The Vikings have (hopefully) completed a long and painfully slow rebuilding of their offensive line, which now features two first-round, two second-round, and one third-round draft pick as presumed starters. In theory, these five guys – Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Wyatt Davis, and Brian O’Neill – could be the Vikings starting offensive line for the better part of the next decade, given their youth and that offensive linemen careers can extend well into their 30s in some cases.
It’s comforting to think that this year’s additions to the Vikings offensive line- Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis – will replace Riley Reiff at left tackle with a quality starter, and bump Dakota Dozier out of the starting lineup with a plug-and-play guard.
But are those reasonable expectations?
There is every reason to believe that both Darrisaw and Davis will be plug-and-play starters for the Vikings at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Both have three solid years experience playing in a Power-5 conference against quality competition, including last season, which is important too. Many college players opted out or had their season cancelled last year, which creates more uncertainty as they transition to the NFL. Darrisaw and Davis aren’t among them.
Both rookies also will be playing the same position they played in college with the Vikings, which makes the transition easier, and both come from similar schemes. They both graded well when healthy, and they both have good size and length for their position, which also helps in making the transition to the NFL.
But on the other hand, rookie offensive linemen are seldom better than league-average performers, and the list of below-average performers is a lot longer than the average or better list, even for first-round draft picks.
Attempting to Project Darrisaw’s and Davis’ Rookie Seasons
I don’t think it’s out-of-line to project Darrisaw and Davis rookie years as similar to Brian O’Neill or Ezra Cleveland, for comparison sake, even though they are different players. It may be better to use Brian O’Neill, given that Cleveland didn’t have an off/pre-season to prepare, and had kind of a trial by fire early on, compared to O’Neill. Both Darrisaw and Davis have the advantage of better size than O’Neill, and will be playing their same position, while O’Neill went from left to right tackle.
But if we use O’Neill as a comparison, who was a late 2nd round draft pick, compared with Darrrisaw as a 1st rounder and Davis a 3rd rounder, O’Neill gave up a total of 31 pressures as a rookie, 0 sacks, 8 hits, and 23 hurries, in 14 games. It may be a bit optimistic that neither Darrisaw or Davis give up any sacks as a rookie, but let’s go with O’Neill’s 35 pressures allowed anyway, adjusting for a 16 game season, and compare that to last year. But, O’Neill’s rookie season was the John DeFilippo fiasco season, with more passing attempts and less play-action than Kubiak’s scheme, so if we discount pressures by 20%- 10% fewer pass attempts and 10% more play-action (much lower sack rate), that gives us 28 pressures. That would be a half-dozen or so more pressures than the best rookie tackles last season, and not out-of-line with better tackles in their rookie seasons the past few years. Same with rookie guards.
Riley Reiff gave up a total of 21 pressures last season over 15 games last season, or roughly 22 over 16 games. That’s 6 fewer than projected for Darrisaw in this exercise. However, Dakota Dozier, who Wyatt Davis would effectively replace, gave up 46 pressures over 16 games last season, so if Davis gave up 28 as well, that would be a total of 18 fewer pressures. Overall, that’s a net of 12 fewer pressures compared to last season.
In terms of run blocking, it’s more difficult to project tangible results there, but Dozier was also not a good run blocker, grading out at 52.3 in that skill last season. Reiff was a bit better, but still only a 60.8 grade there. Christian Darrisaw had a 94.5 run blocking grade last season at Virginia Tech, so discounting that down to 70 as a rookie in the NFL doesn’t seem out-of-line. Davis was injured the last part of last year, which effected his grade, but his overall grade was 82 the season prior, and discounting that down to 65 as a rookie in the NFL seems about right as well, for somewhat realistic projection purposes. Ezra Cleveland had a 67.5 run blocking grade last year, for comparison. Overall, those discounted grades would be an improvement in run blocking for the Vikings, and presumably that leads to an improvement in rushing yards per carry of some amount.
Beyond that, there are the other three offensive linemen.
LG Ezra Cleveland
Cleveland has come into OTAs bigger and stronger, which is promising for his development this year. We don’t know yet how much bigger and stronger, but adding size and strength will only help him in the trenches. I would imagine he’s at least 315 pounds now, given he was listed at 309 as a rookie. 320 would be great. He’s 6’6”, so he’s got the frame to add that weight.
Cleveland will move from right to left guard this season, but that’s less of a move than from left tackle to right guard, where he hadn’t played before, which he made his rookie year- and without an off/pre-season preparation.
Cleveland gave up 23 pressures in 9 games last season, which is 41 pressures over a 16 game season. I expect that to improve quite a bit, as he is more used to playing in guard in the NFL, has an off/pre-season for development, and is now bigger and stronger. Allowing ten fewer pressures than last year, over a 16 game season for comparison, would give him 31 pressures.
Cleveland had a 67.5 run blocking grade last season, pretty good for a rookie, and I expect him to improve upon that this season, maybe to around 75 or so.
C Garrett Bradbury
Bradbury has struggled in pass blocking, with grades of 41.4 and 38.8 in his first two seasons. He was looking at least a bit better last season, during the first half or so, but Mike Zimmer reported he struggled with some injuries late in the season which effected his performance. He had shown up on the weekly injury report on several occasions, but remained the starter. Bradbury gave up a total of 29 pressures last season, and as a rookie, so I’m not going to make a big projection in terms of improvement, going down to 25 pressures this season.
Bradbury did show progress as a run blocker from year one (60.7 grade) to year two (69.3 grade) and I would expect him to continue his improvement to a 75 grade, maybe more with two (hopefully) better run blockers next to him. Again, hard to quantify how that helps the run game, but improved run blocking from most offensive linemen could lead to more yards per carry, and more favorable down-and-distance situations, and therefore some easier passing situations too. We’ll see.
RT Brian O’Neill
O’Neill stayed about the same in terms of pass blocking grade last season compared to a year earlier, but gave up 4 more pressures. I look for modest improvement from O’Neill here, and take him back to his year 2 pressure total – 22 – from 26 a year ago.
As a run blocker, O’Neill has jumped every year, going from a 58.3 grade, to 70.2, and then to 83.7 last season. I’m assuming he’ll hold steady as a run blocker, and maintain roughly the same grade.
Overall, these are not pessimistic projections, but hopefully realistic ones based on previous performance and averages for rookies. But how does that effect things overall?
In total, I projected 30 fewer pressures than last year, if it were a 16 game season for comparison. That would translate into a pass blocking efficiency that goes from 30th ranked last season, to around 20th or so this season. In terms of pass blocking efficiency, that would take the Vikings from 82.9% to around 86% or so this season. In terms of improvement, that’s about halfway to becoming a top 10 offensive line in pass protection. That’s a more workable situation for Kirk Cousins- similar to what Josh Allen had in Buffalo last season- and could certainly lead to improvement from #8. But the big thing about the changes to the offensive line this season, if they work out as projected, is that the weakest link will be strengthened, which makes a bigger difference than strengthening already strong links in the offensive line chain.
In terms of run blocking, the Vikings offensive overall graded out at 65.7 last season according to PFF, which was 18th overall. With the changes this season, they could move into the top 10 run blocking units in the league, which could have positive effects that reverberate to other aspects of the Vikings offense. The Vikings ranked 4th last season in rushing yards per attempt, at 4.9 yards per carry, and an improved run-blocking line could bring that up to 5.2 or so, which would’ve tied the Titans last season for 2nd. Being that efficient running the ball, and with Dalvin Cook a home run threat, may force opposing defenses to do more to honor the run, which in turn can open the passing game more, and make play-action more effective. It can also lead to easier down-and-distance situations, which in turn also makes it easier on the passing game to be effective.
The biggest thing is for the starters to stay healthy over what is now a 17 game season- no easy task. The Vikings have decent depth at tackle in Rashod Hill and Oli Udoh, but interior depth is more suspect. Mason Cole and Dakota Dozier could be the primary interior depth players, and that represents more downside if they’re called on for extended duty.
Bottom line, there is reason for guarded optimism for the Vikings offensive line this season, but going from a liability to a strength overall, particularly in pass protection, may be a bit too optimistic. We’ll see.