The Minnesota Vikings’ strategy for building the offensive line might have worked in a normal offseason: Compile a collection of young guard prospects and ask them to battle against returning starter Pat Elflein. Retain a couple veterans like Dakota Dozier and Brett Jones for insurance. Maybe ask a couple of your tackles to switch positions and see what they can do at guard. May the best man win.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, that approach during a COVID-19-altered offseason turns a process that was dependent on having months of discussions and thousands of on-field reps into a three-week crash course. Their decisions will inevitably be less informed than they’d like. The ‘best man winning’ strategy may turn into a hunt for the least risky option.
New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak shed some light on the team’s mindset Wednesday during an extensive Zoom chat with reporters. The last we’d heard about the team’s guard spots, Rick Spielman had declared an open competition after the draft, putting three-year starter Pat Elflein squarely in the crosshairs after an underwhelming 2019 season following his switch to left guard. Kubiak sang a different tune Wednesday, the team’s third day of full-team walkthroughs.
“Our starting five, we lost one player (Josh Kline), so we’ve got four of those guys back, and it shows when we go to walkthrough,” Kubiak said. “Those guys have been playing together, working together. … We have four of those guys back so we go right back with them, and Dakota [Dozier] and [Aviante Collins] and Ezra [Cleveland] are working at the other spot. As we line up today, we have four of our five back and somebody will end up playing the other guard position. We’ll see what happens, but it’s going to be a very competitive nature through the course of camp.”
It’s sensible for the Vikings to opt for Elflein’s experience over the unknown — even if that experience hasn’t been great. Elflein had the eighth-worst pass-blocking out of qualified guards last year, per Pro Football Focus. He allowed the 10th-most pressures while tied for the fourth-most penalties. But cap-strapped and almost penniless, the Vikings chose not to bring in any high-priced or even medium-priced stopgaps to challenge Elflein for the spot, deciding to rely instead on in-house options as competition while hoping that offensive line coach Rick Dennison has a plan in place to squeeze more out of Elflein. The former third-round pick was, after all, a top-12 run blocker last year and now has the benefit of a second offseason preparing to play guard.
But considering the team declared an open competition in April, doubling back to Elflein feels like a concession when they were seeking an upgrade. There will be few opportunities for Elflein to be usurped, since practices will only last about three weeks and there will be no games for young players to prove their mettle. As poor as Elflein’s 2019 might have been, it’s hard to justify any in-house options being better, which is mostly reflective on the Vikings’ choice not to splash with a guard at any point in free agency. Elflein’s inclusion does have some perks, though, in a truncated training camp: communication, scheme know-how and chemistry with the linemen on either side of him.
The Vikings could have rolled in with the same starting five linemen that they sent out last year had they retained Kline — certainly a selling point if you’re preaching continuity. But by releasing Kline in March after a fairly productive season, they put his right guard spot up for grabs, further muddying the waters. Kubiak mentioned Dozier, Collins and Cleveland by name while sidestepping a chance to endorse Dru Samia, who had been reportedly in the driver’s seat to land a starting gig.
Dozier has the type of experience that might be reassuring with so little ramp-up to the season. But in his four spot starts a year ago, Dozier was below average. If you isolate all games from Weeks 2, 4, 6 and 11 — the four weeks Dozier started — he was 55th out of 57 in run-blocking grade and 53rd out of 57 in pass-blocking grade.
Collins is already 27 years old but has scarcely been able to stay healthy in his three-year career. That fact that he’s still around speaks to his perceived potential in the team’s eyes, but there’s little proof that Collins can be a full-time starter.
That leaves Cleveland, the second-round pick, considered perhaps to be Riley Reiff‘s eventual replacement. At Boise State, Cleveland played nearly 3,000 snaps at left tackle over the last three years. Not only is practicing at guard a shift to the inside for Cleveland, but the right side presents new challenges with mirrored footwork and hand technique. Kubiak said he and Zimmer believe they’ll be able to find out in the next few weeks whether guard is a good fit for their high draft pick.
“The nice thing is we think he has flexibility,” Kubiak said. “We know he’s played tackle for a long time. Through the walkthrough period we’re working him at guard right now, so he gets reps next to Blake [Brandel] as they work together in the young group, and we’ll go from there. We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player, and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there. We know he has a comfort zone to go back outside.”
Dozier, Collins and Cleveland all have red flags, so what does that say for Samia? The former fourth-round pick was considered to be a steal at the time. His low-impact first season was chalked up as a redshirt year, but if Kubiak is being interpreted correctly — that Samia is not among the three primary candidates for an open guard job — then he may have dug himself a substantial hole.
No matter how the starting five shakes out, Vikings fans will have cause for concern. Either they’ll be starting veterans that struggled mightily a year ago, or they’ll be starting inexperienced prospects, one in particular who might be playing a new position.
Minnesota chose to allocate its money and draft capital at positions other than guard this offseason. Given the benefit of foresight, one wonders whether they would make that same choice. The current setup doesn’t seem to present much upside.