveland.
That is what is most important and that’s what we should focus on.