It was nice to see the Vikings first-string offensive line progress in both run blocking and pass protection against a top defensive unit in Seattle. The funny thing about that progress was that it happened without the services of starting left guard Alex Boone.
In fact, the Vikings offensive line on Friday was missing the two highest paid offensive linemen on the roster. It was also operating with three guys that only have a handful of NFL starts between them- including a new starting center. And yet, they managed to prevent any sacks and opened some running lanes for Dalvin Cook against one of the better defensive units in the league and top run defense last year- albeit in limited playing time.
After the game and again after watching the game film, head coach Mike Zimmer had good things to say about the offensive line performance. He also said he had yet to decide who the starters will be, and that they are still experimenting with different combinations. Against Seattle, the Vikings had Nick Easton start at left guard, filling in for the injured Alex Boone, while Pat Elflein got his first start at center. Both played well overall. But as it stands now, either Elflein or Easton look to be a backup, depending on who wins the starting center job, as starting guards Joe Berger and Alex Boone have been the two best performing offensive linemen last season.
But while Boone was the second-best performing player on the offensive line last season, that’s not to say he was good in every respect. In particular, Boone struggled in run blocking, earning a ‘poor’ 49.3 run blocking PFF grade for the season. His pass blocking grade was good, however, at 79.9. In just a couple series the first week against Buffalo, Boone’s only standout performance was a holding penalty he picked up, negating a nice catch and run by Dalvin Cook.
Boone, 30, has declined slightly in performance in each of the past two seasons. Run blocking has always been his weak point, and pass protection his strength. This contrast raises the question- is he the best left guard for the Vikings?
Enter Nick Easton
Nick Easton was not really in the discussion as a starter this year at the end of last season, even though he started the last 5 games at center as the Vikings shuffled players along the injury-riddled, makeshift offensive line. Easton didn’t play well, earning ‘poor’ (high 40s) PFF grades in both pass protection and run blocking. And after Pat Elflein was drafted, it was pretty-much a given he would start at center, and Joe Berger go back to playing right guard.
But from the beginning of the off-season, it was Easton playing with the first team at center. Easton continues to play with the first team, most recently at left guard.
By all accounts, Easton has improved considerably this off-season. Spending all of the off-season and training camp with the first-team didn’t happen by accident. And with all that time in front of coaches against first-team competition, Easton is making a case for himself as a starter.
Pat Shurmur was given a few questions about the interior line during Monday’s press conference. He was asked if they had settled on who the offensive line starters would be, particularly the interior line, and he answered that, “we haven’t done the math on that yet,” and, “we’ll see how it all plays out.” He was asked specifically if he was settled on Boone and Berger starting at each guard position, and was cagey about that as well:
“We’ve got a couple more weeks. We’re going to put the best five guys out there,” Shurmur said. “What we want is a bunch of guys so it makes it a very tough decision for us. So we want a lot of guys in there that are playing well.”
It should be noted that Pat Elflein has also practiced at left guard with the first team, and played a little with the second team at left guard in the first preseason game. Shurmur was also asked specifically about Nick Easton’s play on Friday, to which he replied:
“He was very active in there, he moved his feet. He did a good job at getting to the second level, he did a good job in our screen game. But yet, he was physical enough to block on the line of scrimmage. He passed off a couple twists real well, so all the things you’re looking for.”
So, if you start to add up all the time Easton has been getting with the first team, and the positive comments from coaches, it could be that Easton may be playing his way into a starting position. How much time he gets with the first team next week against the 49ers- and at what position- could be a big sign of where he stands on the Vikings depth chart.
But getting back to Alex Boone, there is another question there- how well he fits with the rest of the offensive line- and coaching staff.
While I think most people- and coaches- tend to value pass protection more than run blocking, it’s also true that the Vikings and coach Zimmer value a strong running game for a variety of reasons. Improving the running game- and run blocking- has been a point of emphasis this off-season and in training camp.
In Pat Shurmur’s offense, effectively running the ball makes play-action passing more effective, not to mention creating more 3rd-and-managable situations. And with a dynamic runner in Dalvin Cook in the backfield, being able to block for him effectively creates opportunities for big plays just like when Adrian Peterson was back there.
So, if a guy like Nick Easton can run block better, while still doing about as well as Boone in pass protection- at least from what can be seen in pre-season and in practice- is that enough to go with him as a starter at left guard if Elflein takes over center?
It’s a good question.
But outside of the run blocking question, there may be another question of ‘fit’ for Boone.
Alex Boone has always been known for his outspoken nature, more of a street fighter mentality, and frequent use of colorful language- and for that reason I think has been a favorite of sports writers. But I’m not sure that extends to coaches and other offensive linemen. It’s more of a hunch on my part, but there are a couple little things that I noticed that led me to that impression.
The first thing was a comment by Pat Shurmur, in an interview this summer in response to a question about the more soft-spoken Pat Elflein being able to lead the offensive line as a rookie center. Elflein had been asked earlier if he thought he’d run into any resistance from a guy like veteran Alex Boone. Shurmur responded to the question by saying there are many ways to show leadership, etc., but also adding that sometimes the more vocal guys are the furthest away from leadership. To me that was a bit of a dig against Boone, and a sign he might not be Shurmur’s favorite.
The other thing was in watching practice in Mankato, I was watching offensive line drills off to the side where there were a lot of fans right next to them. Boone slipped on one drill and went off very audibly with a number of f-bombs (next to a number of small kids I might add). The reaction of the other linemen was to give him more of a wide berth, with body language expressing subtle disapproval from guys that seem to have experienced this sort of thing from him a certain amount in the past.
It’s a small thing perhaps, along with Shurmur’s comment, but it suggests a disconnect.
All the other starters (or potential starters) along the offensive line are guys that are not that vocal, but professional, stick to business type of guys. Riley Reiff, Joe Berger, Pat Elflein, Nick Easton, Rashod Hill, and Mike Remmers are all like this. That’s not to say Boone can’t take care of business, but sometimes an outspoken co-worker can be grating/irritating to the point where you don’t work as well together.
Chemistry is Important
Just like having chemistry between a quarterback and wide receivers, having chemistry between offensive linemen is crucial to their overall performance. Developing trust, communication, and getting used to how players next to you play and react is an important part of handling the wide variety of situations that come up during the course of a game- including various combination blocks, reacting to stunts, twists, blitzes, and defensive pre-snap movements. So being comfortable with the players next to you in those respects can help improve the performance of the unit- something many coaches say is more important than individual play along the offensive line.
It’s difficult to say to what extent there may be a disconnect between Boone and other offensive linemen, and perhaps more difficult to say to what extent it may impact performance, but players and coaches will have a better idea on both scores.
Overall that chemistry may be an important factor in who the best left guard may be for the Vikings, and who gets the starting job this season.
Who Should Start at Left Guard for the Vikings this Season?
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