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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation Part VII: Offensive Line

The pieces and coaching are all there- finally!

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New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In the seventh installment of my Vikings Offseason Evaluation series, I’ll breakdown the Vikings’ offensive line position group. Previous installment links are here:

Part I: Offensive Overview

Part II: Quarterbacks

Part III: Special Teams

Part IV: Defensive Overview

Part V: Wide Receivers

Part VI: Running Backs

Breaking Down the Vikings Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line has finally arrived as at least an above average unit. It’s been a long time coming. At the start of the season, every Vikings’ starting offensive lineman was a first- or second-round pick. But most of those picks- the interior linemen- struggled their first few years- Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, and Ed Ingram. But under the coaching of Chris Kuper, they’ve managed to improve to be roughly average, while tackles Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw have become one of the best tackle tandems in the league.

Chris Kuper deserves a lot of credit for coaching-up this group. Wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell gets more attention, but Kuper has arguably made the biggest impact among position coaches since becoming the Vikings’ offensive line coach last year. Kuper is a former NFL guard who Kevin O’Connell acquired from the Broncos, where he had been assistant OL coach under Mike Munchak, one of the best offensive line coaches in the league over the past decade and a HoF guard himself. Kuper is assisted by Justin Rascati.

Kuper helped Garrett Bradbury earn a contract extension last season and had made progress with Ezra Cleveland before he was traded just before the trade deadline this season. He’s also helped make Christian Darrisaw one of the best tackles in the league. But even more than that, you can see the improvement when the backups come in. Last season, Oli Udoh- who had previously struggled at guard- came in and gave up just three hurries in 118 pass blocking snaps in relief of Brian O’Neill the last few games. And this season, 33 year-old David Quessenberry came in and allowed just one sack in 231 pass blocking snaps. Austin Schlottmann had his best season from a PFF grade standpoint this year in relief of Garrett Bradbury, including a big improvement in pass blocking. Blake Brandel was moved to guard where he was decent in relief of Ed Ingram, although he got exposed a bit in the last Lions game. But overall, there has been across-the-board improvement that only comes from better coaching.

Moving On From Ezra Cleveland

The Vikings picked up Dalton Risner, who had been a free agent the entire off-season, on September 19th, who had worked with Kuper in Denver for a few seasons. That led to speculation about whether he’d replace Ed Ingram or Ezra Cleveland. Ingram was the worse performer at the time, but in the end the Vikings decided to trade Cleveland shortly before the trade deadline and replaced him with Risner- who played left guard in Denver.

The decision to trade Cleveland was a bit surprising. He struggled in pass protection since being drafted but was making a bit of progress early this season. And he graded well as a run blocker. The thought was if he was able to improve like Bradbury did the previous year, he may get a modest extension. But Vikings beat reporter Darren Wolfson reported at the end of training camp that the Vikings had not had any discussions with Cleveland regarding an extension, even though he was in his last year under his rookie contract.

The reason for the trade may have been that the Vikings saw limited upside to Cleveland, or that they might not be able to retain him if they wanted- Wolfson reported that Cleveland may want to go back to playing tackle- which he played in college. Whatever the reason, Kuper knew Risner well from his time in Denver and was comfortable replacing Cleveland with him. The Vikings traded Cleveland and the half-season remaining on his rookie contract to Jacksonville for a sixth-round draft pick this year. Cleveland had a 72.3 PFF pass blocking grade while with the Vikings this season, but that dropped to 43.6 over the seven games- including five starts- he had for the Jaguars.

Offensive Line Performance

Overall, the Vikings offensive line significantly improved this season by most measures, particularly in pass protection, but there is still plenty of room for improvement in run blocking. Below are composite offensive line rankings based on PFF grades (40%), SIS blown block percentage (40%) and ESPN’s pass block win rate (20%). By this composite measure, the Vikings pass protection ranked 2nd overall while run blocking came in at 21st overall.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Vikings’ offensive line 12th best this season overall but noted that over the last eight weeks of the season, they gave up the sixth most QB pressures. Part of that may have been due to late season injuries to Brian O’Neill and Ed Ingram, but most of that was due to having backup quarterbacks. All three backups the Vikings used to replace Kirk Cousins the last half of the season had a longer time to throw than Cousins, and holding the ball longer results in more pressures allowed. There is also a familiarity dynamic between a quarterback and offensive line after playing together for a while that can result in less pressures. The offensive line develops a sense of how a quarterback responds to pressure and how they move and position themselves in the pocket, while a quarterback becomes familiar with the blocking tendencies and so forth of their offensive linemen. Those little nuances can make a difference in the number of pressures.

From a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grading standpoint, here is how the Vikings offensive lineman graded this season:

Looking Ahead to 2024

Expect continuity for the Vikings offensive line next season. The only starter not under contract is new-comer Dalton Risner, and all signs point to his being extended in a Garrett Bradbury-type deal. Risner has made it clear he wants to be back with the Vikings early in the new league year, and I would expect a deal to be done early in the league year. Risner was one of only four guards with over 400 pass blocking snaps that didn’t give up a sack this season, although he did give up 30 pressures including 11 QB hits.

Christian Darrisaw is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but the Vikings will likely exercise the 5th year option on Darrisaw’s rookie contract as a first-round pick this offseason, which will keep him under contract through 2025. Next year they can work out a multi-year extension for Darrisaw, who has become one of the best left tackles in the league.

Beyond Risner and Darrisaw, the Vikings would be wise to sign backups Oli Udoh, David Quessenberry, Austin Schlottmann and Chris Reed to basically league-minimum extensions. Udoh and Quessenberry performed well as backup tackles for the Vikings, and Schlottmann did too. Reed didn’t play much but he can also play center or guard, which adds value. Blake Brandel is a RFA, but any sort of tender offer for Brandel would be more than he’s worth as a backup guard/tackle who was the worst performing of the backups this season. They could still decline the RFA option and attempt to sign him to a lesser deal after the tender offer deadline in mid-March on a league-minimum contract.

The Vikings have also signed guard Henry Bryd to a futures contract- effectively the 2024 practice squad. Bryd was a UDFA the Vikings signed after the Broncos released him. He gave up only one hurry in 36 pass blocking snaps at left guard during the 2023 preseason, while also grading well (82.3) in run blocking and overall (81.9) according to PFF. He’s listed as 6’5”, 310 pounds. Bryd, out of Princeton, is also a great athlete (9.8 RAS at guard) with great length too (33.625” arms). He could prove good competition at guard. He played left guard in preseason last year. The Vikings also signed guards Coy Cronk and Tyrese Stevenson to futures contracts. Stevenson in particular had a good preseason with Philadelphia as a UDFA, while Cronk has improved each year in preseason after being a UDFA originally signed by the Packers but also has been with the Jaguars. Stevenson played right guard in preseason last year.

Ideally, the Vikings could have a particular backup for each of the five positions- perhaps Udoh, Bryd, Schlottmann or Reed, Stevenson, and Quessenberry, depending on how the practice squad guys pan out. They can then practice at one position mostly, cross train at the opposite guard/tackle position, or in the case of center, guard positions.

Bottom Line

The Vikings offensive line showed a lot of improvement this season and is now among the better units in the league in pass protection. They still have weaknesses among the interior linemen, but those weak links have strengthened while they have one of the best tackle duos in the league. They also have a good offensive line coach in Chris Kuper, who has led the improvement of this group.

It shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive for the Vikings to extend Dalton Risner, which would likely result in complete continuity next season among starters, barring a surprise among backups.

The area for Chris Kuper and the Vikings to focus on with this group during the offseason is to improve their run blocking while continuing to solidify their pass blocking- particularly among interior linemen.

But bottom line, the future is looking up for the Vikings offensive line unit, as they appear to have both a good coach and top players at the premium tackle positions, and good-enough players with some upside on the interior.


PFF ranked the Vikings offensive line as the 12th best unit this season. How will they rank next season?

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