How the Vikings Can Improve IOL through the Draft
As it stands, it is the same again for the Minnesota Vikings interior offensive line in 2023. All three starters and the backups are back, with center Garrett Bradbury and his backup Austin Schlottman re-signed in free agency.
How the Vikings Can Improve IOL through the Draft
Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram are set to remain the starters at guard, with Chris Reed as backup and Josh Sokol as a candidate for the practice squad. It will surprise me if the Vikings don’t do something to address this area of the team. So I will look at how the Vikings can improve the IOL through the draft.
The Current Roster
The Vikings are set to go again with the same group; however, there is very little in the way of long-term commitment to the position. In 2024, Bradbury and Ingram are the only IOL contracted in Minnesota. Cleveland, Reed, Schlottmann, and Sokol will all be free agents. Ingram is on a rookie contract that the Vikings can move on from without much pain or keep him as a cheap backup should Ingram fail to prove himself a starter in Year 2.
The Vikings will have a decision to make regarding Cleveland, the convert from tackle has put together three solid seasons as a guard. He excels in run defense due to his athleticism but has struggled as much as every other Vikings interior offensive lineman on true pass-blocking sets. Another solid season from Cleveland in the final year of his rookie contract, and he will be due a pay rise in 2024. I’ve not seen enough for the Vikings to consider an early extension, and I would want to see significant improvement in his pass blocking before paying him next year. It’s a big season for Cleveland.
It was a similar story for Bradbury last year, and the former first-round pick had his best season to date. It wasn’t enough to get him the type of deal some expected in free agency, and he comes back to Minnesota on a team-friendly three-year, $15.75 million contract. The Vikings can cut Bradbury next year and will have split one season’s salary over three years. It won’t surprise me if that happens unless Bradbury has an incredible year in 2023.
Despite little change to the IOL, there is almost a blank canvas heading into 2024. The Vikings can start to address that on Day 2 and 3 of this year’s draft and begin a revamp. Plenty of talent at center and guard positions are available this year. Adding competition to the roster for the three starting players should be on the agenda.
While Reed and Schlottmann are solid veteran backups, I don’t foresee either man forcing himself into a starting place. The draft is a smart place to look for potential starters. Indeed, the entire Vikings offensive line was drafted by Minnesota. Having only five draft picks and many other positions to address isn’t ideal, but that can soon change, as I expect Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to be busy again during the draft. Who are the players the Vikings should be looking at? Let’s start with the centers.
The Best Centers in the Draft
My favorite IOL prospect is Joe Tippmann, a two-year starter at center for the Wisconsin Badgers. He has the athleticism to play in the Vikings wide zone offense but also has the size (6’6 and 313lbs) to move to guard. That versatility makes him stand out for me, but that doesn’t take away from his impressive athleticism, power, and knowledge of the center position. Tippmann has the chance to be the first center drafted along with one, maybe two others. The Vikings probably need to be trading back for more Day 2 selections to be in the running.
The other man with an excellent chance to be the first center drafted is well-known in Minnesota. John Michael Schmitz has spent the last five years in Minnesota, with four years of starting experience as the Golden Gophers center. He has impressive size and the know-how to be an immediate starter but perhaps is less suited to a wide zone offense than Tippmann.
The Rest of the Centers
Luke Wypler is suited to a wide zone offense but comes in the athletic but undersized mold – similar to Bradbury. Wypler has strong hands and has shown himself adept at establishing leverage, but will it be enough against the giants that man the middle of NFL defensive lines? He will need time to get stronger and improve his anchor, which he will get if drafted by the Vikings while Bradbury is with the team. He could command as high as a second-round pick due to his athletic upside.
After the top three centers, several good options may be more realistic if the Vikings prioritize the defense and wide receiver—players who may be available late in the third round and on Day 3. Olusegun Oluwatimi, Ricky Stromberg, Alex Forsyth, and Juice Scruggs would be the players in this kind of range. I’m a big fan of Oluwatimi, who excels in pass blocking and suits a zone offense. If the Vikings can grab him in the fourth or fifth round, he can provide immediate competition for Bradbury.
Options at Guard
There are several options at guard, the best of which is O’Cyrus Torrence, who could command a first-round pick. That puts him out of the Vikings reach in all probability. There are five guards who I believe can be good options for the Vikings to add immediate depth and a possible future solution to the starting role.
Steve Avilla had two good years playing primarily at center for TCU; however, a switch to left guard in 2022 has worked in his favor. The ability to play anywhere in the middle is a plus, but guard would seem the best place to put his big 6’3, 332 lbs frame. His natural play strength and incredible anchor make him one of the best pass blockers in this year’s draft. His downside is he found run blocking difficult due to taking bad angles when moved to guard. That should be ironed out with more experience.
Cody Mauch has impressed at North Dakota as an athletic tackle but is being tipped for a move inside. Arguably the most athletic offensive lineman in the draft class, Mauch is an exciting prospect I’d expect to be taken in the second round. The Vikings will need to do a lot of trading to grab Mauch, but it could be worth it. There is a lot of potential, with the drawback being his light 302 weight.
Unless Adofo-Mensah does a lot of trading and stacks up in Day 2 picks, I don’t envision the Vikings addressing the IOL before Day 3. Right now, that 119th overall pick looks like a good spot, and there are three players I’ve identified that I believe to be a good option for the Vikings in that range
The Three Most Likely Options
The first of which is Andrew Vorhees, a six-year starter in college. Vorhees doesn’t impress as an athlete, but his experience has seen him develop into a very good player who would be ready to play immediately in the NFL. Unfortunately, that won’t happen due to a torn ACL at the combine. If he slides down the board due to injury, he’s worth a gamble on with a view to next year.
Emil Ekiyor Jr is possibly my favorite pick for the Vikings. Starting the last three seasons at right guard for Alabama, he gave up just two sacks (both in 2020) and never allowed a single hit in 2022. Ekiyor has the experience with the combination of physical tools and temperament to be a reliable and effective interior offensive lineman. Ekiyor has a thick, sturdy base and would add immediate competition to the incumbent starters.
Finally, we have Anthony Bradford, who we know is on the Vikings radar as he has had a top-30 visit with Minnesota. A former LSU teammate of Ingram, Bradford, who had played mostly at left tackle, finished his college career at right guard. He’s a big ol’ boy, reported at weight as high as 365 lbs; his official numbers at the combine were 6’4 and 332 lbs. Bradford has the mass, length, and physical temperament necessary to be a solid guard, but he needs to improve his lateral movement to become a regular starter. If I were a betting man, he would be where my money would be.
Hendon Hooker Might Just Be Reality
You must be logged in to post a comment.