Vikings

TRAINING CAMP NOTEBOOK: Reviewing the Offensive and Defensive Line the Past Four Days

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

Once again, we’re focusing on the trenches and rounding up the performances of the top players along the Vikings’ front lines.

Offensive Line

Starters

The starting offensive line has looked better over time when it comes to maintaining consistent running lanes for Dalvin Cook, with solid interior play to create creases for the new running back. There were definitely moments where double-teams were blown out by Linval Joseph or times when Tom Johnson knifed through the line to create a stop in the backfield (once meeting a running back at the handoff), but the interior of the line has held up well for the most part.

Mike Remmers has a pretty consistent issue with false starts. I’ve seen over several days in 11-on-11 drills and in one-on-ones his propensity to pop up before the snap. He’s been a consistent problem in pass protection but at least his most recent day was better. It wasn’t good, but he was able to keep the pocket clean for a little longer and a little more often. This last practice featured a player who was playing a little below average in pass protection and seemed more willing to meet pass-rushers with power instead of beating them with speed, where he typically loses.

Over the course of camp, this paints a picture of a player who should still be a very big liability in pass protection and may need the most help as the season progresses, but if one takes the view that we should weight recent performances very heavily, Remmers becomes more of an inconvenience. As Vikings fans are quick to point out, that’s an upgrade.

For what it’s worth, Remmers has been a very good run blocker in camp and the Vikings may take the hit in pass protection in order to gain a significant advantage running the ball. Given how much the Vikings offense needed to stay on schedule last year to get anything done, this isn’t as backwards an idea as it may seem.

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

In every day of camp so far, it seems like Alex Boone continues to be the best offensive lineman of the bunch. While he’s lost battles to Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph, that’s to be expected of even high-level offensive linemen. He’s won more reps than he’s lost and he’s done a good job keeping the pocket clean in team drills. As a run blocker, he consistently demonstrates fantastic movement ability when pulling or getting to the second level and asserts strength at the point of attack when not asked to pull.

Pat Elflein earned a plaudit—he’s the only player I’ve seen beat Linval Joseph in a one-on-one drill. While he marred it by snapping the ball abysmally, the actual battle demonstrated Elflein’s ability to use leverage to win against stronger and heavier opponents.

Nick Easton, on the other hand, has been losing more one-on-one battles than Elflein in the drills and in my opinion hasn’t held up as much in the team drills either. If Easton has better snapping prowess than Elflein, that might make the race tough, but I expect Elflein to win at day’s end because he seems to have—for the most part—gotten his snaps under control (the rep with Linval Joseph notwithstanding).

The biggest difference between the two when it comes to those one-on-one drills isn’t the rep that Elflein had against Joseph, but the repeated reps against Shamar Stephen they’ve both had. For the most part, Elflein has won those reps while Easton has lost those reps.

Joe Berger had fewer reps in this last day than many other players, but came away with a win and a loss. More worrisome is the fact that overall, Berger isn’t just losing to Tom Johnson, but Shamar Stephen and Datone Jones as well. Berger no doubt looks like a starting-quality guard in camp, but he definitely doesn’t look like he played last year at center, where he won far more often than he lost. In 11s he looks just as diminished and has been rocked back in pass protection several times. I’ve also seen him give up tackles-for-loss with more regularity than Alex Boone or either of the centers.

Photo Credit: Thad Chelsey

As for Rashod Hill, I’ve been relatively impressed with what he’s put together so far. At the moment, he’s performing better than Remmers in both one-on-ones and team drills and against much the same competition. If and when Riley Reiff is healthy, the Vikings seem to have a solid backup option in Hill for the first time in a long time. As a run blocker he doesn’t seem as adept as Remmers is or as good as Reiff is purported to be, but he can still make things happen in the run game.

Backups

Danny Isidora had trouble in pass protection in 11-on-11 drills and whiffs on tackle-for-loss from Ben Gedeon. Over the past several days I’ve consistently felt underwhelmed by Isidora in pass protection. He has moved well on pulls and at the second level. He’s also done a pretty good job landing big hits on linebackers when asked to move up from a double team, and when blocking down on double teams he’s been effective, but overall his performance has been inconsistent. His biggest plays are dominating blocks that are fun to watch, and he’s hit them with some frequency in camp.

Photo Credit: Thad Chelsey

Like for the other linemen, it’s easy to give Isidora a pass for having lost reps to players like Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen—both of whom have been excellent thus far in camp against anybody—but Isidora is still losing too often and too quickly to these players to be counted on as a reliable backup in case someone gets hurt. It may be more comforting to play Nick Easton at center and Pat Elflein at guard in that scenario.

Given Isidora’s positive flashes, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see that change sometime during the season. He certainly has potential.

After that, it may be prudent to address Willie Beavers, who has played tackle with the Vikings in camp and has played it better than he had last year. After a very good starting set of days, he’s fallen off a bit but still has played at a level superior to his prior performance. He’s been plagued by a few penalties and has lost more than he’s won in the past few days. I’m not sure this improvement is enough to roster him over someone like Isidora at guard or Hill at tackle, but he could do enough to earn a 53-man roster spot without being active on gameday.

Next to Beavers is T.J. Clemmings, who has benefited from the move to guard but has not improved enough in his play. I wouldn’t make the same predictions for him as I did Beavers. Maybe the most iconic moment for him has been when Dylan Bradley, who had to add 20 pounds in the offseason to make weight at 286 pounds, bull-rushed Clemmings into the dirt.

Clemmings hasn’t lost every single rep and does drive well when he gets purchase, but it’s not encouraging play.

The other player among the second string is Jeremiah Sirles, who has had a very disappointing camp at tackle. The last several days were a minor improvement, but he’s still lost consistent reps to Tashawn Bower, Ifeadi Odenigbo and players higher up on the depth chart like Brian Robison and Stephen Weatherly. He hasn’t maintained power through his sets and can get bullied, but the bigger issue for him is his ability to move and meet the defender at the edge. His attempt to recover through the rep doesn’t usually work.

His problems have consistently appeared in 11s, and both Taylor Heinicke and Case Keenum have been the victim of pressure coming off the edge, often the result of Jeremiah Sirles failing to control his defender through the arc.

Among the third unit, it seems as if the only consistently well-performing offensive lineman is center Zac Kerin, who has shown a lot of movement in his ability to fold protection to the outside edge as well as win individual drills far more often than one would expect—nearly every individual rep he’s had in training camp. He’s worth keeping an eye on, even if his status as the third center makes it unlikely that he earns a roster spot.

I haven’t seen too much of Freddie Tagaloa since he fell off from his rookie camp performance, but what I have seen has been somewhat hot and cold. He’s certainly not proving to be as interesting of an interior line prospect as Kerin, Isidora or Beavers, but he may be practice squad potential. His forward movement ability is a bit better than I thought, but he still needs to improve his ability to aim at the second level. Sometimes his strength turns out to be a huge asset, but it looks like he needs to find ways to use it more effectively.

Austin Shepherd is someone I’ve been a big fan of for the Vikings for some time, and in previous coaching environments, I thought he’s looked good. This year, he hasn’t been as impressive. Not only has he lost a number of one-on-one battles against the talented depth the Vikings have at defensive tackle, his few reps at offensive tackle have resulted in losses against the defensive ends. In team drills, it’s harder for me to get a handle on his performance, but I’ve overall not left with a positive impression. My sense is that he’s done a better job in pass protection than Tagaloa, but hasn’t demonstrated the upside of the former rookie tryout—especially as he’s given up more than a few tackles-for-loss in team drills to Jaleel Johnson and Datone Jones.

Both of those guards have been playing better than the tackles, and if Austin Shepherd is to draw interest, it may be to replace either Aviante Collins or Reid Fragel at tackle. Collins was someone who Vikings fans were interested in because of his athletic ability and relative acclaim in the draft community, but it’s clear that his size and length are not suited for tackle, while I doubt he has enough heft or strength to play guard. He may best be suited by switching to center, but that would be a long-term project. As it is, he’s currently operating as a well-oiled turnstile in both the team and individual drills, and he’s one of the reasons that both Ifeadi Odenigbo and Tashawn Bower keep earning praise.

Reid Fragel hasn’t seen as much time as many of the others—he had to wait for an injury occur to join the third string—but he’s been marginally better than Collins, though not good enough to pique anyone’s interest as a depth tackle this year. One of the notes from the two-minute sessions on Fragel is merely the phrase “Fragel has been constantly losing to Odenigbo” so any positives need to be understated. For what it’s worth, Fragel feels like the more consistent of the two third-string tackles, but that doesn’t count for much.

Defensive Line

Starters

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

Everson Griffen remains impressive. He’s been starting some snaps off the ball as a linebacker and dropping back in coverage and so far doesn’t look awful covering the short zone. He’s doing the most damage, however, as a pass-rusher and run defender on the edge. He’s created pressure and sacks fairly consistently, and has done so against both Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill, even getting a good one in on Alex Boone on a twist. While he’s been more of a force as a pass rusher—he is just so consistently getting sacks and pressures—he’s also been useful in the run game and defining edges that running backs are forced to cut inside on.

His partner this year, Danielle Hunter, has been a menace as well. He’s found himself in the backfield both when playing against Rashod Hill and Mike Remmers. His win rate against both in one-on-one drills is indecent, and he’s been even more impressive in team play. It’s easy to continuously hype the two defensive ends, but they’ve been playing better than any pair of defensive ends I’ve seen in Vikings camp over the years.

While some of it can be chalked up to competition, they also deserve their own praise. It should be exciting to see how they perform in the preseason, especially in the “important” third preseason game where we’ll see more run with the starters.

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

The Vikings may have the most excitement at defensive end, but they possibly have more talent at defensive tackle, especially when accounting for depth. Headlining that group is Linval Joseph who has been impossible for the offense to handle. By far, the strength of the offensive line group is in the interior, and despite that, there’s been very little progress made in the way of stopping Linval Joseph. While his team play hasn’t been as splashy as of late compared to his early-camp performances, he’s still generating pressures, sacks and tackles-for-loss, but more importantly is allowing the linebackers to shine. Eric Kendricks has been lights-out in camp, but it’s hard to say we’d be seeing this much of him were it not for Joseph keeping the guards out of the second level.

There may be significant concern about other players hitting their age cliffs—Terence Newman and Joe Berger are worth watching given the dropoff in their camp play—but Tom Johnson doesn’t seem to be one of those players. Johnson has been a constant thorn in the offense’s side, and has slithered past the guards for sacks, met running backs at the hand-off point and disrupted zone runs with his presence. While he mostly gets by on his speed, he’s been able to bull-rush Joe Berger, drop Nick Easton and twist around offensive tackles. He’s been fun to watch.

Backups

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

Shamar Stephen deserves praise for his camp performances. He’s been doing an excellent job of disrupting the interior against second- and third-string offensive linemen despite playing from the nose tackle position. In the opportunities he’s had against the first team, he’s continued to be impressive. He’s had some very good reps against backup guards like Danny Isidora and T.J. Clemmings, but he’s also done a good job going up against potential starting centers Nick Easton and Pat Elflein. When he plays the first team, he can push Berger back, win a twist against Rashod Hill or make life difficult for Alex Boone.

Stephen has improved dramatically since last year, and instead of hoping that the Vikings found a viable nose tackle in Jaleel Johnson, they’ve instead had the luxury of waiting on his development because of the level of play we’ve seen from the former UConn product.

I’ve been hoping that Datone Jones could win the starting job, because he has the potential to be more well-rounded than Tom Johnson. He’s performed well in camp, but give Johnson’s explosive playmaking capability I can understand why Johnson takes most of the first-team reps. That said, Jones has been disruptive in his own right. He’s created batted passes and pressures in the passing game, often through first- or second-team competition like Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, T.J. Clemmings, Willie Beavers and Danny Isidora.

He’s also been a force in the run game and has generated some tackles-for-loss. He hasn’t been as consistent of a playmaker as Johnson has been, however, and for some reason he has particular trouble with Danny Isidora, who has been able to drive block through him a couple of times and has handled him well in one-on-ones. Other than that, Jones has done damage against the starting interior line as well as the backups.

Brian Robison has been essentially taking veteran’s rest quite a bit and has therefore taken a limited number of snaps against the second-team offensive line. In those snaps, he’s looked pretty good both rushing up the middle and attacking the edge. He doesn’t have the explosive playmaking power of Tom Johnson, Danielle Hunter or Everson Griffen, but he’s been a disruptive force and has certainly wailed on the second-string offensive linemen more than anyone else.

Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

Stephen Weatherly is likely going to end up as the fourth defensive end, though the Vikings certainly seem willing to give him some competition by rotating in both Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo in with the twos as Robison rests. Weatherly hasn’t popped out in the same way many of the others have, but he hasn’t really played poorly, either.

In individual drills, he’s lost a lot of reps to a much-improved Willie Beavers, which doesn’t seem that great. But in team drills, he’s been productive. He’s done work on Mike Remmers to create pressure and close of running lanes and has generally performed well.

Despite all that, I think the two defensive ends below him on the depth chart could bring more. Odenigbo had a great rookie camp but was held out of padded practices with an injury until recently, so we have a little more context for Tashawn Bower’s performances than Odenigbo but both have been great.

Bower has continued his strong camp performances with pass deflections, sacks (against Willie Beavers and Jeremiah Sirles), consistent pressure and tackles-for-loss. He seems to be the most capable of the backup defensive ends at the moment, but it would be good to see him against other competition. Odenigbo has had higher highs as a defensive end from day to day, in that he’ll string together several good reps in a single day, but has yet to demonstrate consistency.

Lurking behind all of that is Jaleel Johnson, who has had a very good camp but is stuck behind some extremely well-performing defensive tackles at both the nose and three-technique positions. He hasn’t rotated often into the ones or against top-tier competition, but he’s done an excellent job nevertheless. He’s gotten the better of Isidora and Freddie Tagaloa in one-on-one drills and has contributed his own series of pass deflections, tackles-for-loss and sacks. He doesn’t look more explosive than Datone Jones or as disruptive as Shamar Stephen at the moment, however, and while it would be good if that changes, it’s a reason he is where he is on the depth chart.

Will Sutton is the last defensive lineman worth individually highlighting. He continues to play up-and-down, like he did early on in camp. Recently, he hasn’t popped out as much as he has in the past, and I doubt he makes the roster with the Vikings—though he deserves to make a roster somewhere. On some plays, he can be explosive enough to get past Alex Boone, while on others he finds himself struggling against Freddie Tagaloa. It’s difficult to predict which Sutton the Vikings would get and with so many other options available to them, Sutton’s time on the roster could be limited.

Chunky Clements and Dylan Bradley have certainly had their moments—and Clements is shining a bit in one-on-ones, but for the most part the two have been quiet and can get run on in team drills. Sam McCaskill is not playing to the caliber of the other defensive ends around him.


For the most part, it seems to be the case that the Vikings will be entering the season with one of the best defensive lines—if not the best defensive line—in the NFL. Unfortunately, they’ll do so with a bunch of questions along the offensive line, and particularly at the tackle position. Riley Reiff will need to be healthy as Rashod Hill is a good backup but can be worrisome as a starter. Mike Remmers is a concern.

As a running unit, they’ll probably be fine, but questions abound surround the passing chops of the offensive line unit.

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Photo Credit: Thad Chesley

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