State Of The Vikings’ Trenches: The Offensive Line
They say that football games are won and lost in the trenches. We’ve seen it throughout the years, whether it’s Emmitt Smith running behind the superb Dallas Cowboys offensive line in the ’90s or the New York Giants front four that harassed Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII. Skill position players on offense can only show off their talent if the quarterback is upright or if there are holes to run through.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the best years of Minnesota Vikings football have coincided with superior offensive and defensive line play. Everyone remembers the dominant Purple People Eaters of the late ’60s and ’70s. But often overlooked is their offensive line which featured Hall of Famers Mick Tingelhoff and Ron Yary. Younger fans may remember the days of Randy Moss and Cris Carter tearing up secondaries. But those offenses had large, talented offensive lines featuring the likes of Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel, David Dixon, and Korey Stringer. Whether it was Robert Smith or Leroy Hoard at running back, the Vikings could also move the ball on the ground.
This brings us to the current Vikings. The offensive line has been an issue for at least the past decade and hasn’t been great since 2009. Sure, tackles Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill are among the best at their position in the NFL. But the interior of the line is suspect once again. Defensively it’s even worse. Danielle Hunter is back to his old form with five sacks, but the rest of the team has combined for one sack through three games.
How did the Vikings’ lines get to this spot with trench play that seemingly can’t be counted on from a week-to-week basis? Is it neglect through the draft? Have they failed to develop these prospects? And are they unwilling to sign veterans to help these positions out? When looking at the construction of both lines, it’s hard to point a finger at any one spot.
Today, we will look at the offensive side of the trenches before turning our attention to the defensive side later on.
Strong bookend tackles
Fortunately, the Vikings won’t have to worry about their left and right tackles for years. Both are great in both the run and pass games because of their combination of size, power, and athleticism. O’Neill stands 6’7″ and 310 pounds, but he began his collegiate career as a tight end. After redshirting his freshman season, he converted to tackle in the summer of 2015.
The concerns going into the 2018 NFL draft was whether he was big and strong enough to succeed in the league. He was thrust into the starting lineup in the second week of the 2018 season, and he put those concerns to rest. O’Neill has been the team’s starting right tackle since Week 6 of that season, combining his strength with the athleticism that got him recruited to Pittsburgh.
According to PFF (Pro Football Focus), O’Neill has graded out very well throughout the years. He was the eighth-highest graded tackle in the NFL last year and ranks ninth so far this year despite rehabbing an Achilles injury he suffered in Week 17 in 2022. He may not be on the level of Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, but he is a very reliable pass blocker and is agile in the run game.
Darrisaw, the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 draft, had a superb sophomore season in 2022. He ranked second among all tackles, even drawing comparisons to San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Trent Williams. Darrisaw has prototypical size (6’5″, 315 pounds) but, like O’Neill, shows excellent foot and hand work in the passing game. When healthy, he is a rock on Kirk Cousins’ blind-side. Darrisaw’s only issue to date is staying healthy. He missed five games as a rookie, three in 2022, and missed the Thursday night matchup against the Eagles in Week 2.
A shaky interior
Unfortunately, the interior of the offensive line is suspect at best and a disaster at worst. Left guard Ezra Cleveland was drafted with the 58th overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft as a tackle, standing 6’6″ and weighing 311. But when injuries piled up on the line during his rookie season, he was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard. He ranked 28th out of 80 guards via PFF as a rookie. In 2021, he was moved to left guard where he has stayed at ever since. Cleveland has ranked 27th, eighth, and 10th in the three seasons among all NFL guards.
Sometimes, though, the eye test doesn’t quite match what the grades show us. Cleveland’s build sometimes makes him susceptible to power moves. For example, he finished last year’s game against the strong Washington Commanders’ defensive line with a 0.0 pass blocking grade. On the infamous 4th-and-8 play that sealed the Vikings’ fate in their Wild Card loss to the New York Giants, it was Cleveland who lost his matchup against defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence that forced Kirk Cousins to throw an ill-advised checkdown.
Center Garrett Bradbury is a polarizing figure among Vikings fans. Some believe he is fine, others think that the team should do all that they can to find a replacement. Both sides likely have a case to be made. As the 18th overall pick in the 2019 draft, it’s expected that Bradbury should be a plus-starter. Instead, like Cleveland, he has his ups and downs.
Bradbury was lauded for his run blocking come out of college. Unfortunately, concerns about his pass blocking still linger. He has graded out positive each season as a run blocker, but it wasn’t until 2022 that Bradbury finally graded out positive as a pass blocker. His smaller stature (6’3″, 300 pounds) allows him, too, to be pushed around by bigger defensive tackles.
For what it’s worth, Bradbury and Cleveland were both drafted when former assistant and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was employed. Kubiak emphasized speed and quickness over power in his zone-running scheme. Although the current regime led by head coach Kevin O’Connell got the best out of Bradbury in 2022, do they believe he is the long-term solution at center? He was brought back in free agency on a three-year, $15.575 million contract. But the team could move on without taking a cap hit in 2024 if they decide to move on from Bradbury following the season. It also doesn’t help that he has missed all but seven snaps so far in 2023 as he continues battling a back injury suffered last year.
That brings us to right guard Ed Ingram, the only projected starter coming into the season who was brought in by the current regime. Ingram was the 59th overall pick of the 2022 draft and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup. Like Bradbury, Ingram has graded out better as a run blocker than he has in the pass game. He had a 64.2 run-blocking grade as a rookie and so far has a 75.7 run blocking grade to begin the 2023 season, including a 91.7 grade against the LA Chargers in Week 3.
Unfortunately, his struggles in the passing game make him a punching bag among fans on gameday. As a rookie, his pass-blocking grade was 42.6, getting charged with 11 sacks and 63 pressures allowed. Both numbers were the worst among all guards. He hasn’t gotten off to a much better start in 2023, allowing three sacks and 13 total pressures. His pass-blocking grade is 49.0, which ranks 60th among 77 guards.
Ingram is 6’3″ and 307 pounds, but many of his struggles come more out of lack of fundamentals than it does from him getting overpowered. As a rookie, many of the sacks and pressures he gave up were a result of him oversetting in pass protection. This means that he was moving his outside foot too far to the outside on his initial step as opposed to getting vertical. Because of this, defenders were able to consistently beat him inside. When he gets his initial step right, he is actually a very capable blocker and is able to use his strength to handle bigger linemen.
What’s next for the offensive line moving forward?
Following their loss to the Eagles, the Vikings brought in former Denver Broncos guard Dalton Risner. The 2019 second-round pick was a four-year starter in Denver, proving to be a more capable pass blocker than he was in the run game. O’Connell said this week that Risner got some work with the first-team in practice and that he will get worked into the offense during Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.
The question then becomes, who does he replace? Does he replace Ingram, who has struggled to be consistent through 21 games but has been the only Day 1 contributor from the Vikings’ 2022 draft class? Or does Risner replace Cleveland, a converted tackle who may not fit what the current coaching staff wants out of their guards? Or does Risner, a left guard in Denver, replace Cleveland at left guard, and move Cleveland over to right guard, where he played as a rookie? That feels too complicated for an in-game rotation, but nothing is off the table yet.
Wherever he is, Risner could be playing alongside backup center Austin Schlottman, who has filled in for Bradbury most of the season. Although Schlottman has been solid filling in, he still doesn’t have the communication skills that offensive coordinator Wes Phillips praised Bradbury for this week. Could whatever has been ailing Ingram this year be because he hasn’t had Bradbury getting the line into the right calls and protections?
Can we expect improvement moving forward?
As a whole, the play of the Vikings offensive line has been reminiscent of the offense’s overall performance. It has been mostly good this year, sometimes great, but there are still recurring issues that continue to hold the unit back. Risner could help the line, but how much? And is he a long-term solution, or just a project that ultimately doesn’t improve an inconsistent unit?
It’s frustrating that so many questions surround a unit that consists of five players that have been selected within the first two rounds over the past six seasons. The hope is that Risner brings some stability, but as a second-round pick that his team decided to move on from, it feels as if the Vikings have added a player who may have difference strengths and weaknesses but ultimately projects more of the same. Will it work out? Only time will tell.
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