A Different Take on Vikings ‘Most Irreplaceable’ Player

Helmet
Jun 11, 2019; Eagan, MN, USA; A Minnesota Vikings helmet sits on the field at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The ripe speculative period of the NFL offseason – you know, like now – is in full force, and stuff like “what player cannot afford to be lost” topics twist around the digital water cooler.

Indeed, every team has a player that is least expendable – think Aaron Rodgers for the Green Bay Packers or last year’s ordeal with Christian McCaffrey not playing much for the Carolina Panthers. Both teams resembled shells of themselves without their respective leader.

Who is that for the 2021 Minnesota Vikings? The masses saw in 2020 what the defensive line did – a nasty memory – without Danielle Hunter. He probably tops most folks’ lists for players the Vikings can ill-afford to live without. The drop-off from Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson – to Chad Beebe or Bisi Johnson is steep as hell. That one deserves diligence for this conversation.

Maybe it’s Kirk Cousins, who finds a way to toss 4,000 passing yards and 30+ touchdowns per season while being underappreciated and point-blank savaged at times. For certain, the Mannion-instead-of-Cousins scenario for 2019 or 2020 would have symbolized the most glaring bit of talent cleavage for the team’s win projection. Thankfully, Cousins has never missed a game due to injury, so worrying about Sean Mannion never came to fruition.

If not Hunter, Thielen, Jefferson, or Cousins – names like Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Cook are leftover. Are they the most irreplaceable members of the Vikings?

No, says Bleacher Report. According to Brad Gagnon of BR, that title in 2021 belongs to right tackle Brian O’Neill. Here’s why per Gagnon:

The Minnesota Vikings are not on track to possess much salary-cap space next offseason (what’s new?), which could make things tricky when it comes to deciding what to do with impending 2022 free agents Brian O’Neill, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr. Who should take priority? We’ll go with O’Neill, who has arguably emerged as the team’s best offensive lineman and is four years younger than Carr and seven years younger than Smith. The offensive line has been an issue for the Vikings for quite some time. They’d be silly to let a talented, young second-round pick get away at the tackle position.

And this falls in the arena of “if you thought the Vikings offensive line was bad before, now O’Neill is out..” The minuscule moments of pass-protecting competence shown by the Vikings since 2018 are derived from Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill – conveniently the two tackles protecting the edges. Inconveniently, Reiff doesn’t play in Minnesota any longer – he left for Mike Zimmer’s old team, the Cincinnati Bengals – so in terms of proven commodities, it’s only Brian O’Neill. Ezra Cleveland performed well for a rookie in 2020. Garrett Bradbury faces a make-or-break campaign that kicks off in September. Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis could be the best linemen ever – or the worst. That is unknown for now.

So, yes. A compelling argument, as expressed by Bleacher Report, can be offered on why O’Neill is the one guy that the Vikings cannot afford to lose.

If Darrisaw is tantalizing and Rashod Hill shows veteran savvy, then O’Neill isn’t quite as mandatory. But those are big ifs.

O’Neill is due for a contract extension. His contract ceases at the end of 2021. That’s about six months away. General Manager Rick Spielman will ideally hash out a deal with the University of Pittsburgh alumnus before the 2021 season commences. If not, late winter of 2022 will be suspenseful.

The classification of “most irreplaceable” is some leverage to relish heading into money talks.