The Minnesota Vikings invested a first-round pick to bolster their offensive line when they selected center Garrett Bradbury in the first round. The young prospect from North Carolina State was one of the top stories in training camp.
Fewer people are talking, though, about new right guard Josh Kline, who was given the largest contract of any new Vikings acquisition last free agency period.
Only two guards in football allowed more pressures last year than Mike Remmers, the Vikings’ tackle-turned-guard who was released before free agency after two seasons in Minnesota. Kline was brought in from Tennessee to fill that hole after starting all 32 games the last two seasons in Tennessee.
After playing in two preseason games where the Vikings offensive line didn’t allow a sack, Kline was on the field as Kirk Cousins went down twice Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals — once potentially at Kline’s expense. On Monday he called his weekend performance “sloppy,” knowing the high expectations for his group.
“Just little things, technique and all that stuff and just being on the same page,” Kline said about what went awry in the last game. “I was a little sloppy myself, so we’ve got to learn from the film, learn from the mistakes and we’re already moving on from it.”
When Remmers was brought in before the 2017 season, he was part of a retooling effort looking to give more support to then-quarterback Sam Bradford. For one year at least, injecting new blood paid off as Remmers and Riley Reiff were instrumental in Minnesota’s 13-3 season. Kline is part of the latest O-line reshuffle as he and his linemates are expected to run-block more frequently and protect Kirk Cousins in the play-action-heavy scheme engineered by advisor Gary Kubiak, coordinator Kevin Stefanski and OL coach Rick Dennison. Kline inked a three-year, $15.75 million deal, Bradbury was selected 18th overall, and Pat Elflein was moved adjacently from center to left guard.
“I think year to year in this business, things change so much, and all of our focus is on this year,” said Stefanski, when asked what the offensive line had to prove. “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about the previous year or years. It’s just hard for us to succeed by doing that. So we have blinders on, and I think those guys, certainly our sole focus is what we have to do in 2019.”
Two previous stops
Kline found a home at right guard in his three years with Tennessee after playing both guard spots in 2015 with New England, who waived him before the 2016 season after three years with the team. Kline, undrafted out of Kent State, was a utility player on New England’s 2014 Super Bowl-winning group, making four starts in the regular season and one in the playoffs — the AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts, known colloquially as the DeflateGate game. His rookie year in New England, Kline played under Dante Scarnecchia, the 30-plus-year assistant that Kline calls “one of the best in the league.”
Those New England experiences equipped him for Tennessee, where he made 46 of 48 possible starts. Despite receiving higher pass-blocking grades in his three seasons with the Titans, per Pro Football Focus, head coach Mike Zimmer believes run-blocking was Kline’s strength, which might explain why he was an offseason target. The Titans, who ran the outside zone scheme in 2018, finished in the top 10 in rushing twice and top 15 all three years of Kline’s stay in Tennessee.
Kline said on his introductory conference call back in March that he looked forward to working with a technician like Dennison because his technique “can be a little off sometimes.” Yet Vikings coaches have complimented Kline’s toughness and make-do approach.
“He battles,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s adapted well to this system and the coaching and things like that. Tough guy, so that part has really all been good.”
Through three preseason appearances and 52 total snaps, Kline’s analytics reflect stronger pass blocking than run blocking. Of greater concern, he and Elflein have both gotten knocked for lapses in blocking, making them two of the team’s six lowest-rated offensive players this preseason, per PFF. There is plenty of reason not to read too much into that small sample size, but preseason or not, the seven-year vet still believes he has a long way to go.
“Trying to work my tail off,” Kline said. “It might not be perfect, but I just strive to get perfection.”
Man of few words
Kline was an easy personality fit on a line that mixes rugged veterans and young starters. He and Reiff are the elder statesmen of the group — both quiet types that let their work do the talking. Kline enjoys walleye fishing and hunting. He had a South Texas hunting trip scheduled for the Monday after he signed with the Vikings. Reiff is also a self-proclaimed avid outdoorsman.
“That’s a unique bunch,” said Stefanski, “but I think number one, that group has to reflect our mentality as a team and Coach Zimmer’s mentality, and I think it does. That’s a tough group when you talk from top to bottom in that room. Personalities, pretty unique in there. I don’t know if I would survive a full season in that offensive line meeting room. They’re pretty tough, but those guys, I like the way they get out here and practice and I like the way they battle.”
Elflein’s “subtle humor,” as Cousins described it in camp, and Bradbury’s hyper-diligence to fulfilling rookie responsibilities (i.e., bringing snacks, telling jokes on demand) balance out the more serious veterans. Then there’s the mentorship aspect. Between Elflein’s two years at center and Kline’s six-year run in the league, the two guards are there to surround the rookie Bradbury with experience and advice.
“There’s a lot on his plate, but he has to take it day by day just like I have to, and we have to as a team,” Kline said. “He’s learning, he’s a quick learner, and he’s getting it done. There’s some things you have to mess up to learn right, and he’s doing a good job. He’s not making a lot of mistakes, but he’s learning from them if he does.”
Bradbury’s progress as a rookie will go a long way to determining the success of the Vikings’ line this year, as will the acclimation of Kline to his new surroundings.
The Vikings devoted a lot of resources to bringing in the two newcomers. Kline is by far the more unassuming of the two, but his role is just as vital.
“Complacency is what kills you in this league,” he said, “so you’ve just got to work on the little things to get better.”