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Vikings Next Man Up: OL Oli Udoh

What role does the big man have for the Vikings’ o-line in 2020?

NFL: AUG 29 Preseason - Vikings at Bills Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Vikings selection of offensive tackle Olisaemeka (Oli) Udoh last year in the 6th round (#193 overall), was a classic traits-based project pick. At 6’5”, 325 pounds, 35 3/8” arms, and the top 40 speed among offensive tackles in the 2019 draft, Udoh is a prototypical offensive tackle. Big, strong, athletic, and with an iron grip, once he gets his hands on a defender it’s over. Forget about bull-rushing him. Not gonna happen. As a run-blocker, he moves people. Plain and simple. He’s never over-powered.

At the same time, his technique was miles away from NFL caliber. He didn’t need technique playing at Elon in the Colonial Athletic Association (FCS). He just pushed future salesmen and accountants around at will. He had at least 50 pounds on anyone he was up against, and with a wingspan over 7 feet, he was pretty tough to get around too.

It wasn’t that Udoh didn’t have the capacity to develop his technique, he is very smart, and was said to take coaching well. He just didn’t have the best coaching. Elon isn’t exactly a football powerhouse.

And so the Vikings took a flyer on Udoh. Very high ceiling. Very low floor.

#74 - OL Oli Udoh

After being drafted, Udoh ran with the 3s at right tackle in practice and training camp. He also got some work in pre-season games, generally most of the 2nd half. It was telling how the coaching staff felt about Udoh when the final cuts were made. Many predicted Udoh would be cut and signed to the practice squad for further development.

But such was not the case. Udoh made the 53-man roster.

He did so not necessarily because the coaching staff thought he was ready to contribute right away, but because they didn’t want to risk losing him on the waiver wire. Presumably they liked what they saw from him so far, and thought he’d be lost if they waived him.

Indeed he appeared to have made a lot of progress compared to his college tape, and with his measureables, his ceiling remained high.

Pre-Season Game Tape Notes

Udoh basically played the 2nd half in each of the Vikings pre-season games, so generally against the opponent’s 2nd and 3rd stringers.

Overall, you could see improvement from his college tape - a bit more discipline in his technique, a bit more fluid with his footwork. There was also a lot of the same too: simply overpowering defenders with his size and strength, but also a bit lackadaisical at times when it came to getting off the snap, finishing and playing through the whistle. That was particularly evident in the last pre-season game against the Bills.

But despite these shortcomings, he still only allowed two pressures (a QB hit and a hurry) on a total of 53 pass protection snaps throughout the preseason. He was also instrumental in opening a number of holes in the run game, including in short yardage situations.

Udoh remained on the inactive roster almost the entire season - effectively a practice squad guy - until Week 17 when he got the start at right tackle against the Bears.

#74 RT Oli Udoh Game Tape Notes

With Udoh’s first regular season game as a pro, he went from blocking future salesman to going up against one of the best edge rushers in the NFL - Khalil Mack. And he did just fine.

He didn’t give up any pressures, and also did well to create some holes in the running game. He didn’t appear the least bit overwhelmed, or outmatched or overpowered by any of the Bears’ defenders. He looked like he was having fun out there. Increasing the quality of competition a few levels was no problem. He was still able to move people on the running game, and was also able to hang with Mack all the way along the arc. Lesser defenders he stopped short - or they just gave up.

He also had improved significantly from his preseason tape in nearly every facet, including more improvement in his technique, and especially in his level of effort and intensity. He was generally quick off the snap, better technique particularly in pass pro, and played through the whistle.

The main issue I noticed was Udoh getting his hands outside the shoulder pads at times, which can draw holding penalties, and did once against Mack. I’ve seen much more egregious holds, but nevertheless looking at the rest of his tape you notice the same issue a couple times. Udoh also picked up a personal foul penalty for essentially piling on, but given some question marks in his draft profile about his ability to play nasty - which scouts like in offensive linemen - I actually thought this was somewhat of a positive. He was often looking for work after completing his initial assignment, and looked much more active and engaged than he did at times in his college tape, and in preseason, which is another sign of improvement.

Bottom line, he showed he can more than hold his own against NFL competition - albeit in only one game. But he looks more than capable now of being a quality starter, and with another off-season to improve further, he should be ready to step-up this season. The question is where could he step up to?

Earlier in the off-season Mike Zimmer made a comment that he had a couple offensive linemen ready to step-up. He didn’t mention them by name, but based on his performance since he’s been drafted, it would appear that Udoh is one of those guys. Dru Samia may be the other.

Best Fit ?

Earlier this off-season, Mike Zimmer acknowledged that, “we’ve got to continue to improve the offensive line. Just continuing to improve the offensive line whether it’s technique or players that are here or players in the draft and free agency.”

Zimmer, who said he felt the tackles in this year’s draft were better than the interior linemen, was also asked about moving Riley Reiff inside to guard:

”Yeah, I think that’s a possibility. I have not talked to Riley about moving because we haven’t gotten that far down in the discussions. Everybody is speculating Brian O’Neill is going to move to left tackle and all these other things, too. You always discuss these things, but it’s not like, ‘OK. We’re going to do this.’ We’re going to wait until we figure out where we’re going with everything and go from there.

Andrew Krammer, who covers the Vikings for the StarTribune, wrote in February that the Vikings appear likely to either bench or release guard Pat Elflein, who’s salary goes from just under $1 million to over $2 million based on how many starts he’s had during his rookie contract. The Vikings have already released starting right guard Josh Kline, reportedly because he didn’t accept a salary cut and the team wanted to save salary cap space.

More recently, It’s also unclear if the Vikings will actually keep Reiff, as the Vikings have been reportedly interested in acquiring Redskins’ left tackle Trent Williams via trade.

All these bits of information point to changes at both guard positions, and potentially some shuffling at the tackle spots. But the Vikings’ interest in acquiring left tackle Trent Williams may suggest what the Vikings’ Plan A is:

Trent Williams at left tackle, and therefore keeping Brian O’Neill at right tackle. Acquiring Williams would necessarily mean trading or releasing Riley Reiff, as the Vikings do not have enough salary cap space to keep both of them. But that still leaves both starting guard spots open.

And that is where Oli Udoh comes in.

While Udoh is prototypical for a right tackle, he could also be moved inside to left guard, where his size and length would make it difficult for any defensive tackle to get past him. A move inside to left guard for Udoh may sound like it’s coming from left field, but there is actually a good, comparable precedent for such a move: Kelechi Osemele.

Osemele was drafted out of Iowa State by the Ravens back in 2012. He’s basically the same size and length as Udoh, but somewhat less athletic according to his Combine results. He was probably ahead of Udoh in his development, but still had issues to clean up, and hadn’t faced the toughest competition at Iowa St either.

In any case, he started at right tackle for the Ravens his rookie year in 2012, but was moved to left guard for the Ravens’ playoff run. They won the Super Bowl that year. The following year he continued at left guard, but his season was cut short as he needed back surgery after 7 games.

In 2014, the Ravens hired Gary Kubiak as their new offensive coordinator, and installed his offensive scheme. In his first full season at LG, and first in Kubiak’s scheme, Osemele had the 4th best pass blocking efficiency in the league among guards with at least 100 snaps, and was 6th best in run blocking grade, according to PFF. He continued to be a top 5 guard in both run blocking and pass protection the next couple seasons, and made All-Pro in 2016.

With Gary Kubiak now offensive coordinator for the Vikings, and Rick Dennison offensive line coach, I doubt Udoh’s comparison with Osemele is lost on them. In fact, given their plan to try to bring in Trent Williams, along with the recognized weakness at guard in this year’s draft, and reports of potentially releasing or demoting Pat Elflein, it may be that Udoh is in their plans at left guard.

Size, strength, quick feet, balance, and good awareness/recognition are key qualities in a guard. Udoh has the first four, but probably needs more experience to develop the last a bit more - although he is smart and that will likely come in time.

Having a big, strong presence inside could do wonders for the Vikings offensive line. First, it could cut down on the inside pressures Kirk Cousins has faced the last couple years, and secondly could bolster the Vikings inside running game - and take some of the opposing defense’s focus off the outside zone game. It would also make it less exploitable for teams moving their best pass rushers inside.

The Vikings have not announced any plans to move Udoh inside to guard at this point, and it’s not clear that they will. But in light of their other actions and reporting, it appears they will need to fill two starting guard spots this season, and do not appear to be high on the prospect of draft picks filling those holes either. They have also yet to pick up any starting guards in free agency, and don’t really have the salary cap to do so either.

All that could mean an opportunity for Udoh to land a starting job next season.

Stay tuned.

#74 - RT Oli Udoh vs. Bears Week 17 2019


All things considered, and given the salary cap constraints, is Oli Udoh the best option for the Vikings at left guard?

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