In Part I of this series I covered the offensive skill positions and how things may play out in those groups. In Part II, I’ll focus on the Vikings’ offensive line group and the battles and projections for this key group to the Vikings’ offensive success.
Offensive Line (9)
The new regime brings a different scheme and different skillset requirements for their offensive linemen. The Vikings will run a predominantly inside/mid-zone scheme this year, rather than the predominantly outside/wide zone scheme they’ve run in the past, according to Chisom Opara, the Vikings’ national scout. He went on to say that they’re looking for guys with enough athleticism for the scheme, but who can also “put a dent” into opposing defensive linemen too.
And given they’ve added six interior offensive linemen to the roster, the new regime knows the interior offensive line needs improvement. According to NextGen Stats, the Vikings allowed the second highest QB pressure rate in the league last year at 33.6%. And so, under new offensive line coach and former NFL guard Chris Kuper, they’re working on a plan for improvement.
Part of that plan would appear to be bringing more power to the interior line. Among the new acquisitions, size, power, and length (Reed excepted) are common traits, while athleticism, which was prioritized in the past, isn’t as much of a priority- but still adequate. And with all the new acquisitions, competition for starting jobs and roster spots should be among the more intense in training camp this year.
Note: red numbers are void years.
Contractually, and by virtue of being a high (Day 1 or 2) draft pick early in their rookie deal, the Vikings are committed to Brian O’Neill, Christian Darrisaw, Jesse Davis (dead cap higher than cap hit), Ezra Cleveland, Wyatt Davis (marginally), and Ed Ingram (who hasn’t signed his contract yet). Free agents Chris Reed and Austin Schlottmann carry little dead cap, so neither should be seen as roster locks, along with the rest of the current OL roster.
Questions and Scenarios
With so many acquisitions, and 15 offensive linemen on the roster, there are several questions relating to who competes where:
- Will Garrett Bradbury have any serious competition at center?
- Where will second-round pick Ed Ingram compete?
- What about Wyatt Davis?
- How do all the rest of the depth guys fit in?
Competition for Garrett Bradbury
At this point, the only other players listed at center on the Vikings’ roster are free agent acquisition Austin Schlottmann (a 2018 UDFA) and recent UDFA acquisition Josh Sokol. Neither represents serious competition at this point. In fact, neither looks particularly attractive as a backup center either. Sokol comes from a D-I FCS Sacred Heart and hasn’t played center for a couple of years, and in the grand total of 42 snaps Schlottmann has had in the league at center, he’s fared worse than Bradbury.
Among the other offensive linemen on the Vikings roster, only Kyle Hinton has seen any time at center with the Vikings, but that was only while on the practice squad two years ago. Last year he played left guard in the preseason games. Wyatt Davis played center for a day or two in training camp last year, but apparently that was because they were short of centers that day. And that’s it for center experience on the Vikings’ roster. Chris Reed has never played center in the NFL and was a tackle in college.
This looks alarmingly bad at this point. Bradbury was ranked 38th of 40 centers in pass blocking grade last year according to PFF, with a poor 43.7 grade, narrowly beating former Viking bust Pat Elflein, who came in at 42.0. As a run blocker, Bradbury fared better, with a 67.0 grade that ranked 21st among centers with at least 20% of the snaps at center. Overall, Bradbury ranked 30th of 40 centers last season. And the Vikings have basically no experienced centers behind him on the depth chart.
All this invites the question: this cannot be the plan, can it? It’s not. But what the complete plan is remains unknown.
But here are some potential scenarios for competition at center.
Scenario One: JC Tretter
With the dearth of experienced, high-end talent at center, the Vikings could bring in free agent JC Tretter to right the ship at center. Tretter has been a Pro Bowl caliber center for years, despite chronic injuries which have caused him to miss or be limited in practices for at least the past year. He didn’t miss any games though. His knee appears to be the main concern, although he’s had ankle issues too. Those injury concerns would have to be vetted, and Tretter would need to pass a physical before joining the Vikings, so the concerns there are real, as is his limited practice availability in learning a new system, working with new teammates, etc. Affording Tretter would also likely mean salary cap cuts elsewhere. Given the lack of experience at center on the Vikings roster, bringing in Tretter may not actually result in the Vikings trading Bradbury (who’d have a limited market), to save cap space.
Scenario Two: Aggressive Internal Competition
In this scenario the Vikings put forward a more serious challenge to Bradbury by moving Ezra Cleveland to center and having them battle it out for the starting job. Cleveland has the physical traits to play center (perfect 10 RAS score at center), but whether he can snap the ball well and call protections well is a question mark. In this scenario Ed Ingram would then compete for the starting job at left guard, where he played in college. Cleveland represents the best experienced lineman on the roster who has the physical traits to compete at center.
Scenario Three: Backup Competition
In this scenario the Vikings move Wyatt Davis, Kyle Hinton, and/or Chris Reed to compete as a backup center (along with Schlottmann and Sokol) and see how it goes. The intent here is to find the best backup to Bradbury at center to shore up depth at the position. Perhaps if one of the above really shined they could challenge for a starting job if Bradbury falters later in the season, maybe at the bye-week, or if Bradbury is injured. It would seem unlikely that an inexperienced center would overtake Bradbury in training camp, however.
Of the above scenarios, the third one seems the most likely. So far neither Kevin O’Connell or Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have given any signal that they’re looking to replace Bradbury prior to week one. On the contrary, O’Connell has made comments suggesting Bradbury can be good in the right system, etc., indicating his willingness to work with him as starting center. Of course the Vikings also declined his 5th year option, as $13+ million is way over his market value, and often teams that decline 5th year options on first-round picks don’t end up keeping them around much longer.
Among the two more aggressive approaches, acquiring JC Tretter seems the simpler and more likely among scenarios one and two. If Tretter’s injury concerns can be alleviated, he’s proven, plug-and play, with no disruption at other positions. There is also a combination of scenarios one and three, where the Vikings acquire Tretter and one of the backup candidates shine to the point where the Vikings could look to trade Bradbury.
But at the moment, scenario three is the only one signaled by O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah. I would think if the Vikings were serious about acquiring Tretter, they’d want to complete that deal sooner rather than later, to give him time to get up to speed, etc. But either way, the Vikings have begun the backup competition.
Paul Allen reported on his radio show back on May 3rd that the Vikings were working Kyle Hinton at center. I’ll talk more about Hinton further down. Hinton was a 7th round pick in 2020, a classic small school standout from D-II Washburn that has spent two years on the Vikings practice squad. He has starter potential in physical traits and intelligence.
Where will Ed Ingram compete?
This will be an interesting choice, because whichever side Ingram competes on puts the presumed starter under pressure. If it’s left guard, where Ingram played the last three seasons at LSU, that puts Ezra Cleveland under the gun. Logically keeping his same position would be the easiest way to get Ingram, a second-round pick like Cleveland, up to speed, and so I suspect that’s where they’ll play him.
There is a chance, however, that they have Ingram compete at right guard. That would put more pressure on Jesse Davis, who I’d pencil in as the starter at the moment. But Chris Reed and Wyatt Davis may also compete at right guard, which would create all the competition at right guard, and none at left guard. That doesn’t seem likely. Having Ingram compete at left guard and both Davis’ and Reed competing at right guard makes the most sense.
What about Wyatt Davis?
Wyatt Davis was one of the four Bermuda Triangle third-round picks last season, which included Kellen Mond, Chazz Surratt, Davis and Patrick Jones II. After they were drafted, they were never heard from again, despite not having injuries. Davis played exclusively right guard at OSU and was a highly regarded prospect who fell to the third round largely on injury concerns. But it turned out that Wyatt Davis wasn't even the backup right guard, as Blake Brandel came in instead of him in spot duty relief of Oli Udoh. That only intensified the questions regarding Davis. Was it lingering injury issues that caused him to be buried in the depth chart last season? Was he simply not faring well in competition? Was there some other issue? Is he another in a list of recent OSU interior lineman busts? The only answer right now is that we don’t know.
There had also been rumors that Wyatt Davis was overweight earlier this year, but those rumors appear to be unfounded, based on the above tweet of Davis (#52) at OTAs last week. He looks to be in good shape - if anything lighter than he was last season.
The question then is what does the future hold for Wyatt Davis, and where will he compete this year? Two things worth mentioning were pointed out in his draft profile. One is that he is better suited to inside zone than outside zone, so the Vikings’ scheme change should benefit him in that regard. Secondly, he was said to be a right guard only, and that while intelligent, he lacked the pad level and flexibility to play center. Pad level is fixable, but flexibility - if that is an issue - remains to be seen. But overall Wyatt Davis appears better suited to the Vikings new scheme and has the profile the new coaching staff is looking for. I don’t see a reason for the Vikings to change Davis’ position at this point. Having him compete at his most natural position of right guard makes the most sense in his development.
How do all the rest of the depth guys fit in?
The rumor during the off-season was that Oli Udoh would move from starting right guard to swing tackle. The addition of Jesse Davis and Chris Reed appeared to confirm that, as did the latter two sharing first-team reps in OTAs. So it seems pretty clear at this point that Oli Udoh will be the Vikings’ new swing tackle. He’ll likely have some competition for that role from Vederian Lowe, Blake Brandel, and Timon Parris. Lowe could also compete at a guard spot, however.
Back to Kyle Hinton
As I mentioned earlier, Hinton was a 7th round pick in 2020 that served on the practice squad the past two seasons. He played tackle in college but was brought in to compete at center, which he did in 2020. He was promoted to the active roster the last game of that season before returning to the practice squad in 2021. He played left guard in preseason last year and put up some good PFF grades in pass blocking (71.6), not allowing a single pressure, but not as good as a run blocker (51.8). The usual preseason caveats apply- small sample size, playing against second string, etc.
Hinton first arrived in 2020 listed as 6’2”, 295 pounds. He has since put on 20 pounds of muscle, and is now listed at 6’2”, 315 pounds. And he’s built like a brickhouse.
I’ve updated Hinton’s RAS based on his increased weight, and as you can see, he’s very athletic. Granted his athletic scores would drop based on being 20 pounds heavier, but he’d still have excellent traits for the position. He’s 15 pounds heavier than Bradbury’s listed weight, with 0.75” longer arms.
Hinton was also a 3-time all-conference (MIAA) scholar athlete award winner, and four-time member of the MIAA academic honor roll, so he has some smarts to go with his physical traits. That’s important for a center who needs to make protection calls.
Hinton can ‘put a dent’ in defensive linemen.
Of course it remains to be seen how well Hinton can show what he’s been taught in the classroom on the field at center, but he trained at the position as a rookie as well, so it shouldn’t all be new to him. Here’s what Dane Brugler from The Athletic had to say about Hinton prior to the 2020 draft:
.@dpbrugler of The Athletic joined the show today to talk #NFLdraft, and talked about what he sees in @IchabodFTBL product @BigMyke_Hinton. Here's what he had to say:— 580 Sports Talk (@580Sportstalk) April 15, 2020
And check out the full interview here: https://t.co/NM5TsK8hZL pic.twitter.com/GCNm7qFGzr
So, we’ll see where Hinton is at in the coming weeks, and if he’s serious competition to Bradbury, or more of a backup center at this point.
So, all of the above sets up for the following camp battles among offensive linemen:
- Jesse Davis vs. Chris Reed - starting right guard
- Ezra Cleveland vs. Ed Ingram - starting left guard
- Oli Udoh vs. Vederian Lowe - swing tackle
- Garrett Bradbury vs. Kyle Hinton - starting center
- Chris Reed vs. Wyatt Davis - backup right guard
- Kyle Hinton vs. Josh Sokol - backup center
I think Wyatt Davis will need to show up throughout the off-season and training camp, or he’ll lose his roster spot. Chris Reed doesn’t have a lot of upside at this point in his career, and with 31” arms, not ideal for a guard. On the other hand, he has a lot of experience as an itinerant journeyman guard and has respectable PFF grades (67.2 overall last season). Davis must show enough for the coaches to want his upside more than Reed’s experience. I have Davis getting the last spot on the OL roster, but it could go either way.
I expect Hinton to win the backup center spot, and possibly challenge Bradbury at some point if Bradbury falters, and Udoh to win the swing tackle spot. Backup guard will go to the loser of the Ingram/Cleveland battle, if that’s how it plays out.
- Christian Darrisaw
- Ezra Cleveland
- Garrett Bradbury
- Jesse Davis
- Brian O’Neill
- Oli Udoh
- Ed Ingram
- Kyle Hinton
- Wyatt Davis
Cut/traded: Austin Schlottmann, Chris Reed
Practice squad: Blake Brandel, Josh Sokol, Vederian Lowe (maybe Reed if he clears waivers)
I would imagine the depth chart could begin something like this:
Left Tackle: Christian Darrisaw | Oli Udoh | Vederian Lowe | Blake Brandel | Timon Parris
Left Guard: Ezra Cleveland | Ed Ingram | Austin Schlottmann
Center: Garrett Bradbury | Kyle Hinton | Josh Sokol
Right Guard: Jesse Davis | Chris Reed | Wyatt Davis
Right Tackle: Brian O’Neill | Oli Udoh | Vederian Lowe | Blake Brandel | Timon Parris
This season, the Vikings’ interior offensive line will be...
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A lot better
A little better
About the same
A little worse
A lot worse