The offensive and defensive line battles are always the highlight of padded practices to me. They best embody the physical nature of football and highlight an aspect of play that we all seem to agree is critical but have a difficult time watching in live broadcasts.
The Vikings, in particular, have an interesting dynamic with their trench play. The defensive line could be the best in the NFL while the offensive line is attempting to pull itself together to make sure it’s not one of the worst.
To that end, I’ve been logging success and failure in the one-on-one drills to see which linemen stand out, combining it with what I can see in team drills to give an update on camp performance.
Standing out more than anyone else is Everson Griffen. He’s won rep after rep in team drills and one-on-one and consistently gets to the quarterback (or orange cone representing the quarterback). He’s won on inside moves, outside moves, with bull rushes and so on. Griffen has blown up running plays and interrupted passing lanes. He’s been dominant.
Danielle Hunter has been showing as well. The Vikings have been switching he and Griffen from right to left throughout camp and both have been successful attacking either side. Hunter has been winning with speed in camp mostly, which isn’t to say he hasn’t demonstrated excellent bend, too. He hasn’t been nearly as successful as Griffen in one-on-ones, but his losses have been close and his wins pretty big.
Probably the most successful one-on-one player has been Linval Joseph. That’s to be expected, given that his role demands double-teams and one-on-ones inherently do not create that opportunity. He’s won every rep against the centers and many of them pretty easily. More important is his performance in 11-on-11 drills, where he’s done a good job with his primary duty: keeping the linebackers clean against the run.
Eric Kendricks has been adept at creating tackles near or behind the line of scrimmage and a good chunk of that responsibility can be given to Joseph, who has demanded enough attention that the guards are having some difficulty getting free and into the second level. Not that anyone was worried, but Joseph certainly seems to be maintaining his form.
The three-technique battle isn’t getting much play from a lot of media, and that’s a little understandable but disappointing. Right now the competition seems to solely be between Tom Johnson and Datone Jones. If first-team reps are any indication, Johnson is the favorite of the two.
As far as the one-on-one drills go, Jones is doing a better job. In fairness, there have only been about four reps for each — but the quality of their competition is not too different. Johnson has played against Alex Boone three times and Joe Berger once while Jones has taken reps against Boone once, Berger twice and Austin Shepherd once.
To his credit, Jones demolished Shepherd on that rep, and the other three reps against the starting offensive line were OK — a win and two close losses. Johnson had issues with Boone and didn’t look as powerful of a pass-rusher as Jones did against the same competition. Not only that, Johnson logged two penalties in those drills responding to hard counts.
I think in eleven-on-eleven drills that Jones looked better as well, especially against the run. While there’s no sign yet that Jones is anything more than an average three technique tackle, there’s little sign he’s much less than that as well. At the moment, that’s a pretty good sign for a player who is more well-rounded than the nickel specialist Johnson.
The next-most relevant player is probably Brian Robison. Robison looks bigger than last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were planning on using him like the Bengals used Wallace Gilberry when Zimmer was with them — a defensive end/tackle that was used to fill in the defensive tackle depth problem that developed for the Bengals one year but ended up becoming an effective rotational option. He’s rushed up the middle as often as he has outside, though usually as a stand-up player.
He has had occasion to beat Mike Remmers, Nick Easton, Berger and Jeremiah Sirles, with his only loss in one-on-ones, strangely to Willie Beavers. He’s done a good job disrupting the interior in nickel situations and has generated pretty significant pressure throughout camp.
Stephen Weatherly looks like the primary backup defensive end and seems to have slotted himself into the fourth defensive end spot despite spending most of the year on the practice squad last year. He hasn’t been as good in one-on-ones as I’d have hoped and only has one winning rep, against Shepherd. There aren’t many notes of his performances in eleven-on-eleven drills, which likely he means he hasn’t made much headway there. Despite all of that, the general impression I have of him is mildly positive — though that could be built on a successful first few days in rookie camp, as there’s not much he’s done since the pads have come on.
The second-team nose tackle has been Shamar Stephen and were it not for his excellent performances in camp so far, I’d have expected Jaleel Johnson to have supplanted his spot on the depth chart at this point. Stephen has been excellent at keeping the linebackers clean against the second-string offensive line, and it’s fairly clear that his natural position is at the nose. He hasn’t won much in one-on-ones and has a few penalties in those drills, too. Hopefully, any disparity between his team drill performance and his individual drill performance gets cleared up one way or the other so it becomes easier to see what happens—he should be doing better against the centers than he is.
The standouts among the third-string defensive line are Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Odenigbo, unfortunately, fell prey to an injury, but before then was doing extremely well. He has been burning Aviante Collins in team drills, and does well on inside twists. He consistently sheds the opposing tackle for a stop in the run game and can seem to get around the edge with some quickness.
Bower has been doing well, too. He’s been beating up on Sirles and in team drills has generated several tackles for loss and has created some pressure, too. I’ve only logged two one-on-one drills with Bower, and they sort of cancel each other out — a win against Sirles and a loss to Collins — but his presence in team drills is clear.
Both Bower and Odenigbo seem like better run-stoppers than pass-rushers, but I would give the edge to Odenigbo between the two because he seems more consistently capable of generating a pass rush.
Sam McCaskill has been asked to step into Odenigbo’s place and I can tell that he’d been relegated to the fourth string for a reason. He hasn’t been that impressive and has been one of the worst performers in individual drills. He’s been thrown to the ground and hasn’t made up for any of his disadvantages with speed or agility.
The third-string defensive tackles have some interesting names as well. Jaleel Johnson is the most intriguing, as the fourth-round pick. In team drills, he’s done a good job controlling the point of attack and has made good plays against Freddie Tagaloa, Zac Kerin and Danny Isidora, including at least one quarterback “sack.”
He hasn’t won many individual reps in the OL-DL drills, but he also hasn’t lost by much, crowding the pocket even on reps where he’s lost. Every rep for him seems to be very close to a win and his team play showcases good overall ability. He gets his hands up when the ball is about to leave the pocket and can create pass breakups there, too.
Between Will Sutton, Chunky Clements and Dylan Bradley, Sutton has been getting more snaps but has also run hot-and-cold. On some days, he looks slow and unlikely to push the pocket. On other days, he generates a sack and a pass breakup in the first 30 minutes of practice. Overall, he’s been an average performer in individual drills against below-average competition, with more liabilities than assets in team drills.
Bradley and Clements have both had pretty limited reps in team drills and one-on-ones, and they’ve been about equal. I’ve noticed more movement from Bradley, but also a higher likelihood of getting pushed out of run plays. Neither of them stuck out to me too much positively or negatively.
If you’ve read enough about the defensive ends, you probably are getting a sense of how the tackles are performing in camp. Without Riley Reiff healthy, it’s generally difficult to get a sense of how big the problem really is — two bad offensive linemen is twice as bad as one bad offensive lineman and possibly even worse than that after taking into account schematic considerations.
Remmers has had two fairly awful days and one pretty good day, which kind of feels like a summary of his career. Constantly burned in pass protection by one of two speedy defensive ends, Remmers hasn’t shown much in team drills that will instill confidence in Vikings fans. He’s certainly been an able run blocker, which is clearly an upgrade from before, but there are certainly occasions where he’ll lock on to a linebacker and let them disengage too early.
When he’s aggressive in pass protection, it seems like he can succeed. He had the very first rep I saw in one-on-ones and it was against Hunter. He won the rep by finding a way to punch first despite a length disadvantage and closing the gap faster than Hunter expected. But for the most part, he’s been an able run defender with pass protection issues.
As for Rashod Hill, I think what we’ve seen of him has been largely positive in the team setting, and he seems to be outplaying what may be expected of a backup offensive tackle. That said, he’s still getting toasted by the talented defensive ends the Vikings throw at him on a somewhat consistent basis, especially in one-on-ones. He’s performing better than Remmers is in those drills but he’s really outshining him in team drills, where he’s done an able, though not fully satisfactory, job of keeping the pocket clear of pressure.
Were I to evaluate him as a starter, I’d be disappointed. If and when Reiff is healthy, the Vikings may want to consider a right tackle competition between Rashod Hill and Remmers despite having just signed Remmers to a five-year deal.
By far the best offensive lineman is Boone. He’s only lost one rep in individual drills and in team drills is doing a good job showing movement and power, pulling on runs to either lay influence blocks or lead power-type plays and meeting linebackers at the line of scrimmage. That movement is good to see, and even though he’ll lose every so often to Tom Johnson, he’s generally been the aggressor and has been pretty good about creating running lanes and preventing the pocket from collapsing.
Berger, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be playing to the level he had last year. I don’t think he’s fallen off or anything, but he’s more consistently been on the losing side of one-on-one drills and hasn’t kept the pocket clean as much as he had in the prior year of play or training camp. He started out padded practices by winning reps against Tom Johnson and Jones, but generally, his wins have been close and his losses have been somewhat big.
I don’t expect, based on these performances, that he’ll be a liability as a guard for the team, but I do think we should probably see a lower quality of play than we have in years past — unless, of course, we’re overreacting to a few days of training camp. With a week of this consistent feeling from me, I kind of doubt it, but it’s well within the realm of possible outcomes.
As for the center battle, it’s nice to see Pat Elflein has had more control of his snaps than he did early on. Otherwise, it would be a pretty consistently clear contest in favor of Easton. Instead, his shotgun snaps have become more reliable and he’s been a very able blocker since partially resolving this issue. He’s won more reps than Easton in individual drills and I think he’s held his own more as a pass protector and run blocker than Easton in the team-level work they’ve done. Easton has taken more reps with the ones and that’s worth noting, but even when only looking at the known quality players they’ve played against, Elflein seems to come out ahead.
Easton hasn’t been awful or anything; both Easton and Elflein have lost every rep they’ve had against Linval Joseph. Instead, it’s when they play Jones, Stephen or Jaleel Johnson that Elflein outdoes Easton. Not only that, Elflein was perhaps the closest to winning a rep against Joseph and that has to count for something. Easton’s best quality is second-level movement and we haven’t seen many opportunities for that in camp so far. When it comes to that, we may see him outdoing Elflein, but I don’t think that will necessarily be the case, given Elflein’s strong background with that skill.
The most interesting backup to me so far has been Beavers. He was not a pick that I liked and I thought the Vikings made a mistake grabbing him in the draft. I felt vindicated in that assumption when the Vikings cut him, but after a year on the practice squad and some time on an active roster, he seems to have developed quite a bit. I think what I’ve seen from him in camp has been largely pretty good. He’s won reps against Robison and Weatherly as well as third-string competition like McCaskill.
That’s not to say he’s perfect; he’s lost reps to Weatherly and Anthony Barr and in team drills hasn’t been as good as he has in individual drills. He is back to playing tackle and maybe he really does fit better there despite a weak college resume at that position.
Isidora seems to be the offensive counterpart to Sutton in that he’s been hot-and-cold. He does a better job getting his hands inside than he did in college and that’s paying off. He’s won a few reps against some pretty decent competition and with only one loss in the one-on-one drills so far, he’s setting a good tone for himself. Unfortunately, he does make some pretty big mistakes with whiffs in pass protection occasionally and some pretty poor aiming at the second level in the running game. Overall, I think his play is encouraging.
Sirles has been disappointing as well. After a strong preseason at tackle last year, the hope was that he’d be able to turn his spot-starts into reliability for a beleaguered Vikings offensive line, but he instead contributed to its shoddiness — except at guard. Unfortunately, he’s not playing guard right now and continues to suffer at tackle. With several false starts throughout camp and generally poor pass protection, he might be the worst-performing tackle in camp. That might be why Mike Zimmer’s response to a question about the depth of the offensive tackle unit for the Vikings was to hope that the tackles would stay healthy. We’ve been able to heap praise upon Bower and Odenigbo for their pass-rushing and run-stopping prowess in large part because they’ve done it against Sirles.
T.J. Clemmings has been a bit up-and-down, which I think is a pretty good sign after two seasons of play with the arrow pointing down on a pretty frequent basis. While I haven’t been enamored with his team play, it hasn’t been as bad as year’s past. Add to that a fairly average performance in individual drills against players like Jones and Jaleel Johnson and there’s upside there. He did have the worst rep of any player in one-on-ones after getting cleared out by Clements, but those are baseline level expectations from Vikings fans at this point, and it makes sense to focus on how he’s improving, if he indeed continues this pace in camp.
Among the third-team offensive linemen, we can’t say there have been enough reps to create solid conclusions. Generally speaking, I’ve been very impressed with Zac Kerin, who has won every individual one-on-one rep he’s had and has had some good moments in team drills. The worst performer thus far has probably been Shepherd, who has lost most of his reps in individual drills (with one win against Sutton). In team drills, I’ve noticed issues with him handling Jones and not securing his blocks at the second level.
Freddie Tagaloa has been a yo-yo in the same sense as Sutton and Isidora, with good days and bad days. After a strong rookie camp showing, I think his level of play has quieted down. He’s won and lost individual reps against Dylan Bradley and in team drills either shows great movement with pass protection and second-level capability or disappointing instincts to prevent the pocket from collapsing.
I wish I had seen more of Aviante Collins and Reid Fragel over the past several days, but I’m left with not very many reps from the two of them, with Collins continuing his disappointing performance from the rookie period and Fragel remaining a mystery to me. I hope to see more of them as camp continues.