The Minnesota Vikings have had problems with their offensive line for years. A lot of people will attribute that problem to luck. The promising 2016 season was derailed after a 5-0 start due to the offensive line falling apart around Sam “glass knees” Bradford. In the 2017 NFC Championship game, the offensive line was patchwork and obviously overmatched by the Philadelphia Eagles, although that wasn’t the only issue the Vikings had a week after their miracle walk-off of the Saints.
Under Rick Spielman, the offensive line has been shoddy at best. For a large portion of his tenure, this could be excused. For a few years there the team was seemingly in a rebuild of sorts and the defense certainly needed to be better. With the arrival of Mike Zimmer, it became obvious that the focus would be on building a championship defense.
Even so, there should have been a better plan in place than “draft some mid-round players who fell because of injury and pick the rest of your offensive lineman off the scrap heap of the rest of the NFL. In that 2016 season I referenced earlier, the Vikings were relying on an oft-injured and 29-year-old Andre Smith to hold down a starting tackle position. Eventually, they brought in former number one overall pick, and multiple ACL tear victim, Jake Long. Long only played in four games for the Vikings before suffering a torn achilles and subsequently retiring from football.
Now, eight years after Spielman took over as General Manager, it looks like there might finally be a better plan in place. The offense has some continuity with Gary Kubiak taking the full reins of the offense, after puppet mastering Kevin Stefanski last season, and the offensive line being filled with young talent with a lot of potential. The Vikings also have the right man leading the way with offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison.
Of course, it all starts with the current starters, or lack thereof in some cases. Riley Reiff appears to be ready to hold down the fort at left tackle for at least this season. Reiff is on the second to last year of his contract and is 31-years-old this season. He probably isn’t in the long-term plan, unless he’s willing to take a pay cut, but in the meantime he is a serviceable player who can mentor some of the younger players, especially rookie Ezra Cleveland.
Last season, Pat Elflien made the switch to his more natural position at left guard. The results were mixed at best. Elflien can still get some work done in the run game, especially in the Vikings zone run scheme. However, he gets bullied in pass protection and doesn’t have the power to hold up against the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
There’s a good possibility that Elflien holds onto his starter spot at the beginning of the season. The Vikings let their other starting guard from last season, Josh Kline, walk this off-season. This was presumably because of injury concerns with the 30-year-old Kline. That leaves an opening for another young player to take the spot, perhaps second year players Dru Samia or even Oli Udoh, or any number of rookies to possibly sneak in and snag it.
Either way, Elflien will almost certainly start the season on one side of sophomore Garrett Bradbury. Bradbury, Minnesota’s first round pick last season, was again kind of up and down in his first season. He looks very good in the run game and extremely good in the screen pass game. That’s something that should come as no surprise with how athletic he is.
However, he looked overmatched as well at times against the bigger competition of the NFL. He needs to maybe pack on some more muscle to stand up to the big defensive tackles, or get his technique up to a level where he can neutralize his size disadvantage. Regardless, he should be better this season and be able to captain the offensive line.
Finally, the last returning starter is Brian O’Neill. The best offensive lineman drafted so far in the Rick Spielman era, O’Neill was supposed to be a project tackle after converting from tight end in college. However, he was forced into a starting role early in 2018 and has looked excellent ever since.
He falls into similar pitfalls as the other Vikings lineman, he’s not a mammoth of a player. However, he moves very well and seems to have better functional strength than his teammates along the line. O’Neill should be able to hold down the right side of the line for the Vikes for the next ten years. Assuming of course that he can stay healthy that long.
Despite a year where the Vikings spent a good chunk of their draft picks on defensive players, and defensive backs specifically, there is a lot to be excited about for the rookies and sophomores on the offensive line.
Like I alluded to before, both Oli Udoh and Dru Samia were big time gets last season, with Udoh garnering praise for how he handled Khalil Mack in the Vikings week 17 game against the Chicago Bears. Yes, that Khalil Mack, arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL and the guy who has worked over Riley Reiff multiple times in the last few seasons.
The Vikings also have a number of solid depth options with experience. Brett Jones has looked excellent in limited opportunity and should be able to step-up if Bradbury goes down. Dakota Dozier is in the running for that second starting guard spot and is a decent option if needed. Both veteran jack-of-all-trades Aviante Collins and Rashod Hill are still under contract and can play any position on the line except perhaps center.
Ezra Cleveland is a name that should have Vikings fans excited. The former Boise State standout played left tackle for the Broncos, but has the versatility to play inside too. Something that Rick Spielman has mentioned the team exploring. Even if he stays at left tackle, he should compete well with veteran Riley Reiff, and hopefully pick up some tricks from the veteran. Long-term, he could hold down the left tackle position for a decade or more.
The Vikings also made some more solid draft picks and undrafted free agent pickups. However, it’s at this point that the offensive line room starts feeling a bit crowded. I’ve already listed a ton of names and then you have wild cards like Brady Aiello and Blake Brandel who bring intriguing athleticism, but will certainly need a few years of polish. Jake Lacina, a local product whose father played in purple in the early 2000s, and Tyler Higby who played a lot of football for Kirk Cousins’ alma mater Michigan State.
Kyle Hinton rounds out the room as the Vikings final draft choice of this years draft, and another interesting player with a chance to stick in Minnesota. With so many options on the table, and a lot of them with prior experience, that will leave a few of these guys out in the rain. We could see a surprise cut like Riley Reiff or even Pat Elflien before the start of the season, but most likely we’ll see a lot of these guys go to the practice squad and a few get released into the big pond of NFL free agency.