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In the first part of this piece we discussed the impact that the offensive line has had on this team during the Zimmer/Spielman regime, especially starting in 2016 and continuing since. We left it at the response by management going into the 2019 campaign, the year after they signed Cousins to a record-shattering deal and essentially wasted it.
On to 2019 we go! How did the Vikings bounce back from the disappointment that was 2018? By drafting two interior offensive linemen in the first four picks. That may have been exciting, especially for fans that hadn’t seen an offensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 or 2017, or the first three in 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016, but those moves didn’t work as anticipated. Bradbury, the “sure thing” center struggled as a rookie:
“While this season was a success for the Vikings, the team did not see as much as it could have from Bradbury, who failed to make much of an impact his rookie season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradbury finished with a poor 57.9 overall grade on the year, with a 61.7 run-blocking grade and an abysmal 38.7 pass-blocking grade. Bradbury’s run-blocking grade looks much less than mediocre when taking into account the fact that he was blocking for one of the best backs in 2019, Cook.”
That pick allowed the Vikings to move Pat Elflein (the first offensive lineman taken by the Vikings in the first three rounds during the Zimmer reigme) to slide over to left guard, a position that he did say as a rookie he felt most “comfortable” doing.
Whether or not that’s true didn’t seem to pan out in 2019, as Elflein struggled mightily and the line ended the year as the 27th-ranked unit against the pass rush. Things got so bad that at points during the season we ignored th ineptitude of the line and focused our ire on then offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski for not getting Cousins out of the pocket on each pass play.
As I’m sure some of you will remember, Cousins had a streak of games in 2019 in which his stats mirrored the 2018 stats of that season’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes.
Cousins proved in 2018 that he wasn’t as bad under pressure as advertised as he finished that season as the seventh highest rated quarterback when under pressure, as well as the most accurate QB when under pressure (according to PFF), completing 64.0 percent of his passes. Or, as this gem of an article from VikingsTerritory.com senior writer Nick Olson explains. Despite some of the narrative changing content of that article by Olson, in the section titled “Where Cousins can improve” there is an interesting tidbit.
“In Cousins’ defense, poor interior pass blocking meant there often wasn’t much of a pocket to step up into.”
So I ask, what changed about the interior of the line that’ll allow Cousins to do just that in 2020? Because as painfully established in paragraphs I’d rather have omitted from this way too long piece, Cousins can actually outperform his contract (as I broke down during the above linked run last season) when given the proper time.
It’s that reality that got no better in 2019, at least on the left side (as we’ve discussed). While free-agent signing Josh Kline wasn’t great against the pass in 2019, alongside right tackle Brian O’Neill he was able to open up gaping holes for breakout superstar Dalvin Cook on the right side of the line and at least made us feel like there was something worth building upon on this otherwise awful line.
The team clearly felt otherwise, as they decided to save $1.4 million by cutting him earlier this off-season. While there have been reports that he may return, the Vikings went into the 2019 draft with Elflein at left guard and a gaping hole at right guard.
They emerged from the draft… with people telling me to calm down because they can now move Reiff to guard? Haven’t we seen this movie before? I know people are comparing Ezra Cleveland to Brian O’Neill, but pulling a Remmers and moving Reiff to left guard (a position he hasn’t played in the pros), just seems like the sequel to Groundhog’s Day (‘Groundhog’s Day 2: Still Hoggin’ starring Tim Allen for some reason).
I am going year-by-year to also address the argument that because they drafted Bradbury, or O’Neill, that they’ve therefore invested in the offensive line and I should be happy about it. That is also not how football works, as, I could (and have) point out how many picks they’ve used on corners, first and second-rounders, to boot! That doesn’t mean that a need doesn’t still exist and the Vikings do understand this (the Hughes pick in 2018 shows that), they just stop understanding when it comes to the offensive line.
We’ve seen year after year during the Zimmer regime, whether it’s the 2016 unit that started 5-0 going into the Bye but that ended the year 3-8 after the patchwork line of tackles over 30 with a history of injury doing what… Tackles over 30 with a history of injuries do being chalked up to “bad luck” by the same people who on Twitter said I was “way off the reservation”, last night.
Or whether it was the two turnovers in the first half of the 2017 NFC Championship Game that could/should be blamed on the offensive line.
Or the 2018/2019 seasons, both which squandered the biggest window of opportunity this team has had since 2009.
So forgive me for being “negative” for pointing out that this Vikings team is no better off at the position of greatest need, and of greatest impact, this team has had in recent years, than they were a week ago despite having enough draft capital to do just that and lock down this line for a decade.
With Zimmer and Spielman going into the final year of their contracts and going into a draft that at that time “only” had 12 picks, I feared that they yet again wouldn’t learn the lessons of their failed runs for the first Super Bowl in franchise history. That they would do what they’ve always done, which is reach for a second-tier wide receiver in the first round (from the SEC, no less), load up on DBs, maybe a project-y tackle to show “investment” in the line, and then a bunch of trade downs to amass late round picks that they’ll use on a developmental prospect at QB.
This weekend was almost a parody of a draft in the Zimmer/Spielman era. one-third of their 15 picks being DBs when, the last I checked, a starting team in the NFL has 22 positions and corners are two of them (three if you count nickel receivers). Considering that this team already had a first-round pick in Mike Hughes, and a potential starter in Holton Hill, at the position (vs. Elflein and no one at guard). I ask again, what should we be excited about?
The fact that they spent 5 of 15 picks on MAYBE two needs? A starting and nickel corner (with Holton Hill providing depth), and… A back-up to Anthony Harris or Harrison Smith (unless they’re going to trade the recently franchised (assuming he signs the tender eventually) Harris)? Meanwhile, both guard spots still have massive question marks hanging over them and we’ve seen what happens even with the peak Zimmer defense when the offensive line is bad. Multiple times now.
Let’s even assume the picks of corners Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand, or safeties Josh Mettelus or Brian Cole II are all slam dunks. Corners in Zimmer’s system typically take a few years to acclimate (more so than corners in other systems, that is). That might mean a year or three down the road we can call this draft a success for players that were taken.
But, we’d still be a team that prioritized the defense over the offense, a team that ignored the offensive line, a team that shifted players around from tackle to guard (some of which had never played the position) instead of drafting those players and that ended up being another team under Zimmer/Spielman that had a good or even great defense that was hamstrung by an offense that failed to protect its quarterback or take advantage of it’s superstar running back, Dalvin Cook, by opening up holes for him on both (or soon to be either) side of the line.
That’s why you don’t grade drafts solely by the players taken but instead on players taken vs. positions of need and why I’m going against the grain and saying this draft was a tremendous missed opportunity.
That’s before we even talk about the logic of spending your first pick on a receiver that literally caught 98.6% of his 583 balls from the slot in 2019 in Justin Jefferson. Or, KJ Osborn, whose NFL.com draft profile stated “Osborn played mostly from the slot at Buffalo and mostly outside at Miami, but Buffalo likely had it right”
So what? A slot receiver may work out for this team! You scream at your monitor (as if anyone who disagrees with me is still reading this).
That is until you consider that the only remaining proven receiver on this team is Adam Thielen, a receiver who in his last full season did things that the receiver most consider to be the best slot guy in the game (and the guy that revolutionized the position for the NFL), Wes Welker, only accomplished ONCE in his career and that brought in most of his deep balls from the slot. That is ON TOP of the fact that the biggest thing this team will miss from Stefon Diggs’ departure is his ability to stretch the field…
… Or that this was a historically deep wide receiver class and you spent your 22nd pick on a glorified slot receiver. I repeat. Forgive me for not being positive just because the Vikings amassed the most picks in franchise history since 1985. That is a feat in and of itself but I think there’s a saying somewhere about the difference between quantity and quality.
So let me sum it up this way.
The state of the interior of the line is the same that it was before the draft and it was the interior of the line that this team has struggled to fix because outside of the signing of Josh Kline (who again they cut to save under $1.5 million after one season), they’ve relied on moving tackles or centers to the position instead of investing any draft picks in general, and especially in the first three rounds.
Former right guard Josh Kline missed three games in 2019 (due to concussions). The first was the Chicago Bears game in which Dalvin Cook when from a per carry rushing average of 5.3/7.7/6.9 yards to a paltry 2.5 (Cousins was also sacked six times and both receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs had their outbursts about the passing offense).
The second game was the Eagles game, where Cook had 16 attempts for 41 yards (an average of 2.6). If you think that’s not an aberration, take a look at the games before and after the Bears and Eagles games (in terms of Cook’s yards per carry average).
That Broncos game? Was the third missed game by Kline.
In fact, the only games in 2019 in which Cook had a sub 3 yard per carry average were the three that Kline missed. So, not only do you CUT Kline but you do nothing to replace him in 2020 or beyond. As I alluded above, people are pushing for Reiff to potentially become the most highly paid left or (especially) right guard since Steve Hutchinson, or are hoping that Dru Samia can emerge from being third on the depth chart in 2019 (and unable to assist when Kline went down) to a starting level guard. But that’s a big ask, even with Kubiak and Rick Dennison running the show (or waiting for whatever scraps fall from the table so they can attempt to build an offensive line).
So don’t get me wrong. These picks could (and arguably should) pan out better than the 2016 lot. The point is that the team was already better at each spot (Diggs, Rhodes/Waynes (in 2017/18 anyway) and as some argue with Reiff and his PFF numbers… Reiff) and because of the offensive line, couldn’t get over the hump.
So, how can we expect any different?
Click HERE to read the Third and Final Part to this Puzzle… The If Not then Who “Argument”…