O-Line: Are Vikings One Left Guard Away?

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

O-Line: Are Vikings One Left Guard Away? 
The Minnesota Vikings longstanding pickle is the offensive line section of the depth chart. For a decade, it has been the one consistent sour spot of the team despite remedial efforts to draft players like Matt Kalil or sign folks such as Mike Remmers in 2017. 
Seasons have come and gone in which the offensive line was serviceable. The 2017 season 
was one of those seasons — when the franchise defied all expectations from local/national/sports-betting sites like gamble-illinois.com, and tallied 13 victorious on a path to the NFC North Championship, and a trip to the NFC Championship. Frequently, however, the offensive line shortcomings are masked schematically.

For instance, Kirk Cousins implemented a proclivity for play-action passing in 2019 while the 
the team was able to reach the playoffs and notch a postseason road victory.  
The company line feels like this: If the Vikings offensive line is not horrible, it is then passable or decent. That is the perspective. Most Super Bowl-winning teams have a different philosophy – 
fortify the trenches up front and watch the playmakers prosper.

How was is that the Patriots won Super Bowls with men like LaGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski as the keynote skill-position personnel? It was Tom Brady’s leadership and a competent offensive line. It was not patchworked offensive lines that hoped Justin Jefferson types could mask pass-blocking woes. It was the inverse, in fact. 

The 2020 Vikings offensive line does a relatively impressive job with run blocking. Proof of this can be found in Dalvin Cook’s stat sheet. Passing blocking, though, is dicey. The same familiar afflictions exist. 
Most of the heartache is derived from the guard(s) position. Minnesota has rotated Dakota Dozier, Pat Elflein, Dru Samia, and now Ezra Cleveland into starting guard spots in efforts to find a group that jells. 
Although it is commonplace to be cynical about the offensive line, the “solution” may be closer than your skepticism suggests. 
O’Neill-Bradbury-Reiff Trifecta 
Through six games of the 2020 season, the legitimacy of the Vikings offensive line is undermined by guard play. Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, and Riley Reiff do not play guard. These three men are not the “problem.” O’Neill is on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl right tackle. Garrett Bradbury’s 2020 improvement is grounds for encouragement. And, Riley Reiff – now on a team-friendly financial deal – has nearly a 70.0 grade as determined by Pro Football Focus.  
These three players are the vertebrae of an offensive line. Bradbury is the breadbasket while O’Neill and Reiff are the dutiful protectors of Kirk Cousins. Based on their current performance in 2020, O’Neill, Bradbury, and Reiff should not be the targets of reform. They should be considered buildable pieces to a line that truly is not far away from proficiency. 

As well, an argument can be offered that O’Neill and Bradbury may only get better. O’Neill and 
Bradbury are both just 25 years old. 
Cleveland Emerges, for the moment 
A disclaimer: Much of the enthusiasm regarding Ezra Cleveland is based on one game, last weekend at Lambeau Field. The Vikings stunned the Packers, and Cleveland’s output was one of the semi-unexpected high points. Of course, a prolonged sample size is required to determine if Cleveland will materialize into a lifer. 
But, it is ok to be excited. Right guard is not a natural position for Cleveland as he was drafted from Boise State to play left tackle. For Cleveland to be thrust into a quasi-foreign spot on 
Minnesota’s offensive line – and succeed in a big test – is commendable.  
Per Pro Football Focus, Cleveland’s game at Green Bay was the fourth-best by a Vikings offensive lineman in the last five seasons (an 82.4 grade). That ain’t nothing. The promise is there, and Cleveland should get countless opportunities to assure Minnesota’s front office that the Green Bay game was no accident.  
Therefore, if Cleveland becomes a fixture at guard, only one spot on the line is left to evaluate. 
Left Guard Spot Can Be Improved 
That is left guard. Dakota Dozier grades out at a 51.6 PFF score – 69th best out 77 eligible NFL guards in 2020. That is the bottom 11th percentile of the league. Unless he embarks on a journey of drastic improvement in the next nine games, Dozier is probably worthy of a “good backup offensive lineman” title. He is not terrible, nor does he deserve to be cut. Dozier has played in 61 career games; he has started in 18 of those contests. His niche is that of a reservist player – one that fills in well in those situations. 
Four positions on the Vikings offensive line are potentially solidifying. Riley Reiff and the left tackle spot are debatable because he is slated to haul in a big payday for 2021 (the final year of his contract). His extension or exodus will be one of the transactions to follow with interest in the offseason.  
The Vikings need one guard – if the O’Neill-Bradbury-Cleveland-Reiff foursome holds up down the stretch of 2020. Guards do not typically fly off the board in the first round of the NFL draft at a premium. General manager Rick Spielman will need to decide if the draft of if free agency is his next move to find the Vikings left guard of the future.