The Vikings’ Offensive Line Is Better Than You Think It Is

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There is a dearth of offensive line talent in the NFL right now.  In 2007, the average offensive line surrendered 144 total pressures over the course of the season per Pro Football Focus; by 2017, that number had skyrocketed up to 168 pressures — a 17% increase!  So these days, it’s not uncommon for fans of every team to feel like their offensive line desperately needs improvement.

But Vikings fans don’t need to be counted among them.  Despite the injuries and all the apocalyptic premonitions, we can reasonably expect the Vikings to have, not just average, but above-average pass protection, and solid run blocking for the 2018 season.

The Vikings’ Offensive Linemen Are Good Pass Protectors.  Really.

I am not certain where the general attitude of panic regarding the Vikings’ pass protection started.  But I do know it’s unfounded.  Let me go through every reason why:

  • The 2017 Vikings ranked 12th in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency. 

Pass blocking efficiency measures the percentage of passing snaps where a sack, quarterback hit or hurry is surrendered by the offensive line.  By that metric, the Vikings ranked 12th; three spots behind the Super Bowl Champion Eagles, and ahead of several vaunted offensive lines, including the Cowboys, Falcons, Rams, Packers and Patriots.  The Vikings actually surrendered fewer sacks and pressures than the Cowboys did in 2017, despite playing more passing snaps.

  • Only two offensive lines surrendered fewer sacks than the 2017 Vikings.

The average offensive line in 2017 surrendered 20 sacks; the Vikings were one of three teams to surrender fewer than 12.  Granted, some of that should be credited to Case Keenum, who ranked second in the NFL in pressure conversion rate (meaning he was very good at preventing pressure from turning into sacks), but it should also be mentioned that only three quarterbacks invited more pressure than Keenum during the 2017 season.  Case in point: while the Vikings surrendered 20 sacks during the 2017 regular season and postseason, only 11 of those were charged to the offensive line.  6 sacks were charged to Keenum.

  • The 2017 Vikings ranked 17th in the NFL in team pass blocking grade.

The average team pass-blocking grade in 2017 was 72.4; the Vikings came in just shy of that mark at 71.9, and a far cry from teams like the Seahawks or Cardinals with team grades hovering below 55.0.

And that was despite some bad injury luck on the offensive line: Nick Easton missed six games; Mike Remmers missed five; Pat Elflein missed two games and was injured in his last game of the season; Reiff missed a game and played half the season banged up; even backups like Rashod Hill and Jeremiah Sirles missed multiple games.

So even with some bad injury luck, the Vikings ranked just about average in pass blocking grade.  And with some better luck in 2018, above average should be the expectation.

  • We should reasonably expect several of the Vikings’ linemen to improve upon their 2017 performance.

It’s not unreasonable to expect the Vikings’ younger linemen to improve: Pat Elflein, despite his injury and surgeries, is probably a better player now than a year ago before he had any NFL experience.  Some are going so far as to predict a pro bowl season from Elflein.  And we have already seen marked improvement from other young players on the Vikings’ offensive line in camp, including Danny Isidora, Aviante Collins and Rashod Hill.

Nor would it be unreasonable to expect improved play from Riley Reiff.  Reiff is no rookie, but consider that from 2013 through 2016, his PFF grade varied from a low of 69.1 to a high of 78.5, with an average grade of 73.9.  In 2017, however, due to injuries he was forced to play through, his grade plummeted ten points from that average to 64.1.  Through the first half of the 2017 season, while Reiff was still healthy, he had a grade of 75.1, which ranked 25th out of 74 qualifying tackles at the time and right about in line with how he’s performed for the rest of his career.  We can reasonably expect Reiff’s performance to return to his career average.

  • Through three weeks of the preseason, the Vikings’ offensive line currently ranks 1st in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency and 4th in team pass blocking grade.

It’s easy to dismiss everything that happens in the preseason as meaningless, but truthfully, other than varying levels of competition and less complex blitz packages, preseason pass blocking reps aren’t that dissimilar from regular season pass blocking reps.

And if you limit the discussion to the starters (who have largely been facing off against first-team defenses), the Vikings look even better: Riley Reiff currently has the fourth-best pass blocking grade among 185 qualifying tackles.  Brian O’Neill, should he beat out Rashod Hill for the starting right tackle position, has the 20th-best pass blocking grade.  Mike Remmers ranks 41st out of 187 guards for preseason pass-blocking grade; Tom Compton ranks 107th; Danny Isidora ranks 29th.  Cornelius Edison ranks 10th out of 91 qualifying centers.

And that doesn’t even include the Vikings’ newest offensive lineman, Brett Jones.

Brett Jones Should Not Just Start On the Vikings’ Line, But Should Be a Big Upgrade

Brett Jones was a CFL star in the two years he played in Canada: in his rookie year, he won the Jackie Parker Trophy, the CFL-equivalent of Rookie of the Year.  He is the only offensive lineman in the 45-year history of the Jackie Parker Trophy to win Rookie of the Year.  And in his second year,  he was named an all-star and won the award for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman.

That level of talent seemed to translate to the NFL, too.  Jones was Pro Football Focus’s 15th-best center in 2017, with the fourth-best pass blocking grade and the 21st-best run blocking grade.  The only centers with a better pass blocking grade were Rodney Hudson (pro bowler), Travis Frederick (pro bowler) and Brandon Linder.  Jones outgraded both all-pro centers (Alex Mack and Jason Kelce) in pass protection.  Jones allowed only ten pressures all season (on 571 pass blocking snaps).  The only centers to allow fewer pressures were Rodney Hudson and Brandon Linder.

But you don’t have to take Pro Football Focus’ word for it.  Watch Jones (#69 at center) go one-on-one against Fletcher Cox, Sheldon Richardson and Aaron Donald—three of the best interior pass rushers in football—and stonewall each one of them:

Jones is an elite technician with a great punch, good pad level and active feet.  At 6’2″, Jones is slightly short for an NFL interior offensive lineman, but Jones’ height provides him with natural leverage, which combined with his good pad level, strong grip and active feet, make him an absolute bulwark in pass protection.

Jones is also a smart player.  He is both real-world smart (he was nominated as his college conference’s top student athlete in 2011 and 2012 and was an academic All-Canadian all four years of college) and football smart—quick to pick up stunts, aware of green dog blitzes and looks to provide help when he can:

Most of all, Jones is consistent.  He simply doesn’t lose many pass reps, as the 20 plays linked here demonstrate.

Jones can be trusted one-on-one against any interior pass rusher in the NFL, which makes him immediately competitive for a starting job on the Vikings’ offensive line.  He has plenty of experience at center and could adroitly fill in for Pat Elflein should Elflein miss any time at the start of the season, and he also played two games at left guard and should be immediately competitive for that spot on the Vikings’ roster.

In fact, based on his 2017 tape, it would not be an exaggeration to say Jones is already the best pass protector on the Vikings’ roster.

In the run game, Jones also flashes a lot of talent, particularly at the first level, where Jones’ natural leverage,  heavy hands and powerful leg drive consistently create movement:

That leverage and drive also make Jones a talented run blocker in double teams, where Jones often creates giant holes for the run game:

However, Jones often struggles when asked to block in space.  Jones is pretty athletic and usually has no problems moving upfield quickly or beating beat his man to his space, but he often takes poor angles and thereby whiffs on the block, and even when he connects, he is usually unable to sustain his blocks.  His pad level is also often at issue in space, which results in linebackers that weigh 100 pounds less than him being able to blow him back at the second level.  He is fine with trap blocks and OK pulling, but he is very inconsistent when asked to climb to the second level:

His inability to connect or sustain blocks in space is particularly noticeable on screens:

Jones’ inconsistency in space will limit the Vikings’ run game and screen game, since those second level blocks are the difference between 5 yard gains and 15 yard gains.

However, Jones has the athleticism to be able to improve, and already his abilities in pass protection make him more than qualified enough to start at left guard or center on the Vikings’ line.

The Run Blocking Isn’t Elite, But That’s OK

In 2017, the Vikings’ run blocking as a team ranked 13th-best in the NFL.

Part of that has to do with the strength of run blocking outside of the offensive line: tight end David Morgan graded out as the best blocking tight end in football last year, Adam Thielen had a top-ten run blocking grade among wide receivers, plus CJ Ham, Laquon Treadwell and others also blocked well.

And part of it has to do with Joe Berger, who was the Vikings’ best run blocking offensive lineman, and who has since retired.  With Joe Berger being replaced by Tom Compton, Danny Isidora or Brett Jones, it is unlikely that the Vikings’ run blocking will be better than it was in 2017.  The run blocking in the 2018 preseason has been particularly uninspiring: the Vikings currently have the second-worst team run blocking grade after three preseason games.

But nevertheless, the Vikings’ starting offensive line should be at least mediocre in 2018.  Reiff’s dropoff in play in 2017 was even more pronounced in the run game: his average run blocking grade from 2013 through 2016 was 69.3; in 2017 with the injuries it dropped to 57.8.  A return to career average for Reiff would be a huge upgrade in the run game.

Nick Easton’s injury may hurt the team in pass blocking—Easton ranked top five among all guards in 2017 pass blocking efficiency (though his pass blocking grade was below average).  And Easton was particularly valuable on screens, where his outstanding athleticism frequently opened up major gains.  But Easton was the Vikings’ lowest-graded run blocker on the starting offensive line.  Brett Jones and Tom Compton, despite their issues, both graded out better than Easton in the run game last year, and what they lack in terms of comparative athleticism they make up for with a better ability to sustain and win blocks in the run game.

The Vikings will have a new starter at right tackle, and whether that’s Rashod Hill or Brian O’Neill, it’s likely a downgrade from Mike Remmers in 2017: O’Neill does a very good job getting to his man, but he lacks the drive to win many run blocks.  Hill is slightly stronger, but noticeably less effective than Remmers.

Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein should be at least as good as they were in 2017.  Remmers is now slated to start at guard rather than tackle, but while the switch initially created some issues for Remmers in pass protection (he was dominated by Akiem Hicks at right guard in week 17 of last season), he performed very well as a run blocker at guard, and had arguably his best game of the season at guard in the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles’ ridiculously talented defensive line.

All-in-all, it shakes out to one big downgrade (replacing Joe Berger with Rashod Hill or Brian O’Neill) and one slight upgrade (replacing Nick Easton with Tom Compton, Danny Isidora or Brett Jones), with some slight reasons for optimism for improved play from Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein.

But even if the run blocking is slightly worse than 2017, being slightly worse than 13th-best is hardly reason to panic.

And even if the run blocking is worse than 2017, the running game should nevertheless be better, because the Vikings will be returning this guy:

Dalvin Cook is a special talent.

Though he only played four games in 2017, Dalvin Cook earned a top ten rushing grade.  Cook avoided one tackle for every five carries or receptions he had—also one of the best marks among running backs.

Cook succeeded in college despite some very poor run blocking.  And last year in the NFL, he did extremely well even with middling run blocking.

Despite his run blocking, last year Dalvin Cook had a rushing success rate of 54%.  That was 6th best among all running backs with at least 50 attempts.

For comparison, that was better than…

  • Todd Gurley (53%)
  • Alvin Kamara (53%)
  • Le’Veon Bell (49%)
  • Kareem Hunt (47%)
  • Leonard Fournette (44%)

…And over 60 other qualifying running backs.

So even if other teams are run blocking better than the Vikings, that doesn’t mean they will be running the ball better than the Vikings.  Special talents like Dalvin Cook can create an elite rushing attack even without elite run blockers.

In Conclusion, It’s All Going To Be All Right

The Vikings are very good in pass protection: they ranked 12th-best in pass blocking efficiency last year and currently rank 1st through three weeks of the 2018 preseason.  Plus, the Vikings added Brett Jones, who is an elite pass blocker and who deserves a shot to start all season long on the line.  If Riley Reiff can return to his career average play and Pat Elflein can return healthy and improve on his rookie season, the Vikings’ pass protection won’t just be good; it will be great.

And sure, this isn’t the Minnesota Moving Company, but our run blockers aren’t slouches either.  They ranked 13th-best in team run blocking grade in 2017, and even if Joe Berger is gone, Dalvin Cook is back.  Last year, despite any blocking shortcomings, Dalvin Cook had the sixth-best rushing success rate out of over 70 qualifying running backs.

So not only is there no need to panic, there is reason to be excited.  Maybe nobody knows it, but the Vikings’ offensive line is actually pretty good.