Normally this time of year, there would be a lot more buzz about what’s going on at Vikings training camp, who’s standing out, who’s not, what’s changed, etc., etc.
But not this year.
With Covid-19 protocols in place, the only way we know there is a training camp is because the Vikings release some occasional video-clips, and over the past week coaches and some key veterans did press conferences providing a little info about what’s going on.
It’s a controlled message for the most part, but there are bits of insight here and there, alongside perhaps some fodder for speculation, and so I thought I’d sift through some of the offensive line tea leaves in hope of gaining something of value for the season ahead.
Here are some of the key gleanings:
Riley Reiff Staying Put at Left Tackle
The Vikings seemed intent on replacing Reiff at left tackle by trading for Trent Williams in a trade during the opening days of the draft, but that didn’t pan out. They did draft Ezra Cleveland in the second round, who played left tackle at Boise State, leading to speculation that Reiff’s days may be numbered. There was also speculation, including my own, that the Vikings salary cap situation and prospect of a lower salary cap limit next year would compel them to part ways with Reiff, who’s a $13MM salary cap hit this year and next, saving $11MM in salary cap this year if they parted ways.
But Gary Kubiak seemed to go out of his way a little bit in last week’s press conference to praise Riley Reiff, said he could do some things to help him out, and that he thinks he’ll have a good season. The Vikings later put Reiff out for a press conference - something they haven’t done in the past and typically only for leaders that are going to be employed with the team for at least the rest of the season.
That, combined with the fact that Mike Zimmer, Gary Kubiak, and Reiff have all said there has been no discussion of him moving inside to left guard, strongly suggests that Reiff will be the starting left tackle for the Minnesota Vikings this season.
Pat Elflein Still There at Left Guard, But For How Long?
In his press conference, Gary Kubiak said that the four incumbents along the offensive line are still the starting group, at the moment. So, that means the current starting group is: LT Riley Reiff, LG Pat Elflein, C Garrett Bradbury, RG - TBD, RT Brian O’Neill.
Kubiak said there was a three way competition at right guard to fill the open spot after Josh Kline was released. The three vying for the starting spot are Ezra Cleveland, Dakota Dozier, and Aviante Collins. That comes as a bit of a surprise, as Dru Samia had been mentioned a few times this off-season by both Kubiak and Zimmer as someone they think can step up, signaling he may be in the mix to start at right-guard, where he played last year. But no mention of him recently.
Getting back to Pat Elflein at left guard, however, Riley Reiff had an interesting response when asked, after having new left guards next to him every year, if it was nice to have Pat Elflein returning next to him this season. His response:
“Yeah, we’re all cross-trained. I think the year that Nick [Easton] went out, Mike [Remmers] bumped in there. It’s tough, but it’s also, we’ve practiced those scenarios and I’m comfortable with whoever they put next, or whomever is playing next to me. Our coaches do a great job getting us ready for game week, and we have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football in our room, and all the young guys, they’re moving along well, so I’m comfortable with whatever shakes out.”
That response wasn’t exactly the one you’d expect to the question of Elflein continuing to work next to him. He never mentioned Pat, didn’t say he was looking forward to working with Pat again, etc., as you might expect. Instead he talked about cross-training, a lot of guys in the OL room, young guys moving along well, and his being comfortable whatever shakes out. That suggests left guard is still in flux. Nothing in that response suggested Reiff expects Elflein to be playing next to him this season. We’ll see.
Reiff also didn’t want to confirm that Ezra Cleveland was in competition for the right-guard spot. His response to the question, which was asked after Gary Kubiak said Cleveland was competing at right guard, and since reporters aren’t allowed in the facility they haven’t actually seen anything to confirm that, was to say he wasn’t sure and to ask coach. Obviously Reiff would know where other OL guys like Cleveland are lining up, but he was probably directed not to answer those type of questions. Understandable perhaps, but still a bit odd - reporters kinda chided him about his response.
What About Oli Udoh?
Another guy that had been mentioned a few times as a candidate to step-up is Oli Udoh. He hasn’t been mentioned at all lately, presumably because he’s been on the Covid-19 list and hasn’t participated in practices the past two weeks. If Udoh is to compete for a starting job, it would seem with Riley Reiff entrenched at left tackle and Brian O’Neill at right tackle, and three others competing at right guard, that the only spot Udoh could compete would be left guard. I’ve talked about that possibility back in March.
Udoh moving to left guard would explain Reiff’s otherwise odd response about cross-training, another right tackle moving to left guard in the past, young guys moving along, and being happy with whatever shakes out, when asked about the left guard spot. But time is running short for Udoh to get off the Covid list and onto the practice field. We’ll see what happens.
A starting offensive line of LT Riley Reiff, LG Oli Udoh, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Cleveland/Collins/Samia, and RT Brian O’Neill offers a reasonably good chance of being an upgrade, both through improvement of existing players, and Udoh being an upgrade over Elflein. I wouldn’t expect much change in right guard compared to Josh Kline last season, no matter who wins the job, unless it’s Dozier in which case I’d expect a notable decline.
Still Not Much Real Football
Pretty much across the board in their press conferences over the past week, both coaches and players have said they haven’t really done much yet, and that goes for the offensive line as well. So far it’s been mostly strength/conditioning training, meetings and walk-throughs from what I gather.
I don’t think there’s been any live drills, or really any contact at this point, so most of what is needed for the offensive line to gel is still ahead. Live practices are scheduled for next week. Riley Reiff said that with so much training time lost this year, every minute counts now. And as is always the case, linemen need live, padded drills and 11-on-11 sessions to begin to gel as a unit.
Reiff was also asked if he thought the on-field product in September would be as good, given the short training schedule and no pre-season games. He said he thought it may actually be better than normal, with less distractions during the off-season and guys being able to workout, maintain their bodies better, etc. I have my doubts about that, but again we’ll have to wait and see.
There will only be three weeks of real training camp prior to week one preparation this year, a loss of a week or two, depending on how you compare the quality of the training so far. It seems more like OTAs than training camp at this point. So combined with the loss of all the other off-season real practice time, there is a lot to make up in a short time.
This year’s schedule has been compared to a normal college off/pre-season program, with three weeks of practice and no pre-season games before the regular season starts. In that sense, pros should be able to prepare and be ready at least as well as college players - and hopefully more so given they’re next level players.
But on the other hand, the first games for many top college teams are effectively pre-season games against typically lesser, non-conference teams- not key games against division rivals. That fact really puts a premium on coaches being able to get players ready better than the other team.
Having a veteran coaching staff that’s been together many years on both sides of the ball should help. But it’s still a lot to accomplish in a short time. Especially with rookie or young players.