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Vikings Looking to Draft a Guard - Not a Tackle

Spielman’s Pro Day Visits Make that Clear

After the Vikings free agency moves, it appears that upgrading the offensive line is, once again this off-season, a top priority for the Vikings, perhaps even the top priority, heading into the draft. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll use their first pick on an offensive lineman, but it does mean that drafting an immediate starter to bolster the offensive line talent level could figure prominently in the Vikings draft plan for the end of the month.

Looking at how Vikings GM Rick Spielman is choosing to spend his time the past month or so, it looks like the Vikings may be more interested in drafting a guard, rather than a tackle.

The reasons for that may stem from both the Vikings current OL roster, and the relative strength of this year’s draft class.

Assessing the Vikings Current OL Roster

The Vikings will likely return Brian O’Neill, Ezra Cleveland, and Garrett Bradbury as starters this season, although in what positions remains to be seen. Collectively they represent the Vikings draft profile for offensive linemen: solid college career, top-tier athletic profile, proficient in zone blocking.

Below is an offensive line cheat sheet, complete with PFF grades and RAS (relative athletic score) grades. RAS scores have been adjusted from initial ones produced after their Combine/Pro Day results to reflect their current position, and in Brian O’Neill’s case, known added weight.

I left the left tackle spot open for now, as I don’t anticipate Rashod Hill being elevated, and put Dakota Dozier as left guard as the incumbent starter, but highly doubt he’ll be the starter come September.

Outside of the three presumed starters, only Oli Udoh and Kyle Hinton fit the Vikings athletic profile. And given Garrett Bradbury ahead of him at center, only Oli Udoh fits as a potential starter.

Mason Cole makes sense as a backup interior lineman that can play center or guard, and Rashod Hill could continue his role as swing tackle. The rest compete for backup jobs or practice squad.

Vikings’ Starting OL Draft Profiles

Beyond top-tier athletic profiles, each of the Vikings three starters shared some common characteristics in their college careers: solid performance, 3-years as a starter, but also typically lacking in power, strength. The Vikings run a wide-zone blocking scheme, which prioritizes athleticism over bulk and power. Presumably the Vikings figured that athleticism can’t be taught, but more strength and size can be added with an NFL weight and nutrition program.

Beyond measurables, the Vikings look for guys with good football IQs, work ethic, durability, and clean background. Two of the three picks came in the late 2nd round, as college left tackles a bit down the rankings in their draft class.

Overall, Brian O’Neill and Ezra Cleveland look to be the best picks of the three, considering Bradbury was easily the highest overall pick and his pro PFF grades have been the lowest. But I suspect that the Vikings are reasonably happy with Brian O’Neill, and hope Cleveland and Bradbury will follow suit in improving like O’Neill to become quality starters.

But presuming those three hold down three starting spots, that still leaves a guard and tackle spot open.

Oli Udoh - Is He Ready to Start or Not?

This may be the question the Vikings draft strategy hinges upon. We don’t know the answer, but most likely the Vikings’ coaching staff does. If may seem an odd question- after all Oli Udoh was only a 6th round pick a couple years ago that has seen very little action during the regular season, and was behind Rashod Hill in the depth chart at tackle.

But Udoh’s size and athletic profile give him a much higher ceiling than Rashod Hill, and was largely why the Vikings drafted him. It was understood that he’d need at least a year or two to improve his raw technique before he’d be ready to compete as a starter, which was why he was a 6th round pick, but those two years have now come and gone, and with another off-season program, he may well be ready to start in the NFL. Certainly his limited snaps - basically a half game against the Bears in 2019 - suggest he has what it takes to be an NFL starter. He handled Khalil Mack without much problem, and showed signs of dominance as a run blocker.

The last we heard on Udoh’s development from Vikings offensive line coach Rick Dennison last year in training camp was that they were working on his consistency, wanting him to have good reps every time, and not just some or most of the time. Most recently, Mike Zimmer mentioned Udoh second as one of the “good players” along with O’Neill, Cleveland, and Hill, who could be in the mix in replacing Riley Reiff. Last year, when Reiff was asked to take a pay-cut and his status was in doubt for a couple days, the Vikings moved Brian O’Neill to the left side and had Hill working right tackle along with Udoh. If Udoh is deemed ready, it could be the plan to move O’Neill to left tackle and have Udoh start at right tackle, where he played in college and in limited action with the Vikings. Indeed, part of the reason for the Vikings to move on from Riley Reiff may have been because they felt good about their depth at tackle, and Udoh’s development in particular.

Udoh has a high ceiling based on his athletic profile, and is prototypical in size and length for a right tackle, at 6’5”, 323 pounds, and 35 3/8” arms. In his limited snaps, he showed no difficulty in either pass protection or run blocking, although he had a (far from flagrant) holding call against Mack in pass pro, and a questionable unnecessary roughness call for helping his running back down the field near the end of the play. He had a few instrumental run blocks that created holes, allowing Mike Boone a 40+ yard run, and also not only helped open a hole for Ameer Abdullah, but also pushed him over the line-to-gain for a first down he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten on 3rd down. And he opened the hole in goal-line for Boone’s TD run.

But the bottom line on Udoh is that we haven’t seen him play much - just 31 snaps in 2019 and 3 as an extra OL last season. But what we have seen, along with his athletic profile, suggest he could be a high quality offensive lineman in the NFL. The Vikings have positioned him mostly at right tackle in practice since they drafted him, where he played in college, but also began working him in at guard during the season in practice last year. But we really don’t know the extent of his progress in practice last season, or what position the Vikings may want him to compete at this year, although Zimmer’s brief mention of him suggests tackle, for what it’s worth.

But if the Vikings are ready to start Udoh at right tackle, where he’s played the most, and move Brian O’Neill to left tackle, that leaves only left guard open for a starting job, which is apparently what the Vikings may be targeting in the draft.

Other Possibilities at Tackle

Beyond Udoh’s development, there could be other explanations why the Vikings may be looking more for a guard than a tackle. It could be that rather than Udoh, the Vikings would move Ezra Cleveland to left tackle, where he played in college. They could then possible consider Udoh at a guard spot, and a draft pick for the other spot. Or possibly even draft two guards.

Lastly, the Vikings had been in discussions to trade for Orlando Brown Jr., who has been given permission to seek a trade because he wants to play left tackle. The Vikings were one of reportedly six teams interested in Brown, and there hasn’t been any news on that front for a few weeks since the initial reporting. Ultimately the Vikings would have to secure a deal not only with the Ravens to trade for Brown, who’s on the last year of his rookie contract, but also a contract extension with Brown to make the trade worthwhile. It’s unclear if they’ll be able to come to terms, but acquiring Brown remains a possibility for the Vikings, who were looking to make a similar deal last year for Trent Williams right up until Day 2 of the draft, but ultimately he chose the 49ers and the Vikings drafted Ezra Cleveland.

Better Guards Than Tackles in this Draft Class

Another reason the Vikings may be looking at their own roster or a trade for a tackle is that this tackle draft class looks pretty thin. Most of the college tackles in this class don’t have ideal arm length for a tackle, and many will likely move inside to guard in the NFL. Consider this as well:

Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater, along with Christian Darrisaw, are considered the top tackle prospects in this year’s draft. But if they were in last year’s draft class, they may have been only the fifth or sixth ranked tackles. Most teams have a 33” arm length minimum threshold for a tackle prospect, with 34+ arms being prototypical. Neither Sewell or Slater have prototypical arm length, and just barely meet the minimum threshold. That’s not to say they won’t be good tackles if allowed to play outside- there have been several elite tackles with shorter arms- but it requires a higher level of technique against edge rushers with more length. They don’t stand out athletically vs. last year’s top tackles either. In any case, they may be better guards than tackles. The only top tackle prospect this year with 34” arms is Christian Darrisaw, and he didn’t test at his pro day.

Another consideration for Sewell is that he’s only played a year and half worth of snaps, the last of which was in 2019, and hasn’t really faced any NFL-worthy edge rushers. If this turns out to be another virtual off-season, as the NFLPA is pushing for, starting a guy that hasn’t played for two years, hasn’t had an NFL off-season, and hasn’t faced NFL-caliber rushers could be problematic - and a key consideration for GMs around the league.

And after the top 3 tackles in this year’s draft class, I’m not sure any are considered worthy of a first round grade. Teven Jenkins, Jaylen Mayfield, Dillon Radunz, and Liam Eichenberg are generally considered to be in the next tier, but not sure any of these are considered true plug-and-play starters at tackle.

So Who Fits the Vikings’ Profile?

If the Vikings feel they’re okay at tackle, one way or another, they then need to find a starting guard in the draft, perhaps two. They could most likely do that with their second pick, and go best-player-available with their first pick- or move forward or back depending on how the early picks play out.

So far, Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman has attended the pro days for Northwestern (Slater), Oregon (Sewell), North Dakota State (Radunz), Georgia (Ben Cleveland), Alabama (Alex Leatherwood), USC (Alijah Vera-Tucker), BYU (Brady Christensen), Ohio State (Wyatt Davis), and Texas A&M (Carson Green). Of course there may be other players Spielman was considering at these pro days, but in terms of offensive linemen, all of these players could be better suited at guard rather than tackle in the NFL. Spielman did not attend Virginia Tech’s pro day (Darrisaw), although he may have known Darrisaw was not planning to do any testing, so therefore he skipped it.

If you look through the offensive linemen in this year’s draft, and you consider the characteristics of the Vikings’ current starters that were also recent draft picks- Brian O’Neill drafted in 2018, Garrett Bradbury drafted in 2019, and Ezra Cleveland last year- here are some prospects Spielman has seen at their pro days that fit that mold.

Brady Christensen

One prospect in particular shares all those characteristics: Brady Christensen from BYU. He played left tackle in college, just like Ezra Cleveland, but like him his arm length (32.25”) necessitates a move inside at the NFL level - left guard most likely if drafted by the Vikings.

As a guard, Christensen’s athletic profile fits perfectly with that of O’Neill, Bradbury and Cleveland. Like Cleveland, he’s about 5-10 pounds away from being a perfect 10 at guard. And like Cleveland and O’Neill, he’s a bit down the list in positional (tackle) rankings. But his PFF profile suggests a prospect that’s been very successful over his 3-year college career, more so than Cleveland in college PFF grades against similar competition, and is ready to start as a rookie.

Christensen also checks all the other boxes you often see in Spielman picks: team captain, clean background, work ethic, etc., so it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him drafted by the Vikings somewhere in the late-second, early-third round range.

Christiansen isn’t the only guard candidate that fits the Vikings’ profile, there are actually several others that do, but perhaps not as well in every respect.

Ben Cleveland

I did an article on Cleveland and Quinn Meinerz as potential Day 2 draft picks for the Vikings a few weeks ago, and they both remain possible targets. Cleveland weighed in at 343 pounds at his Georgia pro day, and still managed to run a sub-5-second 40 yard dash, which is unbelievable for a man his size. Cleveland played right guard for the Bulldogs, where he turned in three solid seasons against SEC competition. His PFF grades were not as high as Christensen, but the competition level was undoubtedly higher. If the Vikings were to draft Ben Cleveland and not Christensen, it wouldn’t be surprising if they kept Ben at right guard and moved Ezra to left guard.

Alijah Vera-Tucker

Another guard prospect who fits the Vikings profile, and who’s played left tackle in college is Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC. He also has shorter arms (32 1/8”) so a move inside may also be likely for AVT. As a guard, AVT has a top-tier athletic profile.

Tucker has better PFF grades than Ben Cleveland in a Power-5 conference (Pac-12), and also has the advantage, from the Vikings perspective, of having played left guard his sophomore year at USC.

AVT’s athleticism didn’t always show up on the field, however, as he could be slow getting to the second level and out in space at times. The problem for the Vikings in drafting AVT is that he’s currently projected to go somewhere in the 20-40 pick range. Trading back a little, foregoing another top player and drafting AVT isn’t great value for the Vikings, particularly if a similar player is available in the late 2nd/early 3rd round. They could trade back, pick another player, and try to trade back up into the top of the second round to get him, if he’s still available, but that becomes a more difficult proposition. It’s also difficult to say if he’d be worth it over Brady Christensen, who may be there later into the second round.

Dillon Radunz

Radunz is another guy that fits the Vikings profile, but like AVT, he may fall into the 20-40 pick range which may not be ideal for the Vikings. The other thing about Radunz is that he may be a bit of a tweener in the sense that his length isn’t ideal for tackle (33.25”), but his lower body is also a bit thin, which isn’t ideal for a move inside. Rick Spielman did attend his pro day, so there is some interest.

Radunz’ PFF grades against FCS competition aren’t particularly stellar, though certainly good, which suggests he may have more of a challenge grading as well at the next level.

Wyatt Davis

Davis, like Ben Cleveland, is one of the few guard prospects that actually played guard last season. Davis was a 3-year starter at right guard for the Buckeyes, but had only one season where he graded above the 60s. Given the recent track record of OSU OL products from Pat Elflein on (Billy Price, Michael Jordan, Jonah Jackson, Isaiah Prince) I’d be wary of drafting another one, especially one with a bit of a mixed record at Ohio State.

We don’t know Davis’ athletic profile as he suffered a knee injury late in the season and didn’t do the athletic testing drills at his pro day.

Late Round Prospects

In addition to more immediate starting candidates, there are a couple other Day 3 prospects the Vikings could target to build their OL pipeline and depth. These include Sam Cooper from Merrimack, and Carson Green from Texas A&M. The Vikings have talked with Sam Cooper, and Rick Spielman attended Green’s pro day.

First Round Opportunity?

It wouldn’t be surprising if Rashawn Slater or perhaps even Penei Sewell fell to the Vikings at 14, or close enough where they could trade up to get them if they really felt it was worth it. Sewell is frequently mocked to the Bengals at #5, but they have Riley Reiff at right tackle and 2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams at left tackle. They could use Sewell to upgrade a guard spot, but is that really the value they want at #5? Reuniting Ja’Marr Chase with Joe Burrow would seem a better value, or upgrading their TE spot with Kyle Pitts. The next landing spot frequently mocked for a OL is Carolina at #8, but for some insane reason, they’re contractually locked in to Cam Irving and Pat Elflein at left tackle and guard for at least a year or two, and are okay on the right side. Instead, they could upgrade a linebacker spot with Micah Parsons, or take a QB like Trey Lance if he falls that far. The next landing spot after that is the Chargers at #13, and I suspect they’d prioritize a left tackle, and could go with Darrisaw if he’s still available - they had a couple guys at his pro day.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, either Slater or Sewell is there at 14 for the Vikings, which may well be the case. How much better are they at left guard than, say, Brady Christensen or one of the other prospects, who might be there in the late second or third round, where the Vikings could either trade up and select or pick at 79? If Mac Jones is there at 14, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the Vikings traded down with Washington for their 2nd round pick and still had either a top edge rusher or top safety Trevon Moehrig there at 19. If that were the case, it may make more sense for the Vikings to look to fill another need with their first pick and look to Day 2 to address offensive line.


Should the Vikings address their offensive line need on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft?

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