If the Pro Football Focus grades are to be believed, the Minnesota Vikings have found their savior at guard. In two games Brett Jones has recorded run-blocking and pass protection grades that dwarf what his predecessors put up — and that includes second-round draft pick Ezra Cleveland.
Jones’ season-to-date grades in both pass protection (76.1) and run blocking (73.6) are leaps and bounds better than anything the Vikings’ prior right guards have posted, outpacing the next best marks of guards still on the roster by almost 30 points in pass protection and a dozen points in run blocking. Now while there are few football fans more appreciative of PFF’s attempt to quantify what the big fellas are doing up front, you know I’m of the opinion that their grades are far from gospel. So it was time for a closer look at the Vikings’ fourth attempt to fill their beleaguered right guard spot.
It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and the PFF numbers might be a little more optimistic than what I’m seeing on film, but the short answer is that Jones is absolutely holding his own in place of the injured Cleveland. There are things he is doing fans have been begging Vikings’ guards to do for two-plus years—and there are things that seem to support why Jones was the coaching staff’s fourth choice to fill the spot.
WHERE JONES WINS
Vikings fans have a huge cache of reasons to wake up screaming in the middle of the night; most recently one of the major instigators of these incidents was a flashback barrage of Pat Elflein getting pushed back into Kirk Cousins’ lap again and again and again.
For the most part, that isn’t happening with Jones. Listed at 315 pounds, he is the heftiest Vikings’ offensive lineman this side of the ginormous Oli Udoh (325). At 6’2″, and that may be a bit generous, Jones is also the shortest o-lineman, but the fire hydrant look is working for him when anchoring the point of attack.
Sure, there were still instances where Jones was pushed back a bit, but nothing near the nightmare-inducing level that happened to his predecessors.
Jones (No. 61) also was more successful in hat-on-hat drive blocking than previous Vikings guards have been. Check his work on the fourth-down play on the drive ending in Justin Jefferson’s touchdown.
Maybe it was the game plan, which would make sense for a backup guard making just his second start, or maybe it was the way Gary Kubiak chose to attack the Carolina Panthers defensive front, but for whatever reason Jones spent much of Sunday afternoon double-teaming with either Garrett Bradbury or Brian O’Neill. It was a tactic that worked well, in part because Jones demonstrated a solid understanding of when to scrape off and pick up another player or when to leave the double-team and block another defender.
Reading or sensing a twist or stunt has been the equivalent of upper-division calculus for Minnesota’s guards this season, so even though Jones wasn’t perfect in this regard (more on that below) he’s at the top of the Vikings’ 2020 class of guards in this regard.
WHERE JONES NEEDS WORK
There’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to Carolina’s back-to-back defensive touchdowns, and Jones deserves his share. On the Cousins strip-sack Jones and Bradbury are double-teaming Zach Kerr (92) when Bradbury leaves to pick up the looping/stunting defender, Shaq Thompson (54). Jones isn’t ready to handle Kerr solo, and the result isn’t pretty.
Similarly, on the next play Jones is just a little late coming off his double-team with Bradbury and bounces off the linebacker (Thompson again), who strips Cook of the football and sends Jeremy Chinn off into the record books. You really don’t want to suffer through watching that again, right?
It’s symptomatic of Jones’ struggles to succeed at the second level — kind of a big deal in Kubiak’s zone scheme. Far too frequently Jones got through the line, but he took a bad angle to the linebacker or simply wasn’t fast enough to get in front of a defender. When you like to screen as much as Minnesota does, that’s no bueno.
What you gain with Jones’ bulk in anchoring the interior of the line, you give up in the athleticism and mobility Kubiak’s scheme requires. There’s ways around it — pulling Bradbury or the tackles instead, for example — but ultimately Jones’ inability to make those blocks downfield takes a toll on what the offense can do.
Finally, Jones has a tendency to make one hit on a defender and that’s it. With a back like Cook you never know when he’s going to change directions and bring a defender back into the play, so staying engaged for just a count or two longer oftentimes means the difference between a four-yard gain and a 75-yard touchdown run. Jones needs to keep that in mind the next time he’s one-and-done on a linebacker.
He also needs to stay on his feet. During the first drive against Carolina I was afraid I might need to start a tally board of how many times Jones finished a play on the ground — which, unless you’re laying on top of a defender is a bad place for an offensive lineman to be. Jones was prone on four of the first 11 plays, but after that auspicious beginning he stayed upright for most of the rest of the game.
The bottom line on Jones is that he’s been the Vikings’ most productive right guard to date, though all things considered I’d rather have a healthy Cleveland getting those snaps. Jones’ performance has absolutely saved the Vikings’ bacon with Cleveland sidelined, and at minimum he’s shown himself to be a viable short-term plug-in starter and a valuable multi-position backup. I’d still prefer the Vikings find someone who can anchor like Jones and still make those second-level blocks — for example, someone like former St. John’s standout Ben Bartch, who returns to Minnesota with the Jacksonville Jaguars after seeing extensive snaps at left guard against the Cleveland Browns.
But with Jones the Vikings are at least holding serve at a position that’s been causing problems for a couple seasons. And that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.