The Vikings new offensive line coach, Chris Kuper, 39, had previously been assistant offensive line coach under Mike Munchak, one of the best offensive line coaches in the league over the years, for three seasons in Denver. But when Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was fired this off-season, he was hired- and promoted- by Kevin O’Connell to become the Vikings offensive line coach. This is his first time in that position.
But Kuper is well versed on what it takes to be an offensive lineman in the NFL, having been a starting guard for the Broncos for eight seasons between 2006-2013. He was also elected a co-captain beginning in the 2010 season. Prior to his NFL career, Kuper played college football for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and was drafted in the 5th round by the Broncos.
So, between his NFL career and a few years working under a top OL coach in Mike Munchak, Kuper brings a pretty solid pedigree to the Vikings in his first gig as OL coach.
Kuper is familiar with the Shanahan wide zone scheme which the Vikings employ, having played 3 seasons under Mike Shanahan after the Broncos drafted him. In his 3 seasons as assistant offensive line coach with the Broncos, he helped develop three young interior linemen- Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III, and Quinn Meinerz.
Meinerz was drafted in the third-round last season out of D-III Wisconsin-Whitewater, and hadn’t played football for over a year due to Covid. But when his number was called to start due to an injury, Meinerz made the jump from D-III to the NFL very well- ending his rookie season with a 67.4 overall PFF grade.
Cushenberry, also a third-round pick, struggled his rookie year in 2020, but made a significant jump last season, ending his season with a 64.2 overall PFF grade.
Risner was drafted in the 2nd round in 2019, Kuper’s first season coaching in Denver. Over his first three seasons, his overall PFF grade has been 64.4 (made all-rookie team), 61.3, and 68.5 last season.
Last season, all three of those interior defenders had pass blocking efficiency of 97.4 or better, which is slightly higher than the Vikings’ starting interior linemen last season. Risner has been at that level or above since he was drafted in 2019.
Kuper’s main charge will be shoring up the Vikings’ interior line play, and developing guys like Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Jesse Davis, and Wyatt Davis. He’ll also oversee Christian Darrisaw’s development after putting together a solid rookie season once he was healthy enough to play. Kuper is one of the key position coaches for the Vikings, as he’ll be responsible for improving the Vikings offensive line, particularly in pass protection, which is the weak link in the Vikings offense.
Vikings have signed a couple linemen Kuper has worked with in the past
The Vikings signed C/G Austin Schlottman from the Broncos, presumably on Kuper’s recommend. He could end up being slotted as the backup center, given Mason Cole’s departure. But in limited snaps since entering the league as an undrafted free agent, Schlottman has everything to prove. His overall PFF grades have been in the mid-20s the past two seasons. He’s played all three interior line positions.
The Vikings also just signed Jessie Davis, a journeyman G/T from Miami, where Kuper was an assistant OL coach prior to his stint in Denver. Davis’ role in his five seasons with the Dolphins was akin to that of a utility infielder in baseball, lining up where needed - anywhere but center- with the mediocre results that often accompany that role. Davis, 30, is 6’6” 325 pounds, and had a 8.5 RAS when he came out (undrafted) five years ago, so fairly athletic. His 32.875” arms are better suited to guard than tackle, but nevertheless the way things worked out in Miami he played more tackle than guard- including nearly all of last season.
Historically, Davis has graded in the low 50s overall on a seasonal basis as a tackle, but in the low 60s overall as a right guard. In his last stint at RG- the last half of the 2020 season- Davis had a 65.0 overall PFF grade. That was about the same as Ereck Flowers at 65.3, who is also a free agent guard- but probably more expensive. Davis allowed 13 pressures over those 7 games, including 1 sack, a 97.7 pass blocking efficiency rating and one penalty. His run blocking grade was 61.5. So, if Davis can achieve or build on that with the Vikings, that would be okay or better.
The New Plan
It would seem, based on the addition of Jesse Davis, that Oli Udoh may be moved to a swing tackle position, while the two Davis’ - Jesse and Wyatt - battle for the starting right guard job. There doesn’t appear to be any serious competition at this point for Garrett Bradbury at center- Austin Schlottmann doesn’t appear anything more than a backup interior candidate.
That would seem to pencil in the following depth chart as of now:
LT: Christian Darrisaw, Oli Udoh, Blake Brandel
LG: Ezra Cleveland, Wyatt Davis/Austin Schlottmann/Kyle Hinton
C: Garrett Bradbury, Austin Schlottmann/Kyle Hinton
RG: Jesse Davis, Wyatt Davis
RT: Brian O’Neill, Oli Udoh, Blake Brandel
Overall, the tackle situation- both starters and depth- looks better than the interior line. This isn’t much of a surprise. It would be nice if Wyatt Davis became a viable competitor for a starting guard spot, or even an upgrade, but the question of whatever happened to Wyatt Davis still has not been answered. A guy like Kyle Hinton improving, or Schlottmann, would also be a welcome upgrade to the interior line depth.
Realistically, compared to last season there is some hope for improvement at left tackle. Christian Darrisaw played ten games, and the first seven featured Rashod Hill, so a full season of Darrisaw, combined with some marginal improvement following his rookie season- not unusual- would see some improvement there.
At left guard, perhaps some marginal improvement from Ezra Cleveland in his third season, second at left guard, isn’t out of the question, or at least stability there.
Difficult to see improvement at center. I suspect Bradbury’s problems in pass protection stem from his short arms- even for a center- which is why he gets pushed back by longer armed defensive tackles- and makes it more difficult for him to sustain blocks. He’s athletic and has good size for a center, even his anchoring has improved, but it’s still a losing battle. The top center prospect in the draft- Tyler Linderbaum- has a lot of the same traits as Bradbury- athletic but even shorter arms. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings drafted a center later in the draft, but not in the first few rounds. Still an outside chance for a free agent signing too, but JC Tretter, who many want the Vikings to sign, is problematic given his injury issues. He didn’t practice at all last season due to an on-going ankle injury, and it’s unclear if that injury has healed- or if it will. Matt Paradis is another decent free agent candidate, but he went down mid-way through last season with an ACL injury, so presumably he’d miss any off-season program and probably training camp- which doesn’t help his prospects of getting signed. Brett Jones, who played for the Vikings for a couple years, is available but seemingly was passed over by Kuper at this point- Jones played with Kuper in Denver last season.
At right guard, if Jesse Davis started and maintained his level of play at right guard during the last half of the 2020 season, that would be an upgrade over Oli Udoh last season- particularly when it comes to penalties and pass protection.
Lastly, it’s not too much to expect stability from Brian O’Neill at right tackle. He’s been consistent at a relatively high level the last few seasons, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he maintained that performance again this coming season.
Overall, it will be Kuper’s job to ensure improvement where it is most likely- at left tackle and right guard- while hopefully getting some improvement from the other starters to various degrees. Improving the weak link in pass protection- Garrett Bradbury- may be a difficult task, however. But realistically, the Vikings could improve to being good/decent/solid at four of the five starting positions along the offensive line in pass protection- one more than last season. I expect the Vikings will be passing the ball at a slightly higher rate this season, so that will put more pressure on the offensive line to deliver good protection for Kirk Cousins. Last season was seemingly better- at least from a sack standpoint- but there still is plenty of room for improvement. In many ways the biggest improvement in Kirk Cousins’ game comes from better pass protection, which is still not nearly as good as that of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Tom Brady last season. It’s worth noting that Cousins’ PFF passing grade in a clean pocket was top three in the league after every week last season, and he finished second in the league in that metric, so keeping Cousins clean leads to top QB performance.
There is also plenty of room for improvement in run blocking as well, which gives Kuper a full plate- along with developing the depth players- for the coming off-season.