Vikings

FEATURE: Behind Garrett Bradbury's Rise to Become the Nation's Top Center

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From catching baseballs to catching footballs. From defensive line to offensive line. Garrett Bradbury’s career has been about transitions.

The newest Minnesota Vikings first-round pick believes he’s finally pivoted to a place he’s comfortable. He looks ahead to a career with an organization that coveted his services and picked him without much hesitation in Thursday’s first round, looking past other highly-touted linemen that were available.

Like many draft prospects, Bradbury’s journey to professional football wasn’t perfectly scripted. Circumstance pushed him into unique situations; talent earned him opportunities; and his full body of work was enough to impress NFL evaluators, making him the third offensive lineman taken in Thursday’s first round.

“It took a lot of coaching,” Bradbury said of his journey.

One of those coaches was Dwayne Ledford, Bradbury’s offensive line coach from 2016-18 at North Carolina State. Ledford and Bradbury intersected three years ago and have since risen to greater heights. Ledford earned a promotion to be Louisville’s offensive coordinator, where he now shows cut-ups of Bradbury’s game tape to his new pupils. Bradbury will soon be receiving a hefty signing bonus with the Vikings.

Ledford and his wife, Meredith, were with Bradbury and his family Thursday night at his draft party when the Vikings called and named him their highest offensive line selection since Matt Kalil in 2012, marking Bradbury’s latest transition: moving from college football to professional football.

“It was awesome, the pure excitement,” Ledford told Zone Coverage. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when he got that call. Just so many people, so much work goes into it when you’re achieving something like that.”

Settling into football

Perhaps the most polarizing player in the draft was Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who turned down a baseball career after getting selected in the first round by the Oakland Athletics and becoming the first overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals.

Bradbury’s baseball career was less celebrated but nonetheless impressive. He grew up a Yankees fan with aspirations to be the next Jorge Posada and became a power-hitting catcher for Charlotte Christian High School. His mother believed he’d grow up to be a baseball player. Not Dad, though.

“I always knew he’d be a football player,” Tim Bradbury said after his son’s introductory press conference. “Football, it was his life.”

Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel (USA Today Sports)

The Athletic‘s Joseph Person reported that North Carolina State discovered Bradbury on the baseball field. He was at a fork in the road in his athletic career. As just a two-star football recruit without any power-conference scholarship offers, Bradbury might have had a chance to pursue college baseball at a higher level.

But the Wolfpack swooped in and offered Bradbury a scholarship, giving him a shot in an ACC program close to his hometown of Charlotte, where he’d lived since age two. Bradbury did have an offer to UNC-Charlotte in hand, but N.C. State gave him a power-conference option just 2.5 hours from home and a clearer path to the pros.

Unbeknownst to Bradbury, his baseball background would equip him for the role at which he’d later win the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center as a senior.

“He had these huge meat hooves for hands,” said Ledford. “I always thought that he would be phenomenal at center, because he’s always used to handling a ball, throwing a ball, catching a ball. His hands were so big, he had thick wrists, he was going to be a big person.”

While Ledford saw the physical benefits of Bradbury’s catching experience, the now-23-year-old believes they helped him with the communicative side of football.

“I think it helped a little bit in terms of mobility, being able to bend, in terms of communication,” Bradbury said the night he was drafted. “You are kind of the leader back there behind the plate. I got to call pitches. I got to control the infield in terms of where they were going. Just verbally put everyone in their position. As an offensive lineman, you have to be able to communicate. You have to have all five guys on the same page.”

A move to the trenches

At 240 pounds, Bradbury profiled as a tight end heading into N.C. State. After a redshirt year, he played just 38 snaps in his first active season as a pass catcher, and after some collaboration with the coaching staff decided to make a position change … to defense, where he’d played some in high school.

Bradbury had been adding pounds since joining the team and beefed up to a sturdy 285 to put him at pass-rushing weight. He worked with defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who now holds the same job with the New Orleans Saints.

N.C. State was stacked, however, on the defensive line between Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street — all eventual draft picks. Chubb went fifth overall to the Denver Broncos in 2018.

Photo Credit: Rob Kinnan (USA Today Sports)

Because of the competition, D-line wasn’t a fit that would last for Bradbury, but it had value in his development; his first move at the college level into the rough-and-tough front lines where he’d find himself entrenched going forward. The experiment lasted from January to August before his sophomore season.

“We had a great defensive line, four guys drafted last year. And so working with them, competing with them in the weight room and conditioning, I got a lot better on and off the field,” Bradbury said Friday. “I didn’t play defensive line, but those eight months were pivotal in my career and the player I am now.”

Sophomore year, Bradbury finally connected with Ledford, who was hired as the new offensive line coach after four years at Appalachian State. Bradbury flipped from the defensive side of the ball to the offensive side and quickly took to the new techniques. He enjoyed the O-line because, unlike being part of a tight end or defensive line rotation, Bradbury didn’t have to come off the field. He also got to continue sharpening his craft against pro-caliber defensive talent.

Screenshot via YouTube (NCStatePackFootball)

Bradbury became the Wolfpack’s starting left guard and began forming a relationship with Ledford that would only strengthen throughout the next three seasons. The coach, a former center himself who spent seven years in the NFL, hosted Bradbury and his teammates often at his home.

“The relationships that we have with these players,” said Ledford, “that’s the whole reason why I do what I want to do.”

Bradbury thanked Ledford during his first conference call as a member of the Vikings. The following day he explained why his offensive line coach had become a trusted mentor.

“How he coached, how he coached us to protect the quarterback, he brought a new level of pride to that position room that I don’t think was there at N.C. State beforehand,” Bradbury said, “I think as you’ve seen more guys coming out, getting drafted on the offensive line from N.C. State, he’s definitely helped change that program.”

A natural center

For two seasons, Bradbury battled against tough ACC defensive lines as a guard, going toe to toe with Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins. The Wolfpack won seven games in 2016 and nine games in 2017, and as the team improved, so did Bradbury. His penalty count went down in his second year as a guard and his blocking grades improved mightily, per Pro Football Focus analytics.

The bond Ledford formed with Bradbury and his linemates turned into on-field chemistry that made N.C. State one of the nation’s sturdiest offensive lines in Ledford’s three seasons there, ranking 20th, fifth and third in fewest sacks allowed, respectively. With Nyheim Hines and Reggie Gallaspy II, they also produced three straight 1,000-yard rushers after a 14-season drought in that department.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard (USA Today Sports)

“A saying that we had was game day is just a reflection of your habits,” said Bradbury, “and so you weren’t going to do anything on Saturdays that you hadn’t done before in practice.”

According to Bradbury, it didn’t take long playing under Ledford to step up his work ethic in preparation for his future goals. Ledford remembers challenging Bradbury to push himself even harder before his senior season, then getting blown away by the results.

“To watch him do that, to watch him become one of the best practice players that I’ve ever been around,” said Ledford, “that was pretty special seeing that.”

That work ethic manifested itself in Bradbury’s stature. Most players with NFL hopes don’t get their physique fine-tuned until the NFL Combine comes around, but Ledford said Bradbury was in perfect shape a year in advance.

That physical transformation — less drastic than his 50-pound weight gain but still significant — coincided with Bradbury’s move inside to center after the graduation of incumbent Tony Adams. The former catcher was right at home snapping the football to fellow draft prospect Ryan Finley. And from a mental standpoint, the 3.6 GPA student was miles ahead, according to his line coach.

“We put a lot on that position,” said Ledford, “with the calls that he has to make, with how to make our protection calls, so they’ve got to be clued in. They’ve got to look at defensive alignment, they’ve got to be able to tell safety structure. It’s a lot.

“He was able to tell you right away, ‘This is about to happen, Coach. Look here.’ He was able to point out to me things that he was seeing. … He not only knew it but he also knew how to apply it.”

That intelligence was clear to the Vikings. General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer both complimented Bradbury’s “smarts” as they spoke about him Thursday and Friday.

He’s not entirely cerebral, though. Get him strapped up and Bradbury can play with an edge, according to his father.

“When the helmet’s not on, he’s a student of the game,” Tim Bradbury said. “When you put the helmet on, he can be a little ornery and get after people.”

And though he wasn’t wearing a helmet at the combine, his work the summer before had paid off. He ran the third-fastest 40-yard dash and fastest 3-cone drill of all offensive linemen. He was suddenly very high on the Vikings’ radar.

The next steps

Photo Credit: John David Mercer (USA Today Sports)

Along with some combination of Pat Elflein, Josh Kline and fourth-round pick Dru Samia, Bradbury will likely find himself battling to pass-block for Kirk Cousins and run-block for Dalvin Cook Week 1 of the NFL season.

“I know just talking with the coaches, we’re just trying to get the best football players in here,” said Spielman, “and then once we get into the OTAs, once we get into training camp, the coaches will figure out what’s the best combination.”

Minnesota now has four offensive linemen with starting potential that they’ve selected since 2017. Though he’s a rookie, Bradbury is older than last year’s second-round pick Brian O’Neill and less than a year younger than Elflein. Together, along with the guidance of new offensive line coach Rick Dennison, they’ll try to rehabilitate an offensive line that held the Vikings back last year.

They’ll face great challenges in the NFC North between Green Bay’s Kenny Clark, Chicago’s Akiem Hicks and Detroit’s Damon Harrison.

But there’s a equal foe that will line up across from Bradbury as he gets his practice reps at center, Linval Joseph, who has a connection to Ledford. After Ledford’s playing career, he took an assistant coaching job at East Carolina, where he worked with the 20-year-old Joseph, an eventual second-round pick.

Once all the tears of joy were shed on draft night, Ledford made sure to mention Joseph to the new Viking.

“‘Linval Joseph, you’ll like him,'” Ledford told Bradbury. “‘He is one of the strongest human beings I’ve been around.'”

The convergence of Ledford and Bradbury coincided perfectly for both. Bradbury got three years of starting experience under a former NFL interior lineman. Ledford enjoyed his highest level of success as a coach, thanks in part to Bradbury’s efforts.

With Ledford now at Louisville and Bradbury in Minnesota, their latest transition is underway.

Browse all of Zone Coverage’s draft coverage.

VIKINGS GIVE ATTENTION TO OFFENSE ON DRAFT’S FIRST TWO DAYS
BRADBURY SELECTION GOT STAMP OF APPROVAL FROM COACHES
ROUND 6 & ROUND 7 PICK ANALYSIS

ROUND 4: G DRU SAMIA

ROUND 5: LB CAMERON SMITH

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