The Minnesota Vikings haven’t had a franchise left tackle in a long-time. The last decade has been filled with Matt “outside of my rookie year I was terrible” Kalil, TJ “Turnstyle” Clemmings, and Riley “Solid Enough” Reiff.
The last true franchise guy at left tackle the Vikings had was Bryant McKinnie. His last season in purple was also Brett Favre’s last season period. So, needless to say, Vikings fans have been waiting for an answer at the second most important offensive position, especially since the most important position is now held by Kirk “top ten” Cousins.
Matt Kalil was the last Vikings tackle to be drafted in the first round, and the last offensive lineman to be drafted in the first until Garrett Bradbury last season. This was Rick Spielman’s first draft as general manager and his first pick ever. So, when Kalil fizzled out, perhaps he felt burned and was a bit gun shy about taking another tackle so high.
Of course since the Kalil pick, the Vikings have yet to draft in the top five and only have one pick in the top ten. So, maybe Spielman just never felt that the draft position lined up with taking an offensive tackle.
Either way, the Vikings are left with an interesting decision after drafting high upside Ezra Cleveland in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft. Vikings Twitter has been raving about the Cleveland pick ever since it went down. Is the hype justified, and does he have a chance to dethrone Riley Reiff before the beginning of the season?
I referred to Riley Reiff as “solid enough” and I think that’s what he has been in his three seasons with the Vikings. Since coming to Minnesota from Detroit in 2017, Reiff has been a rock in an often turbulent sea. Reiff has played in 43/48 regular season games and all four of the Vikings playoff games in that stretch.
Dependability is Reiff’s strong suit. He’s not going to give you an all-pro performance, but that has been okay because the line around him has been bad and he was a bright spot in that. However, it’s a new day in Minnesota and the Vikings offensive line room is brimming with potential.
Reiff doesn’t look as good now that he’s on the wrong side of thirty and is in a system that maybe isn’t the best for him. I’m not saying he’s completely slow, but he’s not as fast as Brian O’Neill, Oli Udoh, or Ezra Cleveland. In the Vikings Zone scheme, speed is important and Reiff is the slowest returning starter on the offensive line.
Now, that lack of speed could be justified if Reiff was a great technician or mawler and handled pass rushers well. Except, Reiff gets beat often by the NFL’s higher end pass rushers. We’ve seen him get worked over and over again by Chicago’s Khalil Mack.
His technique is fine, but nothing special. His strength is okay, but not enough to make him exceptional. He is what he is, a solid starter who has held the fort down while the team looks for their new franchise guy.
With the Vikings taking Ezra Cleveland in this year’s NFL draft, Spielman has shown to be fully committed to re-tooling the offensive line with high upside, athletic players to fit Gary Kubiak/Rick Dennison’s zone run scheme. Cleveland, who played his college ball at Boise State and helped block for Vikings running back Alexander Mattison, had a crazy good combine where he showed that athleticism and a surprising amount of upper body strength.
If you really want a good, deep dive into Cleveland, check out Nick Olson’s article on Zone Coverage here. Now, I’m no Nick Olson, but I’ll give you the short version.
Cleveland is a very athletic tackle who fits the scheme and can block on the run. He’s got a bit of nastiness to him to help him finish off blocks and open holes long enough to let his back get through to the second level.
Although not fully technically sound, he certainly isn’t a project that should take years to develop. He does have some things to work on, particularly letting himself get beat by inside counters. Lack of strength in his lower body could give him problems against bigger NFL competition so he’ll need to pack on some muscle there without losing that athleticism.
Normally, I would have done a “by the numbers” section, but there isn’t much to compare as Reiff is so far removed from his combine numbers it hardly seems relevant and Cleveland has zero NFL stats. So, let’s get right into the nitty-gritty.
Riley Reiff has been a godsend in terms of bringing stability to a position that the Vikings have struggled to keep filled. He’s also got boat loads of experience. So, why would the Vikings give Cleveland the nod instead of him?
Well, because Cleveland is the future. I appreciate everything that Reiff has done, but he’s in the second to last year of his contract and his dead cap next year is minimal compared to what you have to pay him if you keep him. So, if the team wants to throw Cleveland in immediately and save some time, they could do it.
However, I think this would be extremely foolish. You’ve got bigger problems on the offensive line, like who is going to play guard, without also throwing your left tackle position into chaos. Cleveland can sit a year behind Reiff and sponge up the guys’ knowledge.
Now, I have heard talk of moving Cleveland inside while still having him work with Reiff to learn the tackle position. This could also be a good move as it can’t get much worse than Pat Elflien and Cleveland gets NFL action all while working side-by-side with the guy he’s going to replace.