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Vikings Offensive Line Considerations

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NFL: DEC 15 Vikings at Chargers Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well it’s time again for the first installment in the annual Vikings off-season, offensive line overhaul series. I know the last ones have brought joy and tears, tension, drama... but the ending has always been a bit of a let down.

So, hoping against hope, looking for an answer that may never come, and praying to the maker of all things big and ugly, let’s set forth again into the breach.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Some people find that expression interesting, but it’s not one of my favorites. Still, it seems to apply to the Vikings offensive line for oh, about the last five years, give or take.

Every year, the offensive line has been a priority, if not the priority, for the Vikings in terms of improvement needed. And every year that effort, such as it’s been, has fallen short. New guys have been drafted. New guys have been acquired via free agency. New coaches have been hired. New schemes put in place. But precious little progress has been made.

Re-capping Last Year

The Vikings brought in long-time offensive coach Rick Dennison as part of the Kubiak Clan to implement Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme. Dennison has many years experience as an offensive line coach, and has also been as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His official title with the Vikings is offensive line coach and run game coordinator.

Right from the get-go last off-season, he established the starting offensive line - LT Riley Reiff, LG Pat Elflein, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Josh Kline, and RT Brian O’Neill. I don’t think there was ever any competition, although some guys filled in or played different positions at times due to injury or prior to Bradbury getting drafted.

Dennison’s approach seemed less about competition to see who could be best at each position, and more about establishing a starting five early, and giving them as much time as possible to work together as a unit.

And that’s what he did.

From his initial interviews and press conference, he seemed to think the Vikings had enough talent along the offensive line, and his emphasis was on developing the chemistry among the starters to work best as a unit.

He also worked to install Kubiak’s scheme, including the new terminology and outside zone techniques.

The results were a bit of a mixed bag.

Brian O’Neill

Right tackle Brian O’Neill made some good progress in both pass protection and run blocking. His run blocking grade from PFF went from 58.3 to 70.3 - a nice improvement and the best run blocking grade among offensive linemen, although still far from dominant.

In pass protection, he went from 65.5 his rookie year to 70.2 last year - a more modest improvement but still moving in the right direction. In terms of overall pass blocking efficiency, O’Neill improved from 96.9% to 97.9%, which took him from 46th to 17th among all tackles in the NFL. PFF credits him with allowing 2 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 15 hurries last season including the post-season.

Overall his PFF grade improved to 70.8 from 63.0 his rookie year. The only thing worse for O’Neill last year is he had 8 penalties, compared to just 4 his rookie year. But overall he’s improving, and is now at a level where he’s a relative strength, rather than a liability, along the offensive line.

Josh Kline

Compared to his previous year in Tennessee, right guard Kline improved from 54.9 to 62.3 in his run blocking grade, while staying roughly the same in pass protection, ticking up to 67.7 from 67.5 the previous year.

He is credited with allowing 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, and 18 hurries, with 2 penalties on the year.

Kline missed a total of three games last season, mostly due to concussions. He was really starting to ramp up his performance beginning week 15 - particularly in pass protection. Beginning week 15 against the Chargers, through the playoffs, Kline’s average pass protection grade was 79.4 - very good. He was more hot and cold as a run blocker, but also had his two best games as a run blocker during that stretch.

Overall, Kline was the Vikings best interior lineman last season, and the way he ended the season was promising. But he was recently cut by the Vikings, who were trying to have him accept a pay cut, but he declined and was released. The Vikings had said there was a possibility that he could still be back, but presumably that would only be if other offers were not forthcoming for Kline. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

Garrett Bradbury

First-round pick Garrett Bradbury was a disappointment his rookie year. As a first-round pick, you expect a quality starter. Bradbury was the starting center, but not a quality one last year. That’s not to say he can’t improve, and he did show some improvement over the course of the season, but it was inconsistent.

The biggest area of inconsistency for Bradbury was his pass protection. He started his rookie year with a 0.0 grade in pass protection. Welcome to the NFL. He received another goose-egg in pass pro week 16 against the Packers. Overall he had a total of five really poor games in pass protection in the 18 games the Vikings played last season.

His pass protection grade for the season was 41.4, which is poor. He allowed 4 sacks, 2 hits, and 23 hurries with 8 penalties. That’s a lot of pressures for a center - which is often uncovered on passing downs. Opponents at times exploited Bradbury’s (and Elflein’s) weakness in pass pro by moving their edge rushers inside - and were effective in doing so.

As a run blocker, which is the most important blocking task for a center, Bradbury’s grade was a 60.7 - mediocre or less. He had only two really poor games as a run blocker - the first Bears game and against the Broncos - but most of his games his grade ranged between 50 - 70, with only a couple outliers on either side.

Overall, Bradbury’s PFF grade for his rookie year was 57.7 - worse than Pat Elflein’s rookie year.

Bradbury has the desired athleticism to play center in a zone scheme, and his technique is okay, but he really needs to get stronger and more confident in his play. It’s pretty common for rookie offensive linemen to lack the desired strength, whether it’s core strength or upper body or ability to anchor well. Bradbury needs to get stronger in all of those areas, and hopefully that was a big part of his off-season program. With added strength and experience his confidence should improve, become less tentative, as he’ll be able to hold his own better and eventually begin to move the big men he faces regularly inside to better effect.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are aspects of Pat Elflein’s play in Bradbury - lacking strength and confidence, playing with some tentativeness at times. Bradbury is a better athlete than Elflien, and a better technician, but he’ll need to do a better job than Elflein in building his strength and confidence if he is to succeed in the NFL.

His level of improvement this season will be telling in that regard. Either he gets over the hump or he’ll continue to struggle.

Pat Elflein

Newly positioned left-guard Pat Elflein continued to struggle last season in pass protection, although his run blocking grade did improve, going from 44.3 the previous year at center to 66.2 last season.

In pass protection, he came in at 46.8, precious little improvement from his 44.3 grade the previous year at center. He gave up 8 sacks, 3 QB hits, and 27 hurries. That was good for 95.8% pass blocking efficiency, which ranked 104th among guards last year.

Like Bradbury, Elflein was at times exploited for his weakness in pass protection, as opponents positioned their best pass rushers against him to create a favorable match-up. That proved effective most of the time. Elflein’s pass protection declined down the stretch, beginning with the Chargers game week 15. Against both Green Bay and Chicago, his pass protection grade was in the 30s, and he had his worst game of the season against the 49ers with a 9.5 grade in pass protection and a 30.1 grade overall.

Elflein’s best season as a pro was his rookie year, and while he showed some improvement in run blocking over his disastrous sophomore campaign, he remains a liability on the offensive line, as he has for all of his three seasons with the Vikings.

While the Vikings have not taken any definitive action with Elflein, or made any specific comments, there have been a couple comments made by Zimmer and Spielman that suggest they may be ready to move on (finally) from Elflein. Zimmer had also said a couple years ago, talking about Laquon Treadwell, that Bill Parcells had always said “three years and you’re out” or something similar, meaning if a player doesn’t prove himself in that time, it’s time to move on from him. And that’s basically what he did with Treadwell.

Riley Reiff

Left tackle Riley Reiff was the only starting lineman who declined last season over his previous year. Not a lot, but it’s noteworthy.

As a run blocker, Reiff went from a 69.4 grade to a 65.8 grade last season. Not a huge decline, but noteworthy in terms of his adjustment to a new scheme.

In pass protection, he also declined slightly, from 71.3 to 69.3. In terms of allowed pressures, Reiff allowed 6 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 21 hurries with 9 penalties. That was 2nd only to Elflein in total pressures allowed. That was good for a 96.6% pass blocking efficiency, which ranked 52nd among tackles in the league.

Overall, Reiff has been roughly average as a left tackle since he joined the Vikings, which continued on a few years of average performance in Detroit, and suggests he’ll probably be average in the future, if he’s able to hold up physically. He’ll turn 32 at the end of the year.

Mike Zimmer said last year he had talked to Reiff about possibly moving inside to guard, although that never happened. He was asked about that this year and said he had not talked to Reiff about it this year.

I suspect moving Reiff inside to guard remains an option under consideration, but one thing that hangs over Reiff’s future as a Viking is his salary cap number. He’s a $13.2 million salary cap hit this year, and a $13.9 million hit next year - the last year of his contract.

That’s the second biggest salary cap hit on the Vikings roster this year. It may be the going rate for an average left tackle, but I’m surprised the Vikings didn’t approach him about re-working his contract to save salary cap space instead of Josh Kline. Perhaps they did, he said no, and they left it at that.

In any case, the Vikings look to be considering alternatives at both guard positions. Mike Zimmer also mentioned earlier in the year that he has a guard and tackle that could be ready to step up.

So What’s the Plan This Year ?

I would venture to guess that the guard and tackle Zimmer was referring to was Dru Samia and Oli Udoh. Both played the second half against the Bears week 17, and neither of them gave up a QB pressure in pass protection, albeit only 15 pass pro snaps. But Udoh was up against Kalil Mack most of the time, and did just fine. For both of them, the only real knock in their performance was a couple dumb penalties. Udoh has some issues with holding that he’ll need to fix - keeping his hands inside, but I was amazed how much he improved from his limited college tape.

One of the things the Vikings did that may help in the development of both Samia and Udoh is hire a new assistant offensive line coach, Phil Rauscher. A former offensive lineman himself at UCLA, he worked with the Kubiak Clan in Denver (what a surprise), and most recently under Bill Callahan in Washington, who is generally thought of as one of the best OL coaches in the league. His job centers around developing younger players. He’s got a lot more experience coaching offensive line than Andrew Janocko, who was moved from an assistant QB coach to assistant OL coach, and now is wide receivers coach. Hopefully that will help in the development of the younger guys, including any potential draft picks.

Oli Udoh

Udoh was a 6th round pick last year for the Vikings - a classic development project. An absolute specimen for a right tackle - 6’5”, 325 lbs., long arms, wide chest, athletic. But he came from a small school - Elon - and was extremely raw. From his college tape, it looked like it would be at least a couple years before he’d be ready to compete for a starting job, assuming he could make the leap.

But his tape against Khalil Mack was pretty good, although he still has a lot of room to improve his technique. He uses his size well, and has the strength to move people - and he did.

Overall, and particularly with another off-season to develop, he looks ready to be a starter, and could be an elite player - his ceiling is that high.

The question is where to play him.

If they inserted him at right tackle, that would mean shifting Brian O’Neill to left tackle presumably, and Reiff inside to left guard. O’Neill is a prototypical left tackle, and that’s where he played in college, but that’s also a lot of moving around.

They could also try him at left guard. He is similar in many respects to Kelechi Osemele, who played left guard for Gary Kubiak when he was in Baltimore in 2014. He was one of the better guards in the league for a few years. Not sure if that move would work for Udoh, but it would eliminate moving other guys around.

Udoh is really just the type of lineman the Vikings need. He’s big, physical, can be a road grader in the run game, and has the athleticism to be very good in pass protection as well.

Dru Samia

Now that Josh Kline has been released, Dru Samia may be the guy to fill his spot at right guard. He was played right guard in college at Oklahoma, and that was the only spot he played for the Vikings in pre-season and against the Bears week 17.

Samia played right guard at Oklahoma next to Cody Ford and Orlando Brown at right tackle. He was seen as a leader on the offensive line there, with a nasty demeanor but wasn’t above some chippy play at times. In his scouting reports, he was often described as a bit undisciplined in his technique. He made up for it, and some athletic limitations, with his toughness, tenacity and persistence.

He showed good upper body strength - 28 bench press reps - but needed more lower body strength and anchor.

Against the Bears week 17, he fared pretty well in pass protection - not giving up any pressures - but I did see one play where he got caught in a swim move, but it was late enough in the play where the ball was gone before the defender got there.

Run blocking was a little more inconsistent. He opened a hole for a big run on one play, but couldn’t hold a block on another run, which was stopped for basically no gain.

Overall, his tape against the Bears showed the scouting reports were fairly accurate - both pros and cons. It will be interesting to see if he’s able to further clean up his game during this off-season, particularly if he’s tapped to be the starter at right guard.

Draft?

This draft is hard to predict what position will be a top priority in the draft. Obviously with two first-round picks, and five in the first three rounds, they can fill a lot of needs, and also move up or back as they see fit.

It’s kinda slim pickings for guys that played guard in this year’s draft. But there are some guys that have played tackle that could move to guard, and there are a few interesting tackle prospects.

Mekhi Becton is a massive left tackle prospect that can also make outside zone blocks. He’s 6’7” and 364 pounds. And he can move well. He’s a road grader in the run game - but can also push defensive ends out wide with his arm length. So, having DEs line up wide to defend the outside run game isn’t as effective as it was against the Vikings last season. Drafting him in the first-round would save the Vikings Riley Reiff’s salary cap, and upgrade the position. If the Vikings were to put 330 pound Oli Udoh at left guard, that creates a helluva problem for a defense to defend in the run game. He may be a guy the Vikings would have to trade up for, if he makes it out of the top 12 or so. But some analysts have him as a 2nd round pick because he’s not as polished as other tackle prospects, and doesn’t have quite the performance in pass protection, nor played much against top competition (he played for Louisville). His comparable is former Viking Bryant McKinnie.

But there are other possibilities here too that could work out equally well. Andrew Thomas out of Georgia is one, Josh Jones from Houston is another. Tristan Wirfs is another that may be better at guard. Robert Hunt is a big guard prospect that could be had in the 2nd round.

Whichever it may be, it makes immediate sense for the Vikings to take either a top tackle or guard prospect with a first-round pick. That would allow the Vikings to both upgrade the offensive line and reduce their salary cap by about $9 million this year, and nearly $14 million next year by releasing Riley Reiff. That means they’ve got the cap space to sign or extend another core player.

There is also the appeal of drafting both a tackle like Becton or Thomas in the first round, and Robert Hunt in the second round. Then moving Oli Udoh inside to left guard. Suddenly the Vikings have big, strong 330 pound guys that can move at both guard spots and left tackle. That’s trans-formative.

It does wonders for the run game as the Vikings can mix-in inside-zone and power runs, which in turn make it harder for defenses to focus on defending the outside zone game. Wherever the focus, the Vikings can counter extremely effectively.

Not to mention the expected improvement in pass protection.

Bottom Line

The Vikings have some guys ready to step-up that can fill the spots vacated by Josh Kline and (hopefully) Pat Elflein, one way or another. They could put Oli Udoh at right tackle, shift Brian O’Neill to left tackle, and move Riley Reiff inside to left guard, while inserting Dru Samia at right guard. That’s a lot of moving around and entails some risk. It may also not be ideal because Riley Reiff carries a big salary cap number and it’s unclear how he’d be at left guard.

The Vikings could also insert Oli Udoh at left guard and Dru Samia at right guard and leave it at that. Or they could also do that and replace Riley Reiff with a first-round draft pick.

Spending a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman makes immediate sense, as there is clearly a need for an upgrade in talent beyond what may be projected from promising backups.

The question is how committed are the Vikings to taking the needed steps:

  • Removing Pat Elflein as a starter;
  • Giving promising backups a shot at starting jobs;
  • Spending a top draft pick on an offensive lineman (or two)

Taking the steps to improve the offensive line shouldn’t take a back seat to replenishing the cornerback position or finding a top receiver to replace Stefon Diggs. And it doesn’t have to. The Vikings have the talent and draft picks to make a significant improvement in the offensive line, they just need to go out and do it.

Of course we’ve been down this off-season road many times in recent years. Is this the year the Vikings finally get there?

We’ll see.