Reiff open to moving to guard, but does it really matter?
Note from the pessimist: This article is part of a series pointing out the similarities between the Minnesota Vikings’ moves this off-season, for the second part (which focuses on rookie first-round pick Justin Jefferson, CLICK HERE).
One of the largest talking points from this strange, distant COVID training camp came from a press conference that new Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, had last week with members of Vikings traditional media.
In that presser Kubiak discussed the Vikings’ offensive line and like the four offensive coordinators before him, said essentially the same things. The Vikings were confident in the players they had. They were looking forward to the open competition on the inside. Et cetera.
While many in Vikings media have towed the line in the past and typically delved into those talking points with articles about said competition(s), the response this year felt a lot more… Like my response every off-season since 2016.
If I talk about one topic more than any other, it is the Vikings continued/bewildering/incredibly frustrating refusal to use draft picks or free agency money on actual guards. Sure, they did sign Josh Kline last off-season and he and Brian O’Neill had a tremendous positive impact on the right side (namely in terms of Dalvin Cook’s per rush yardage average.
In an article from earlier this off-season, I covered Kline’s impact. Kline missed three games in 2019 due to concussions, I’ll let you guess which by looking at Cook’s per rush average.
But I’m not here to gloat now that those that said I was being reactionary after the 2018… and 2019… and 2020 draft are now pointing out that more of the same when “the same” means a passing offense that can only function when it’s quarterback rolls out of the pocket.
Rather, let’s look at why people are finally coming around to the reality that this organization does almost everything right except one thing that wouldn’t even require that much investment.
Why are they coming around? Because many told me after the draft in which the Vikings had a record breaking 15 picks but only used one on their biggest and most consistent position of need in the guard spots, and that one pick? The last of the 15 and the second-to-last in the entire draft.
People said at the time that the Ezra Kline pick would allow the Vikes to move Riley Reiff to guard. Now, I was never a fan of this move as Reiff hasn’t played guard since around the end of his teens, and we saw what happened when the team moved Reiff’s free agency signing classmate Mike Remmers to guard (although Remmers had never played guard).
When Kubiak held his conference call he emphatically threw a wet blanket on that narrative by stating that Reiff was going nowhere and that it was Cleveland (who also has never played guard) who would be competing for the guard spot.
Now Reiff has had an opportunity to speak on the matter, per an article by Pioneer Press’ Chris Tomasson, and maybe complicated things further?
“Heck, I’ll play whatever as long as it helps the team,” he said in that piece.
Reiff has long been a punching bag for Vikings fans despite his Pro Football Focus grades making him pretty average, at least according to SKOR North’s … skornorth (the username on the article I’m sourcing):
“During his three years as a Viking, PFF has ranked Reiff 38th (of 57), 23rd (of 62) and 26th (of 60). He has been the definition of an average tackle — which is much better than what the Vikings sported before Reiff arrived. In 2016, TJ Clemmings manned the quarterback’s blind side and rated 61st of 62 tackles.”
So, Reiff hasn’t been great but we know what worse looks like. Which should be example 1.6 billion B as to why the continued lack of genuine investment in the line is just so dumb at this point.
Back to Tomasson’s piece, Reiff discusses his shortcomings and what he wants to improve upon:
“Some things I’d like to work on are, obviously, pass (protection), I think I can get better in run blocking, too.”
Now, the Vikings line was ranked 27th as a unit in terms of pass blocking, so it’s simultaneously good that Reiff is aware of that and also bad that he is a huge step up to what the team had before him (example 1.6 billion … C?).
When it comes to actually moving him to guard clearly Kubiak (and his offensive line coaches in Rick Dennison and newly hired offensive line assistant Phil Rauscher (maybe he can play guard?)) has final say, and you could mostly right off what Reiff said as football speak, but the fact that we’re still debating this after a 15-pick draft and a contract extension for both Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, is deeply concerning.
It’s not like we’re talking about drafting a quarterback here. You can draft good guards in the fourth or fifth rounds. Compare how many first or second round picks this team has used on the cornerback position in the Spielman/Zimmer era, which would be fine if the output reflected the investment.
Considering that Xavier Rhodes (first), Trae Waynes (first) and Alexander (second) are all gone, and were the weak spot on the defense in 2019.
The team spent five of their 15 picks on defensive backs, including another first on Jeff Gladney, a third on Cameron Dantzler and a fifth on Harrison Hand. They’ll join “veteran” first-round pick Mike Hughes, who was the pick that broke my brain and made me realize that Zimmer couldn’t help himself and Spielman couldn’t say no to Zimmer.
The Vikings had just spent so much money on a quarterback that it literally changed how the NFL does business. I was and still am a big Kirk Cousins guy, in fact I was the first in Vikings media to call for the Vikings to pull out all the stops to sign Cousins.
But I am also a realist and if I knew that Cousins struggled (more than the average) when under pressure (although he has improved in that regard), the team knew. The team also knew that it had just arguably/partially been embarrassed in the 2017 NFC Championship because of injuries on their offensive line before the playoffs began.
Vikings left guard Nick Easton was out for the ‘17 playoffs, so the team shuffled right tackle Mike Remmers to left guard and back up Rashod Hill to right tackle. One could argue both turnovers that gave the Eagles the momentum they never relented were based on pressure from the line.
Sure, the defense was outclassed from a play-calling perspective, but the Eagles game was a lot closer a lot later in the first-half than I bet you remember.
That was with Joe Berger at right guard. Berger retired that subsequent off-season, and Nick Easton’s injury (and a subsequent neck injury in August) would make him unavailable for the 2018 season.
The Vikings knew they needed help on the interior, is my point. They were lucky, too! The 2018 draft was very deep and talented at the guard position, with multiple guards being taken early in the second round. Where as only one guard was taken before the third round in the 2020 draft.
Despite the fact that at the time the Vikings had two first rounders and a second rounder at the corner spot, the Vikings took Mike Hughes at the end of the first round and the four guards that clearly were atop the Vikings’ draft board were picked before the Vikings picked tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round.
Now we’re going into the 2020 season with four of the same starters as 2019? And not only did they wait until the second to last pick in the entire draft on a player who has played guard, but they’re risking turning the “slam dunk” pick that is Ezra Cleveland into TJ Clemmings.
Just look at Kubiak’s comments on that topic:
We know he’s played tackle for a long time. Through the walk-through period, we’re working him at guard right now, so he gets reps next to Blake as they work together in the young group, and we’ll go from there.”
“We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player, and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there. We know he has a comfort zone to go back outside. We’ll settle him down probably after about a week, and we’ll take a look at exactly where we think he should be and what gives him the best chance to help our team.”
They are open to keeping him at tackle, but the fact that Kubiak is saying any of this is borderline infuriating at this point.
Your Brian O’Neill clone clearly feels very uncomfortable at guard. He is leaning on tendencies that you should be reinforcing AT THE POSITION YOU DRAFTED HIM FOR. Not “settle him down” to give him reps at the spot you refuse to invest in.
Breaking those tendencies this early simply for the sake of “reps” could cause irreparable damage to his development, which for Cleveland could hurt his potential to lock down the left tackle spot like O’Neill has on the right side.
Imagine if the Vikings had (traded down and) drafted any of the following interior lineman in the 2018 draft instead of taking Hughes at 30, which is something you can use the next time you hear the “if not X then who?” argument… The number in parenthesis denotes what pick they were:
– Austin Corbett (33) who was traded to bolster the LA Rams’ dismal line in 2019.
– Will Hernandez (34) who made the Pro Football Writer’s Association All-Rookie team and has started 32 of 32 games.
– Braden Smith (37) who also made the PFWA All-Rookie team as a tackle (but was drafted as a guard.
– Connor Williams (50) left guard who is now rehabbing a torn ACL
– James Daniels (39) who can and has played center and guard. Think Pat Elflein but if that worked out.
There you have it.
That’s it. The source of my malaise for a team that I genuinely do love. I want to look at this team the way everyone else does or claims to, but I also have to be realistic about what I’m seeing as a fan and especially as a writer.
I don’t want to put anyone on blast, but there are a lot of writers out there who will initially react to something one way (like the drafting of Justin Jefferson being a reach for a one dimensional slot receiver) and then the next day write a glowing piece about JJets having no problem acclimating to press coverage in the NFL.
I understand that a lot of what I’m writing about is repetitive and that’s kinda the point. Here we are again, hearing the same things we’ve heard for years and considering that the Vikings just extended both Zimmer and Spielman despite the most Zimmer and Spielman-y draft ever (in both good and bad ways), we as media members and fans need to start pointing out the painfully obvious because either the team believes what they’re saying or they don’t consider having a clean pocket (or pocket at all) for their soon-to-be $45 million dollar a season quarterback to be a priority.
Again, that would be somewhat excusable of the Vikings defense was the 1985 Bears or the 2000 Ravens, but they aren’t. They may be the most consistently Top 10 defense of the past five seasons, but they’ve wilted under pressure when it matters most.
Part of that comes from the game plan and in-game adjustments, which is partially why Zimmer’s right-hand man George Edwards was told to kick rocks after the 49ers game earlier this year.
But part of that comes from the players themselves, who have been the primary focus of the Vikings’ head coach and frankly organization. Which isn’t, by itself, an indictment on the team as every team has an identity.
But when a coach is given EVERYTHING that a head coach could ever ask for, from a new stadium and world class facility, to every draft pick and free agent he has wanted, to the point of maxing out the salary cap in 2019.
Yes, there has to be sacrifices somewhere when you build a team. This isn’t Madden with trade logic and salary caps turned off. The fact that Zimmer/Spielman took a 3-13 2013 squad and turned it into a 7-9 team in their first year as a duo (which was also their worst regular season outing) is astounding and not something to take for granted.
The fact that I can say that this team is one position group away from seriously contending is a testament to their ability to identify and develop talent on the defensive side of the ball and put together rosters with great talent position-to-position but as Vikings “fan” Mike Florio from NBCsports.com pointed out while bemoaning Zimmer’s extension.
“It feels like this team is always going to be good enough to be in the mix, but never good enough to be in the hunt.”
Florio stated, while also saying:
“Maybe it’s good enough for the Vikings to strive to win the Super Bowl (and) hope they win a Super Bowl. But instead of blowing it up and starting over again and trying to build a team that within five years that may win a Super Bowl, let’s just keep treading water because it’s going to be good for business to tread water with a team that’s on the fringes of contention.”
While some have ripped Florio for this take, they’ve also begun to write articles from my POV. Namely, they’re starting to connect the dots that until Zimmer and Spielman learn from their mistakes, or rather mistake, we will experience the same disappointment over and over again.
The good news is that the solution is pretty simple. The bad news is that it’s too late to do anything about it for the 2020 season. With the youth and turnover on defense, it is not as if it’ll matter much at the end of things. But if this Vikings team is relying on it’s offense to carry the defense but has downgraded from the 27th-ranked pass blocking unit with Kline gone, perhaps Florio was wrong after all. Just not in the way most think.
But hey, at least we know Reiff is down to move to a position he hasn’t played since immediately after he red-shirted at Iowa.