Well, after three pre-season games the Vikings offensive line is not as solidified as would be ideal, but nevertheless there is some basis for optimism, even as many questions remain to be answered.
Let’s take a deeper look, by position.
It's always difficult to draw any conclusions about preseason performance among players who are locks to be starters. Most of the Vikings All-Pros and Pro-Bowlers look a lot more average in preseason, in part because the number one objective for them is simply not to get injured. I suspect that while they play at or near game speed, it’s still not the same intensity level, and they may be focused more on improving a particular aspect of their game or technique, rather than being totally focused on their opponent.
Anyway, I was pleased to see that Riley Reiff had his best performance in pass protection in more extended snaps against Seattle, and he is now the highest rated pass blocker among Vikings offensive linemen, at a near elite level according to PFF. Run blocking is still a work in progress - and historically not his forte either - but pass protection has been very good. Hopefully this is a sign of a better season to come for Reiff, and more in line with his career averages, after having an off year last season.
Backup left tackle is officially Aviante Collins, but other possibilities include Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill, although neither has played much left tackle this preseason.
Tom Compton has had nearly all the first team reps in preseason, but so far his performance has been mediocre. Compton’s starting status as new free agent at/near veteran minimum salary is tenuous, so he can’t afford to take it easy during the preseason - he needs to earn a starting job.
Compton has played a total of 100 snaps in preseason- and has played a little worse overall than he did in 342 snaps last season with the Bears, which was below average. He has seen his grades decline the past couple years from the 70s to now 50s in limited snaps as a starter.
The good news is that he hasn’t allowed any sacks in those 100 snaps in preseason, and just two pressures - a QB hit and a hurry.
The not-so-good news is that Compton also has had difficulties at times in run blocking, and overall seems to labor more than some other starters in winning his reps, and appears less dominant. Between that and his historical performance, I’m not sure how much upside Compton has at this point in his career - his sixth year in the league. He has improved from a low 50s overall grade to a high 50s overall grade during the course of preseason, which is mildly encouraging.
But comparing Compton to Nick Easton’s performance last season, the two are comparable. Both better in pass protection than run blocking according to PFF. So while Compton is not setting the world on fire at left guard, he may not be much different than Easton was last year. We’ll see.
I don’t think the competition is over at left guard, however.
Aviante Collins began getting reps at left guard in the first preseason game, and now over half of his preseason reps are at left guard. Against Seattle, he first took over for Rashod Hill at right tackle early in the first half, and then later for Tom Compton at left guard in the second half. Overall Collins has played the most snaps in preseason so far of any Vikings player - by far. So he definitely is of interest to the coaching staff. He is also the highest graded run blocker of all the potential/likely starters along the offensive line so far in preseason.
But moving around from right tackle, to left tackle, and now left guard has probably hurt his ability to master one position. It may be his fate to be sort of an all-purpose, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none backup offensive lineman, which has value, but I suspect the Vikings coaching staff sees starter-level ability in Collins, but are struggling to find his best position.
Collins has played mainly right tackle in college, but with less than ideal arm length for a tackle, his better position with the Vikings maybe inside at left guard. There is a learning curve there, but he has improved quickly over the course of preseason.
Re-watching him at left guard against Seattle, he gave up a sack- allowing his guy to get to his outside edge and penetrate with poor pad level - shortly after switching over from right tackle. But for the remaining 38 snaps he had at left guard, he did very well. I noticed him make a few key run blocks that opened a hole for Boone to the second level, and there were many reps particularly in pass protection where he was dominant - totally taking his guy out of the play. Run blocking wasn’t as dominant, but he held his own to be sure. One of the things that stands out about Collins is that he’s a finisher. He plays with tenacity and a mean streak - and he’ll play through the whistle.
Collins also played with the first team at right tackle, and gave up one hurry - on a bull rush where he didn’t anchor well enough - over 29 snaps there. But again on the remaining reps, he most often did not struggle to win his rep against Seattle’s starting unit. His footwork and technique is much improved in pass protection over last year. But with Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill at right tackle, Collins may be more needed inside at left guard.
With Pat Elflein on extended injury leave, aka the PUP list, the starting center spot has been passed to Cornelius Edison, who has made Elflein’s absence less of an issue than most would have expected at this point. In fact I’m not sure many have noticed a difference at center since Edison took over.
Looking at Edison’s PFF grades through three games, he is the second highest-rated offensive lineman in pass protection after Riley Reiff. But he has struggled in run blocking. Comparing his preseason grades with Elflein’s last season, Edison is a better pass blocker but not quite as good a run blocker. Edison’s grades have improved with each preseason game as well, which is encouraging.
Given that Elflein has missed all of training camp and most likely all of preseason, I would not be surprised if he started the season on the PUP list, which means another six weeks is required before being activated. I suspect that even if he was activated, he would not start for at least a couple weeks, maybe longer. But with Edison playing at about the same level as Elflein did last season, the need to get Elflein out there ASAP is not as urgent. In the meantime, Josh Andrews is the backup center, and he did well against third string competition in preseason, although he did not play against Seattle, which was an interesting coaching decision. Not sure if it was injury related, but I hadn’t heard anything in that regard.
Now that Mike Remmers has returned from a minor ankle injury, he is set to be the starting right guard week one. That was the plan for Remmers early in the off-season it seems, following the retirement of Joe Berger. We haven’t had a chance to see much of Remmers at right guard this preseason because of the ankle injury, but he did reasonably well in 14 snaps against Seattle, particularly pass blocking. I think right guard could be a good fit for Remmers, who had less than ideal arm length and athleticism at right tackle. He is similar to Joe Berger in many ways, and hopefully he will be able to take over at the high level Berger had played at for several years.
Danny Isidora is the backup at right guard. He, like just about every Vikings offensive lineman, has graded much better in pass protection than run blocking. He has improved with each preseason game, and is second only to Aviante Collins in the number of snaps played so far in preseason, so he’s also someone of interest to the coaching staff. For now, he looks to continue as a backup, but he is improved from last season and showing he has starter-level ability.
Rashod Hill looks to be the starting right tackle week one, but he hasn’t played much this preseason due to illness and injury. He’s looked okay in limited reps, but he also has some work to do to get up to speed after missing a lot of practice and playing time this month. One of the key areas for improvement for Hill from last season is his conditioning, and also his agility. He lost about ten pounds during the off-season, which he hopes will help in both areas, but we’ll have to wait and see. Last season Hill’s performance deteriorated as the game and season progressed, so this is something to watch.
But this is another position where the competition is not likely over once the season begins. Second-round draft pick Brian O’Neill has been getting a lot of reps at right tackle (almost exclusively), mostly with the second team but occasionally with the starters in Hill’s absence. He’s shown improvement each game in preseason, and the gap between his performance and Hill’s is very narrow. It’s difficult to compare precisely as most of O’Neill’s reps are against the second string, but he is emerging as a strong contender for the starting right tackle job. My sense is that at some point this season he will take over that job.
It looks like the starting offensive line week one may be Reiff - Compton - Edison - Remmers - Hill, but with Collins and O’Neill contending for starting spots - and may eventually gain them this season.
But the one thing that is striking about the offensive line performance this preseason is that the pass protection grades are much higher than the run blocking grades across the board. It’s pretty typical that among all the linemen mentioned, that their PFF pass protection grade is in the low 80s, but their run blocking grade is in the low 50s. Compared to last season overall, that’s an improvement in pass protection but not run blocking. So, we’ll have to see how that plays out. It’s mildly encouraging about the pass protection, but the run blocking still needs to improve and be more consistent. So far in preseason, it been a little more feast or famine in the run game, particularly with the starting unit. Either Murray was clicking off 10+ yard runs, or stuffed for little or no gain - as was Dalvin Cook in his few reps.
I suspect the coaching staff would like to have more athletic lineman like Aviante Collins and Brian O’Neill break into the starting lineup. One of the main reasons is it could lead to a more effective screen game. Both Collins and O’Neill have shown the ability to move well and make blocks in space - which is key to an effective screen game.
From a self-scouting standpoint, the Vikings know that the offensive line is the weak point on offensive and undoubtedly will be challenged with pressure packages. The best way to prevent that from happening is a consistent run game. It’s a lot harder to blitz effectively on third and short compared to third and long. But secondly, being able to dial up or audible a screen in the face of a pressure package is the best counter - and can lead to big gains if executed well. But you need the linemen (and wide receivers too) that can block effectively in the screen game. Collins and O’Neill have better ability in that regard, so if they can show they’re the better choice overall, they could help improve the OL performance while also giving the Vikings a more effective screen game. That could prove key in how well the Vikings offense responds to pressure this season, and how well they do overall.
How do you think the Vikings offensive line will fare this season compared to last ?
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