In Part III of this Championship Roster Building series for the Vikings, I’ll take a look at the offensive line for the Vikings.
There is a school of thought that offensive line is the most important position group to be successful offensively. Without good pass protection, it’s difficult to have good production from the quarterback position group, and therefore receiver group, and without good run blocking, the running back group too. Indeed, how many top-tier quarterbacks have there been without a good offensive line in front of him? Few or none.
So, when it comes to building a championship roster, having a top-tier offensive line is a key component. In recent years, a top-tier offensive line typically had two good tackles, and at least two of three good interior linemen, with one average. The degree of difficulty in having five good starters is what makes having a good offensive line so challenging for teams, along with the fact that a team can’t afford to give every player a premium contract. Usually only two, maybe three, depending on the salary cap situation with the rest of the roster. Having good depth for the inevitable injuries an offensive line is likely to face during the course of a season is also important.
Evaluating the Vikings Offensive Line Starters
LT Christian Darrisaw has proven to be a great draft pick and is turning into a young Trent Williams. The main thing for the Vikings here is to prepare Darrisaw’s eventual monster extension down the road in 2026, they’ll also need to execute his 5th year option in 2025. But right now and for a couple more years, they’ve got an elite talent on a rookie contract. It doesn’t get any better than that.
LG Ezra Cleveland has improved as a run blocker since being drafted three years ago, but his pass blocking has not improved at all, and remains in the unacceptable- mid-50s PFF grade. He allowed the second-most pressures after rookie Ed Ingram with 55. That’s not good enough.
Cleveland is entering the last year of his rookie contract and local Vikings beat reporter Darren Wolfson has said there have been no extension talks with Cleveland. He did say that interior offensive line was known to be a focus for the Vikings during the Combine, whether that’s a draft pick or a free agent acquisition. Given the moves the Vikings have made, that strongly suggests the Vikings are looking to upgrade Ezra Cleveland at left guard- as they should be. One free agent option that be an upgrade over Cleveland is Dalton Risner, who played LG in Denver under Vikings’ OL coach Chris Kuper so there is a connection there. There may be others. Alternatively, using a top draft pick on a guard is also a possibility, but often it takes a couple years for even a high draft pick to become a good offensive lineman in the NFL. For the Vikings to have a top-tier offensive line, they need much better pass blocking from the left guard position.
C Garrett Bradbury was signed to a 3-year extension in a medium deal for a mid-level talent in Bradbury. But it’s really a one-year prove-it deal and a very tradeable contract, which makes Bradbury more of a placeholder right now. Before last season, Bradbury was mediocre at best, but improved dramatically in pass protection last season- going from a 43 PFF grade to a 68. Bradbury has been a decent if unspectacular run blocker as well. The hope with Bradbury is that he can continue to improve under Chris Kuper, or at least maintain the performance level of a year ago.
RG Ed Ingram had a rough rookie year- as most rookie offensive linemen do- but did show improvement over the course of the season. For example, he had six games with a PFF pass blocking grade under 50 in his first eight games. The remaining ten games, he had only two. He was also an average run blocker with a 64 PFF grade on the season. He’ll need to improve significantly over his rookie campaign for the Vikings to have a shot at being a top-tier offensive line, but as a second-round pick showing improvement it makes sense for the Vikings to develop him in hope of a better 2024 campaign.
RT Brian O’Neill ended his 2022 season early after suffering a partial Achilles tendon tear, but is expected to make a full recovery and not miss any time this coming season. Hopefully he’ll be full go for training camp. O’Neill is a proven championship caliber tackle with a premium contract. He’s 27, so he should be able to finish his current contract, which runs through 2026, at a high level.
Overall, the Vikings are only about half-way toward having a top-tier offensive line. The shortfall comes mainly at the two guard positions. In Ed Ingram’s case, the Vikings will likely hope for Ingram to develop and improve his second season and go from a liability to an asset. At left guard, Ezra Cleveland’s progress as a pass protector has not improved after three seasons and bringing in competition for his left guard spot should be a priority. The center position is also in flux, as the Vikings are in a position to either stay or move on from Bradbury, having signed him to a fairly liquid contract.
But there’s still a lot of work for the Vikings to do.
It’s rare for a team to make it through the season without an injury to at least one starting offensive lineman. And so it’s important to have quality backups available who can play for an extended period without a big drop off in performance. Swing tackle is the most important backup position, but the main interior backup is important too.
The Vikings reduced Chris Reed’s contract to $1.75M this year, which is more reasonable for a backup C/G as Reed will be. Having that position flexibility is a positive for the Vikings, and once Reed got acclimated to playing center, there wasn’t a ton of dropoff between him and Garrett Bradbury. He can be called upon to be an adequate interior line replacement that can get the team through a few games without having to make scheme adjustments, etc. to account for a dropoff in performance.
At swing tackle, Oli Udoh should be a priority signing. He didn’t work out at guard (but could play there in a pinch), but he did well last season- really well- replacing Brian O’Neill at right tackle the last three games. Udoh allowed just one hurry in each of those three games, providing zero drop-off in performance from O’Neill. Udoh just turned 26 and has the prototypical size, length, and athletic ability for a tackle. He could have benefitted from a year under new Vikings OL coach Chris Kuper, as most Vikings offensive linemen did.
Beyond good backups at tackle and interior line, it’s really a question of developing younger players on rookie contracts with maybe another veteran minimum type player with experience mixed in.
A top-tier offensive line is a key ingredient in a championship roster. Without it, it’s tough to get the performance from the quarterback and other offensive skill position groups necessary to win a Super Bowl.
For the Vikings, they need better pass protection from their interior linemen if they’re going to field a top-tier unit. To do so, they need to bring in competition for Ezra Cleveland, as he hasn’t shown improvement in pass protection since being drafted and is now in the final year of his rookie contract.
The Vikings and OL coach Chris Kuper also need to get more from Ed Ingram in his second season- and there is reason to believe they can do so based on Ingram’s improved performance over the course of his rookie season. Ingram (63) and Cleveland (55) accounted for just over half of all pressures allowed by offensive lineman for the Vikings last season, including backups. And each of them allowed more pressures than Darrisaw and O’Neill combined.
Bradbury allowed 24 pressures during the regular season last year, which remained near the bottom among centers, but on the other hand just five fewer pressures would’ve been average. There’s a lot more opportunity to reduce pressures at each guard spot by introducing competition at left guard and investing in Ingram’s development at right guard.
Overall, the Vikings ranked 26th in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency metric and gave up the most QB pressures in the league. The Buccaneers, who had the best OL Pass Blocking Efficiency, had 776 drop-back attempts last season and gave up just 130 QB pressures. The Vikings had 729 drop-back attempts and gave up 212 pressures. That’s a big difference. The 10th ranked Chiefs offensive line gave up 174 pressures on 725 drop-back attempts- 38 less than the Vikings on five fewer passing attempts. The Eagles gave up 118 pressures on 625 passing attempts. These comparisons are where the Vikings need to get to if they want to compete in the playoffs and make a deep run. Cutting the number of pressures allowed by guards in half would go a long way toward reaching that goal.
But the Vikings also need to be cognizant of the salary cap. Signing Bradbury to medium contract which allows for an early and inexpensive exit, is a smart move. Drafting another lineman this year might be worthwhile as well, along with bringing in a veteran to challenge Cleveland this year. The Vikings could accommodate another premium contract with Ingram and Darrisaw still a few years away from a bigger premium contract, and Bradbury and Cleveland still on what amounts to rookie contract salary cap hits. But further down the line, when Darrisaw is extended and O’Neill still on a premium contract, the Vikings will need good, inexpensive options to fill out the interior line.
But that’s a problem for another year. Right now, improving both guard positions- and spending more on a potential replacement for Cleveland- is the quickest route to a top-tier offensive line worthy of a championship caliber roster.
All things considered, which position is most in need of more competition?