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Addressing Vikings OL Weaknesses

Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Every NFL team has weaknesses, whether it be individual players, position groups, or even entire sides of the ball in general. In the salary cap era, it’s impossible for a team to buy all the best players, as the Yankees did in baseball for many decades. And no GM has proven to have the midas touch when it comes to drafting players either. A good GM isn’t much better than a top hitter in baseball in terms of drafting batting average. Added to that, football is increasingly a young man’s game (except for QBs and kickers), so each team has to continually be replacing their 30+ core players with younger ones.

Which leads us to the Vikings and their starting roster heading into the 2020 regular season.

Looking at the Vikings starting roster across the board, you could argue that cornerback and wide receiver beyond Adam Thielen are weak as they are largely unproven. But given previous tape, whether college or pro, how they’ve done in camp, and feedback from coaches and other players, I don’t get the impression these will be weak spots this season. They may still turn out to be so, but if all this past is prelude, both groups should be in pretty good shape this year.

Other groups like safety, linebacker, running back, quarterback, and tight-end are pretty solid too. Edge rusher, with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue, looks to be a strength as well, particularly when Danielle Hunter returns. And special teams at last looks like a strength too.

But that leaves basically two areas of weakness: defensive tackle and the offensive line.

Let’s take a look at the latter.

Weakness: Offensive Line

The Vikings appear to be going with a starting offensive line of LT Riley Reiff, LG Dakota Dozier, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Pat Elflein, and RT Brian O’Neill. That the Vikings couldn’t manage to put together a better offensive line for week one is disappointing, as I lamented in a previous piece, but that’s not to say this offensive line is totally unsalvageable. The Vikings managed to score the 8th most points on offense last season with largely the same crew, so it’s not like we’re looking at a top 10 pick in next year’s draft simply because the Vikings failed to upgrade their OL.

It also doesn’t mean that everything will be fine with this starting OL group. Let’s look at where the trouble lies, and what can be done about it.

RT Brian O’Neill

Brian O’Neill at right tackle isn’t a particular trouble spot. Certainly not the weak link based on what we’ve seen last season. He may not yet be All-Pro or Pro Bowl material, but he’s getting there and has a chance to reach that level.

O’Neill has all the athletic traits you want in a tackle- including 34” arm length- and has increased his weight to around 315 pounds, which is fine. He’s now been able to augment those traits with improvement in technique and strength, setting him up for a solid career path. He’s getting near the top of the list in terms of pass rush productivity, while also being solid as a run blocker.

What is more concerning are the remaining four starters, to one degree or another.

C Garrett Bradbury

Looking at center Garrett Bradbury, the best thing we can do is hope. Hope that he improves upon his rookie year, that is. There has been what seems like unending disappointment when it comes to the prospect of existing O linemen improving year over year, along with a degree of PTSD from watching their play over the years, so it’s understandable if there’s not much hope left in the Vikings fanbase where the offensive line is concerned.

But Bradbury does have the elite athletic traits that other Vikings’ offensive linemen, who didn’t improve, didn’t have.

Still, many times last year Bradbury looked overwhelmed by the speed of the game, whether a sudden bull rush, chop move, blitz or twist. It wasn’t that he was overwhelmed physically all the time, although there was some of that, it was that he was thinking while opponents were reacting. All that showed up in his generally poor stats, particularly in pass protection, although he did show some (uneven) improvement over the course of the year.

Overall, Bradbury gave up 29 pressures, third behind Elflein and Reiff, despite as a center not always being covered by a defensive lineman in pass protection. He also had 8 penalties - most of them holding. Clearly pass protection is where Bradbury needs to improve the most - he was the worst graded center in the league last year in that respect according to PFF. He fared better as a run blocker, which is the area a center should be strong in, but hopefully he can improve on that score as well.

Bradbury has had an off-season to reflect on and study his rookie season, work on technique improvements, and get stronger. He’s also become more familiar with the scheme and making protection calls, his assignments, and will have a year’s experience working against his division opponents, and in the NFL generally. He also appears to be smart and a student of the game which is a good trait.

All of the above should help the game slow down for him a bit this season, and allow him to react more and think less. Bradbury doesn’t come across as the nastiest of offensive linemen by any means, but hopefully his becoming more comfortable with his job in the NFL will enable him to develop more of a mean streak when it comes to engaging and finishing his opponents.

At the end of training camp, Vikings Offensive Line coach Rick Dennison said that Bradbury had made the most progress, so hopefully that shows up on the field this season.

But beyond just hope, there are a few things Gary Kubiak can do as a play-caller that can help mitigate weakness, particularly in pass protection, at the center position. First, is to call more QB rollouts and bootlegs to move the pocket away from Bradbury in pass protection. The second is to try to help out Bradbury as much as possible with double-teams, which I’ll go more into later.

RG Pat Elflein

Elflein, along with Bradbury and to an extent Reiff, were the weak links in the Vikings offensive line last season. Elflein played left guard last year, and was horrendous in pass protection - one of the very worst in the league at his position. He did improve as a run blocker, to the point where he may not be a liability, but he led the team in allowed pressures, with 38 total including 8 sacks, as a guard. He also had 8 penalties. That’s just plain poor, and worse, it’s something he’s failed to improve upon after three seasons in the league.

I haven’t heard anyone say Elflein has improved much in training camp this year. The closest any coach would say is that they feel he’ll do better at right guard than he did at left guard. And presumably center - where he struggled mightily his first two seasons with the Vikings.

I tend to be very skeptical that Elflein will ever improve much at this point, and frankly I’m surprised he continues to make the roster after how bad he’s been through three years, let alone be a starter.

As you can see above, Elflein’s relative athletic score differs dramatically from Bradbury and O’Neill. Elflein entered the league with poor athletic traits and hasn’t shown either the technique, or in some cases pure size and length (think Orlando Brown Jr.), to overcome those shortcomings. All that makes for very healthy skepticism regarding Elflein’s future, his ceiling, and how much he might improve this season.

But there are some things that the Vikings could do to help, especially when any realistic hope of him improving appears slim, and may have played a role in his moving from left to right guard this year.

One of the reasons touted for moving Elflein to right guard is because he played there five years ago in college. Why it would be easier to switch sides rather than continue at left guard, where he played last season in the NFL, seems far-fetched at best. But there is another reason that makes some sense.

Gary Kubiak is no stranger to heavy formations, double-tight-ends and fullbacks in his offensive scheme. And where he chooses to position them can and does influence defensive positioning as well. If Kubiak chooses to make the Vikings left side the strong side, that would tend to leave Elflein in a double-team situation against a nose tackle in a 4-3 over front, rather than face a 3-tech one-on-one. Against a 4-3 under front, he could do the opposite to achieve the same thing.

Similarly, Kubiak can use a fullback/running back to provide support in pass protection if need be.

LG Dakota Dozier

Dakota Dozier is similar in many respects to Elflein, except Dozier hasn’t been a starter. He’s filled in at just about every position along the offensive line at one point or another in his career, most often at either guard spot, which he did for several games last year for the Vikings. Dozier shares similar athletic traits with Elflein, but does have more arm length and size than Elflein, and may be a bit stronger.

But Dozier, like Elflein, has never produced very good PFF grades, and last season had a similar allowed pressure rate as Elflein, although his sack rate allowed was only about half that of Elflein.

However, looking at Dozier’s snaps last season leads to a little more of a nuanced take on Dozier’s performance. The first thing you notice about Dozier is that while he is not always pretty in his technique or performance, he does manage to get the job done with regularity.

On occasion he can be a bit late off the snap, which can lead to his getting blown back a step or two- and yet his guy still doesn’t make the play. Other times he simply manages to wrestle with his man long enough, Greco-Roman style, to keep him from making a play.

In pass protection, he does give up a pressure on occasion, but these are typically not the pressures that have much of a effect on the play. Dozier is able to battle with his man to keep him away from the quarterback for the requisite 2.5 seconds that constitutes a ‘win’ nearly every time. Unlike Elflein or Reiff, Dozier doesn’t have the ‘whiff’ blocks that lead to quick and big sacks, stalled drives and turnovers. Even in lost reps, Dozier is still able to battle long enough to help minimize the effect of the pressure. And there are plenty of reps that he wins easily.

But Dozier’s strength may be as a run blocker. He doesn’t have the speed or agility that you want in a zone blocking scheme, but he is able to muscle open holes with some regularity, and his footwork is good enough to wall off defenders too. He had a key role in opening some holes last year that led to big gains, and I noticed on a key 4th and 1 during a game last year they chose to run to his gap.

Overall, Dozier doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed either physically or mentally. He battles well with even the best defensive linemen, like he did with Fletcher Cox last year, and while that game wasn’t a complete victory for Dozier, he held up fairly well. And that’s kind of the takeaway from Dozier’s play: not pretty, but he seems to hold up fairly well. As a run blocker he had some good blocks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play an important role in the Vikings run game this season.

To give you a better idea of Dozier’s performance, here is tape of his week two performance against the Packers last year, when he started at left guard - which is where he’ll be on Sunday:

Looking at Dozier’s performance last season, I don’t expect him to be the weak link in the offensive line. He’s not a Pro Bowler, and I don’t expect that type of performance, but he could very well be adequate in the sense that he doesn’t give up many big plays, and may help create some in the run game.

Mike Zimmer said Dozier is playing with more power in training camp, so that’s a positive as well.

LT Riley Reiff

Reiff is often described as an average left tackle, and his stats would largely bear that out. That sounds like Reiff isn’t the weak link, considering the rest of the Vikings offensive line, but that’s not always the case. The issue with Reiff is that while he can usually handle an average or worse opponent, he also struggles against better ones- and that can make him the weak link in some games.

For example, last year against the Bears week 4 Reiff really struggled against Khalil Mack, giving up 2 sacks (one was a strip sack not Cousins’ fault), and committing 3 penalties. He had a key holding penalty week 16 against the Packers as well, nullifying a 53-yard touchdown pass, and in the playoffs against Nick Bosa he gave up 6 pressures.

Overall, Reiff had the 2nd most allowed pressures and sacks (after Elflein), along with the most penalties, among offensive linemen for the Vikings last season. He allowed 10 more pressures than Brian O’Neill, including 4 more sacks.

The issue for Reiff, entering his ninth year in the league, is he doesn’t have the athleticism to compete with the premier edge rushers, nor the size or length to help mitigate that deficit. Coming out of Iowa, Reiff was an average athlete for the position, and nine years later that doubtlessly hasn’t improved. Reiff’s strength is his technique, but he can get caught off-guard occasionally, which can lead to giving up pressures or penalties.

Reiff graded reasonably well last year as a run-blocker, however, so the main weakness with Reiff is his pass protection.

Gary Kubiak talked about being able to do some things as a play-caller to help Reiff earlier this summer, and one of the most direct things he can do is provide more TE help on his side. Providing more TE help on Reiff’s side also becomes more desirable from an overall protection standpoint as Brian O’Neill improves in his pass protection to the point where he doesn’t need the help- even against premier edge rushers. Having a TE provide help by chipping Reiff’s guy can help prevent a successful speed rush around the outside by slowing the edge rusher a bit and taking some of the athletic strain off of Reiff in those situations.

Run Blocking

Overall the offensive line weakness is more pass protection than run blocking, although both certainly have room for improvement. But with the addition of Dakota Dozier, who has shown to be a decent run blocker, and the improvement last season in run blocking by Pat Elflein and Brian O’Neill, there is some prospect that the offensive line as a whole can take another step forward this year, running the same scheme, in their run blocking performance.

Last season PFF said that the Vikings offensive line had the 3rd highest percentage of positively graded run blocks per rush last season, which suggests the ability is there for further improvement as they become more well-versed in the scheme.

To the extent they can improve as run blockers, and presumably achieve a higher yards-per-rush average, that helps them with pass protection as well. It helps because being able to run the ball well means defensive fronts have to focus on that more, and not so much on rushing the passer. It also helps because running the ball more effectively leads to shorter down and distance situations, rather than obvious passing situations, that keep defenses off-balance. And when shorter completions lead to first downs, that’s less time for pass rushers to get to the quarterback.

Improving Depth

While the Vikings coaching staff hasn’t been ready to make them starters yet, the Vikings have improving depth they can draw upon if they feel they can be an upgrade, or if one or more of the starters falters - or gets injured.

Gary Kubiak said they were going with a 7 or 8 man rotation along the offensive line

Ezra Cleveland

Rookie 2nd round pick Ezra Cleveland was moved to left guard from his college position of left tackle, and I would be surprised, given the depth at tackle, if he was moved outside to tackle again. Cleveland, like all rookies this year, were hampered in their development by the shortened off-season, and word from training camp was that Cleveland still needed to improve his technique before really being considered for a starting job.

But Cleveland definitely fits the athletic profile the Vikings have been looking for across their offensive line in recent drafts, as shown by his relative athletic score:

Vikings offensive line coach Rick Dennison said he felt Cleveland did better in tighter space situations in college, rather than working out in space at left tackle, and that played into the decision to move him to guard. Cleveland’s arm length isn’t ideal for tackle either, but not sure that was an issue as much as there is simply more of a need for him inside. Cleveland’s profile is similar to that of Joe Thuney of the Patriots, who was also moved inside to guard from his college position of tackle.

It may not be until next year, but Cleveland could prove to be the long awaited upgrade at guard the Vikings have needed. Depending on how things go with Dozier, and Cleveland’s development in the coming weeks, he could also be made a starter at some point this season.

Oli Udoh

Oli Udoh has made huge development strides since he was drafted in the 6th round by the Vikings last season. His tape week 17 last season showed he has the ability to start and play at a high level in the NFL. He also is reported to have had an excellent training camp.

Rick Dennison said they were still working on consistency for Udoh, going from peaks and valleys in performance to hopefully all peaks, to use his phrase. But Udoh is perhaps the only Vikings offensive lineman with a true advantage in size and length, coming in at 6’5”, 325 pounds, with huge 35.375” arms.

Udoh has a pretty strong RAS card for a man his size as well, and it seems only a matter of time before he is elevated to a starting role.

The complication of course is that Brian O’Neill is the starting right tackle - the only position the Vikings have played Udoh since drafting him. And so moving Udoh to a starting job would mean also moving Brian O’Neill to left tackle. That appeared to be the direction the Vikings were going when Riley Reiff’s contract status was in doubt. Reiff’s performance, along with Udoh’s development, could lead to a change at some point, but the Vikings have another option at tackle as well.

Rashod Hill

Hill has been the Vikings swing tackle for a couple years now, and last year he did a good job when called upon to start, particularly in pass protection. Hill was the highest graded Vikings offensive lineman in pass protection after Oli Udoh last season, in roughly 3 games worth of snaps. But he did struggle more as a run blocker.

Hill is a little bigger now than his RAS card coming out, as he’s now listed at 6’6”, 313 pounds, which is ideal for a tackle. His 33.75” arms are near prototypical as well.

But overall Hill is close to average athletically for the position, which limits his upside. Given the development of Oli Udoh, Hill may not land a starting position, but he may continue to be a solid swing tackle. He is also the more experienced option today, and first in line to replace Riley Reiff at left tackle should he suffer an injury. He may also be first to replace O’Neill in that situation, but I suspect that may not be the case very long if Udoh continues to improve.

Dru Samia

We haven’t heard much about Dru Samia in training camp, which leads one to believe he may be struggling in some aspect of his development. He had been touted early in the off-season as a potential starter at right guard, but he didn’t appear to be under consideration when training camp began, or ended.

However, should Samia begin to figure things out, he would certainly be an upgrade athletically over Pat Elflein, if not quite the level of guys like Bradbury, Cleveland and O’Neill.

The take on Samia out of college was that while he had the nasty demeanor coaches prefer in an offensive lineman, and good stats in college, he was also a bit undisciplined in his technique, which could also use some refinement. Perhaps those faults have led to some difficulty in his development, but that is only speculation at this point.

Bottom Line

The Vikings look to be starting an offensive line with question marks at every position but right tackle, particularly in pass protection. But with clever use of TEs and RB/FBs to help out weak spots, Gary Kubiak could help give Kirk Cousins a little more time to throw despite some mediocre starters along the offensive line.

And despite their shortcomings in pass protection, the current Vikings’ offensive line could take another step forward in run blocking, which would, in turn, help make their pass protection job less difficult by putting them in better down-and-distance situations.

Lastly, the Vikings should have some viable depth options that could prove to be upgrades in the not so distant future. Whether or not they’ll be called upon this season remains to be seen, but the possibility is there should the Vikings’ coaching staff feel ready to elevate them.

Stay tuned.

Poll

How will the Vikings’ offensive line fare this season?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Better than last season
    (526 votes)
  • 49%
    About the same as last season
    (637 votes)
  • 9%
    Worse than last season
    (123 votes)
1286 votes total Vote Now