Vikings

Day 6-8 Notebook: Quarterbacks and the Offensive Line

The Vikings topped off a phenomenal night practice with fireworks, but it was explosive playmaking that was the focus of the fans and the offense as they set up to resolve the most obvious area of improvement for Minnesota’s offense: playmaking and pass protection.

The offense, though adequate, is clearly relatively behind the defense. In order to make the team versatile and resilient, the offense needs to improve, and head coach Mike Zimmer has identified a few ways to do that.


Quarterbacks

Teddy Bridgewater started training camp by raining bombs all over the field to a number of receivers, but as the pads came on, the looks the defense gave were less receptive to deep shots and the offense reined it in. Concurrent with that was a dropoff in Bridgewater’s deep ball accuracy in camp, and though it still looked better than what we saw in the season (which I should remind you was overwrought—Bridgewater was in the unique situation of being both bad at the deep ball and underrated at it at the same time), it was a bit disappointing after such a strong start.

Since then, that deep passing has recovered both in frequency and quality. There’s such good play on these patterns that I’m almost optimistic enough to say he’ll be above average in this area come the regular season. That seems too big an improvement and too bold a prediction that I’ll walk that back and just argue that it will get decisively better.

It’s becoming old hat to talk about this quality of his—whether it’s improving, whether it’s important, whether it’s on display, etc. etc. But you keep asking, so I keep telling.

The deep ball isn’t the only thing on his checklist, just the most obvious. Vikings fans and the Vikings internally have emphasized a few things for the offense, many of which Bridgewater is responsible for.

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Those other things were covered well in the night scrimmage (and in the piece recapping the night scrimmage) but having the benefit of watching Days 6 and 7, we may have some more context to bring to bear.

We also know that the offense has been working on improving itself in two-minute situations and red zone efficiency while we can reasonably suspect that Teddy Bridgewater specifically is working on a quicker release, a cleaner throwing motion and post-snap adjustment and diagnosis.

While I’ve become very confident that Bridgewater has improved his deep ball accuracy, I’m less confident in his red zone efficiency. While his night practice performance was probably statistically efficient—with three touchdowns to one turnover in red zone play—his overall performance that night and the previous two practices is a little more suspect.

This isn’t true of his overall performance in camp; he’s been good in prior red zone practices, after all. But in the most recent days of practice, he’s either declined open options underneath or placed the ball poorly in contested situations in the end zone.

While I’m not sure the turnovers are likely to repeat in game as often as they have in camp (and therefore preserve the Vikings’ ability to kick field goals), it is a concern if they cannot produce touchdowns in tight spaces.

The typical response to this has been that, “at least the Vikings have the best running back in the league,” and that’s… glib. It’s not enough. Not only because Peterson is clearly no longer the best running back in the league despite still being quite a good runner, but also because that hasn’t done anything for the Vikings’ ability to close in the red zone.

If you combine every year that Peterson has been with the team while with a quarterback with poor red zone efficiency—basically, every year since 2010 aside from the one he missed in 2014—the Vikings rank 26th in touchdown rate in the red zone.

And hey, Christian Ponder was actually really good in the red zone in 2011, and without that season the Vikings rank 29th.

Photo Credit: Luke Inman
Photo Credit: Luke Inman

So having a world-class running back doesn’t make you automatically good in the red zone. And I’m not sure the Vikings have a world-class running back anymore anyway.

In two-minute situations, Bridgewater has been unable to finish, including during the night practice. I’m not sure this is as persistent a problem as the red zone stuff (just like Bridgewater’s overall interception rate in camp is not only low but misleading because many are not really his fault), but it does mean they aren’t checking off this box that well.

Still, the offense has been doing a good job moving the ball in these drills and getting well within comfortable field goal range (that is, if Vikings fans ever feel comfortable in field goal situations ever again). So, we can call this a mixed bag.

I’ve covered Bridgewater’s mechanics and release before. Nothing has changed since then. Again, that would make the checklist a mixed bag.

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As for post-snap adjustment and diagnosis, this was not an enormous problem last year and it seems like it’s gotten better. While it’s true that Bridgewater was a little too trusting of his (usually excellent) pre-snap diagnosis, it has created trouble for him—most notably with Ricardo Allen’s remarkable interception in the Falcons game.

This one is a little difficult to really dig into, especially because the defense is largely giving vanilla looks, but aside from a few plays (including one on a Treadwell highlight from the night practice that led me into a weird debate over what kind of bad decision Bridgewater made was making), it seems like he’s improved here, too. Given that he’s also been more adept manipulating defenses with his eyes, he’s also creating additional room for himself he didn’t in the past.

Those two skills work part and parcel with each other, and I would mark this as a positive. We’ll know a little more after the preseason.

In the night practice, Shaun Hill definitively continued the improvement arc he showcased over the past several days. That improvement is something I’ve consistently noted, but remained concerned about. His performance in the night practice was his best in camp yet, and he made great decisions, demonstrated zip in short and intermediate passes, and did well throwing into tight windows.

Aside from that, he managed the offense well in situational drills. With all that in mind, it pays to remember how utterly bad he was before this.

If Shaun Hill in the regular season is like Shaun Hill last night, I don’t have complaints. If he’s anything like his other performances—even the improved version from recent practices—then he’s not exactly a top backup option.

Joel Stave was bad.

 


Offensive Line

“Starters”

The starters are essentially decided, except for center, so we’ll devote this subsection to the six players competing for the five available spots and assume T.J. Clemmings is a second-team right tackle for now.

Matt Kalil may be looking better than he has in a long time, but that doesn’t mean he’s looking good. Everson Griffen, who you’ll see a lot of in the clips above, is abusing him and I don’t think it’s just because Griffen is very good (though he is). I was asked about this a few times, and if Griffen were as good as Von Miller, he shouldn’t be getting by Kalil as much as he is if Kalil were as good as a merely “average” left tackle. He’s playing very poorly.

I will say that Kalil seems to be playing much better in the run game and continues to move well on screen passes, but I’m not sure that really makes up for the pessimism I have about his pass quality protection. He pancaked Griffen during the night practice, moved well in traps and pulls, and overall seems to be a much more physical player.

It is even possible that he becomes a better run blocker than pass protector, which would be a very unusual turn for his career to take, but not altogether awful.

Alex Boone is one of the few offensive linemen with a better pure one-on-one success rate and has the highest such rate among first-team linemen. Again, Boone is far and away the best offensive lineman and I don’t think that surprises anyone. On Day 6, he did struggle more often than he did the rest of camp, but that’s to be expected. He and Kalil also have communication work they need to get down. They did well in half-line drills when they knew the defensive line was twisting, but did poorly in elevens handling pickups. The biggest mistakes in pickup communication were probably on Boone, honestly.

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Before Brandon Fusco’s stinger, I thought he was playing well but not necessarily at a high level. That’s definitely an upgrade over how he played last year at the left guard position, so I think most people would take it, especially in light of Mike Harris’ indefinite absence due to injury. From a pure success rate standpoint, without adjusting for competition, Fusco was the fourth-most successful offensive lineman in one-on-ones.

The contest between Joe Berger and John Sullivan is pretty day-to-day from my perspective. Berger’s success rate is only marginally higher than Sullivan’s, but Sullivan’s failures seem more pronounced, if that makes any sense. Often, Sullivan losing a rep means being bullrushed back into the quarterback or letting the defensive tackle run free. For Berger, the DT is half-free and can extend his arm to get to the quarterback but will often have to fight through it.

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That sounds pretty bad, but it isn’t as bad as all that. Sullivan and Berger would rarely be one-on-one against a nose tackle, and if so, almost never one as talented as Linval Joseph. While there are certain looks against which they’ll be forced in zone running situations to do this, they’ll likely often check out of those plays.

Plus, Berger played well at guard with Fusco out. It’s possible that with Berger in the rotation at guard and Fusco as possible center-guard depth, the team could be better. In fact, I may even argue that it’s likely despite Fusco’s clear improvement over last year.

It should be noted that Berger isn’t winning all of his blocks either, which is what makes this camp battle so close. He lost some pretty important matchups as a guard in the night practice, including against Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson, not just Floyd and Joseph.

Against Shamar Stephen, both do much better (though not by as much as I thought—Stephen is doing well), so the elevens may be a better way to evaluate their play.

Andre Smith continues to be up-and-down for me, but I have to say his recent play of late has been very encouraging. In the nine plays I have detailed video for from the night practice, Smith gave up pressure once. He also did well in the most recent one-on-one drills from Day 6, winning every rep.

That’s not to say he has been perfect or anything like that, but it’s much-improved.

Depth

Photo Credit: Luke Inman
Photo Credit: Luke Inman

T.J. Clemmings is much better than he was last year, and I expect to see that improvement in the preseason. He still has a long way to go before he’s game-ready, just like last year when he played in actual games. His run blocking may be the biggest improvement—something a lot of people assumed he’d be naturally good at last year, but was not.

He’s still struggling against both Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter, but also has had struggles against Zach Moore and occasionally Scott Crichton. In one-on-one battles, he’s doing much better than last year, where he was one of the worst linemen on either side of the ball in camp.

This kind of progress is the stuff that makes me continue to feel that Clemmings was a good pick, and I’m glad he’s improving.

I don’t have the same confidence in Jeremiah Sirles, though it should be noted his past few days have been fantastic. Generally speaking, he’s played poorly in camp, both in elevens and one-on-ones, but he’s been much better as of late. He’s lined up against a variety of linemen, and that’s really given us a good range of ways to evaluate him, but we still don’t know if he’s benefited from genuine improvement or just a small spike in play.

It’s not just his pass-blocking that’s improved, either. He’s been a good run blocker and had some pretty dominant second-level blocks in the night practice.

In the most recent walkthrough (this morning), Sirles and Clemmings switched sides. It will be interesting to see if this changes anything, but I doubt it.

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After a strong initial start, I haven’t seen much lately to like from Willie Beavers. Even his strongest assets pre-draft aren’t showing up, like his phenomenal grip strength. He’s losing reps against nearly everybody and doesn’t look as good at guard against the same defensive linemen as Zac Kerin on the other side or the two guards “below” him on the depth chart.

Perhaps it’s my bias against him showing up, but I really don’t see what value he brings in depth, even if he is in theory versatile. In fairness, he should improve as he masters more of the differences between playing guard and tackle, as well as generally improve because that’s what players do, but to me he is currently the worst-performing guard in camp.

Speaking of guards below him on the depth chart, I haven’t written much about Austin Shepherd—which sucks because he’s one of my favorite non-starting offensive linemen. In a way, that’s good because it means I haven’t been noticing screw-ups from his end, but it does a disservice to one of the better performers in camp. He has the best success rate I’ve logged in the one-on-one drills. In fairness, that doesn’t quite hold up in full padded practices, but he’s done well there, too.

In some of the padded practices, he’s asked to do a little more, like a kickout block in pass protection, or folding over the top to functionally act as a tackle, and that may be part of the issue, too.

Austin Shepherd simply looks much better at tackle than he does at guard. He doesn’t look terrible as a guard, but he seems to play much more naturally at the tackle position despite the fact that the Vikings drafted him to play guard—his athletic limitations relative to other tackles don’t necessarily mean he can do well as an interior linemen.

It should be noted that head coach Mike Zimmer has said several times (most recently a few days ago) that the compressed space for interior linemen means those players will need to demonstrate better quickness and reaction times. His Day 7 was perhaps his worst day in my eyes, but overall I thought he’s performed well against most of the players he’s lined up against.

There’s a feeling that he will likely be cut, but that would be a mistake to me. As much as Willie Beavers has “upside” and movement ability—especially as a guard—I think that Shepherd has more versatility, capability, and upside. Upside is not just defined by athleticism, but the overall ability to grow as a player and the heights of play a player can reach. Because that also includes the ability to incorporate improvements, a mental skill, players like Shepherd have hidden upside that’s not accounted for.

Still, should Shepherd be cut, he would be an ideal addition to the practice squad, along with Jeremiah Sirles. Should Shepherd be playing left tackle with the twos above Sirles instead of right guard with the threes? I think so, but Sirles’ recent improvement in play over the past few days may make it harder for Shepherd to make that case. In any case, if the Vikings are intent on making him a guard, he should be playing above Willie Beavers on the second team.

The Vikings have seen a lot to like from former Toledo center Zac Kerin and played him at guard quite a bit in last year’s preseason. It seems like they’ve transitioned him fully to guard this year, though he did play reps at center when Fusco was out—because Berger played guard with the ones, moving Kerin to center.

Kerin started out well, especially in one-on-ones, but seems to have flagged a bit as camp has gone on. He wasn’t noticeable (a good thing) during the night scrimmage, but in the previous two practices, he had a bit more trouble containing the pocket. I still think he’s likely their favorite depth guard after Berger, but he’ll have to show in the preseason because nothing is guaranteed for him.

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On the third team, tackles Carter Bykowski and Sean Hickey are holding down the fort, which is to say that they aren’t doing much at all. While I’m surprised that Sean Hickey has been performing as poorly as he has given my relative, cautious optimism about him—but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, given that he was signed the day before training camp started in earnest.

Bykowski has been the worst offensive linemen in camp through one-on-one drills, and though he’s performed better in elevens, I still don’t think there’s really any room for him. He not only false-started during elevens in the night game, and he’s been handily abused by about every defensive end except Theiren Cockran (which is not notable, as I’m not sure I’ve even seen one rep where Cockran won a one-on-one battle).

The third team offensive line is expected to be pretty poor, which is why I’m surprised I like two players on it. Aside from Shepherd, I really think center Nick Easton has performed very well at the center position. It kind of sucks that it’s the center position that he’s showing at, given that the Vikings have Sullivan, Berger, Kerin and possibly Fusco ready and willing to play those spots, but there’s a good possibility that Sullivan and Berger are gone next year—making Easton a great practice squad stash if he can clear waivers.

He’s moved up to the second level extremely well and won his blocks there against the third-team linebackers, which includes some pretty alright players, like Kentrell Brothers and Brandon Watts. He’s won pass- and run-blocking battles at least once against each of the defensive tackles on the bottom of the roster—Kenrick Ellis, Travis Raciti, Toby Johnson, Scott Crichton, Claudell Lewis, and so on—in both one-on-one drills and in elevens.

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And maybe I’m optimistic about Isame Faciane, too. After converting from Shamar Stephen’s position—a hybrid nose/three-technique—to guard, he looked predictably awful there last year. He did enough to earn a practice squad spot, which I think exceeds expectations for any undrafted position switch player, and since then seems to have improved.

I thought there were some particularly notably good plays from him in the night practice, especially as he was run-blocking. His pass protection is still weak, but it is at least better than Sirles, Bykowski and Hickey.

This doesn’t mean I would take him on the roster above Willie Beavers, but I think this is an extremely positive development for him. After we all re-review the new practice squad rules to see if he’s eligible, I’ll be curious to see if the Vikings roster him there again.


Has the offensive line seemingly improved? I think so. I don’t think it will improve to the level of “average” for the next year, but I think there are a lot of encouraging signs. I also think the developmental depth this year is underrated. With players like Kerin, Easton, Clemmings, Shepherd and possibly Faciane improving and possibly ready to take the next step, the Vikings may have created a fertile talent pool to draw from in future years.

That said, the actual game-ready depth is a huge worry, which isn’t a surprise after Mike Harris’ illness-induced absence and Phil Loadholt’s retirement. Even if the Vikings agreed with me about Shepherd’s play-readiness and if Kerin has in fact already taken that next step, there are serious questions about what the Vikings would do if a tackle went down. I don’t trust Beavers or Clemmings in those positions, and though I’m optimistic about Shepherd, I’m still apprehensive about a situation where he goes from third-team OL in camp to starter because of an injury.

This could be all we’ve a right to expect or ask for, and maybe that’s all we need from this group in order to see gains for the offense overall.

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