Vikings

Upgrading the Vikings' Offensive Line Through the Draft: Day 2 Options

Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Even with two first-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings’ pressing needs at other positions — most notably cornerback, wide receiver, and edge rusher — could push offensive line upgrades into the second day of the proceedings.

That falls in line with Rick Spielman’s recent Day 2 actions, as over the past three drafts the Vikings have used the second day to add both Brian O’Neill (2018 Round 2) and Pat Elflein (2017 Round 3). Prior to that, the only second- or third-round pick used on an offensive lineman since Spielman started calling the shots in 2007 was a 2009 second-rounder on Phil Loadholt.

Though it’s a small sample size, going 2-for-2 on tackles is an admirable percentage. Elflein’s recent play drops that rate, and that may push the Purple into tabbing an interior offensive lineman with one or more of the three Day 2 selections they currently hold.

Offensive line coach Rick Dennison is also a fan of the Day 2 big fella, most recently spending the Buffalo Bills’ 2017 second-round pick on Dion Dawkins. After getting just one offensive lineman added to his mix (Ryan Harris, 2007) in the second or third rounds of Dennison’s first 11 drafts as an offensive coordinator or O-line coach, his teams spent three Day 2 picks on offensive linemen in Dennison’s four most recent drafts prior to joining the Vikings last year.

It’s entirely possible a player or two mentioned in last week’s article on potential Day 1 O-line upgrades will still be on the board when the league’s conference-call draft resumes on Day 2. If the Vikings haven’t already addressed that area of their roster, they’d do well to capitalize on that player’s plunge.

There are also capable players who don’t carry a first-round expectation who’ll nonetheless offer help, depth and flexibility to a Vikings offensive line that could use an influx of all of the above.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of seven offensive linemen widely expected to be available on Day 2 of the NFL Draft who appear to fit what the Vikings are looking for up front.

Offensive Tackles

Many mocks have the top four offensive tackles going off the board in the first 15 picks, so the chances of Josh Jones or Austin Jackson — both mentioned in the Day 1 article — sliding to the Vikings at 58 are slim. Not impossible, mind you; Jackson made it to Minnesota’s pick in one of the seven simulations I ran for this article — though it was the same simulation that had near-unanimous first-rounder Andrew Thomas falling to 25, so maybe for that particular simulation too many teams checked the “we don’t care about our offensive line” box.

More realistically, there are a handful of tackles who will still be on the board as Spielman is filling out Minnesota’s Day 2 draft cards and who fit the Vikings’ wants and needs along the offensive line.

Ezra Cleveland

A three-year starter at left tackle for Boise State, Cleveland may have pushed himself in the first round with a strong Senior Bowl and combine numbers that suggested more strength (30 reps on the bench press) and speed (a 4.93 40) than scouts initially credited him with. Cleveland fans view his patience in handling the pass rush as an asset; detractors worry that he’s not aggressive or “nasty” enough.

There’s talk of Cleveland moving inside to guard, as he was proficient in matching up in close quarters and making blocks at the next level — perfect for a zone-based scheme. Cleveland played through a foot injury in his final season at Boise State, but all indications are he’s recovered and ready to contribute to an NFL line sooner rather than later. He was gone before Minnesota’s second-round pick in more simulations than he was available, so it would be a pleasant surprise to have him as an option at pick 58.

Nov 24, 2017; Fort Worth, TX, USA; TCU Horned Frogs offensive tackle Lucas Niang (77) blocks Baylor Bears defensive tackle Bravvion Roy (99) during the first quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Lucas Niang

Another three-year starter, Niang played exclusively on the right side for TCU.

And while he is typically large (6-foot-6, 315) for a right tackle, he’s not the run-game mauler associated with that position. More than a few scouts label Niang as a “dancing bear,” surprisingly nimble for a man of his size. Perhaps more importantly, Niang is lauded for his awareness and football IQ; his ability to adjust to the stunts and twists opposing defenses threw at him would be welcome on a Vikings’ line that struggled with those types of games last season.

One pre-draft publication credited Niang with surrendering just one sack and being flagged only twice for holding over his collegiate career. Niang’s final season at TCU ended prematurely due to a hip injury, but if the Vikings are convinced he’s fully recovered — or at least heading in that direction — he’ll be a value grab on the second day of the draft.

Ben Bartch

What started out as a cute small-school story swelled into a full-blown tsunami after Bartch went head-to-head with top talent at the Senior Bowl and more than held his own. By now you’ve heard the story: how Bartch spent two years as a backup tight end at St. John’s, then packed on 70 pounds thanks to a daily protein shake that included scrambled eggs, grits, peanut butter, bananas, cottage cheese and Gatorade to blossom into an All-American tackle.

Pro Football Focus graded 748 snaps over 12 of Bartch’s 14 games as a senior; he surrendered just four quarterback pressures and posted a stellar 97.0 mark. Though a knee tweak kept Bartch from playing in the game itself, his practice showing in Mobile answered any lingering concerns about his ability to play with the big boys.

Bartch has maintained the athleticism of a former pass-catcher while growing into his offensive line role, with mobility that fits perfectly in the Vikings zone-blocking scheme. Though there’s still plenty to learn, Bartch was quick to pick up the nuances of playing tackle; the same acumen and work ethic would allow him to handle a switch to guard — where some scouts see his NFL future.

Following in the footsteps of fellow D3 lineman Ali Marpet, who used the Senior Bowl to play his way into the second round in 2015, Bartch is expected to become the highest MIAC pick since Concordia-Moorhead defensive tackle Barry Bennett went 60th overall in the third round of the 1978 draft.

Full disclosure: Bartch and I played the same position for the same university — albeit three decades apart. Also, saying that is akin to saying Elton John and your third-grader who just started taking lessons both play piano.

Interior Offensive Line

If the Vikings plan to keep Riley Reiff at tackle, the offensive line focus becomes the interior — specifically, at guard. The Day 1 article mentioned a pair of potential reaches if Minnesota wants to address that need sooner, but both players cited — Lloyd Cushenberry and John Simpson — can be found as frequently in the third round of mock drafts and simulations as they are in first rounds.

In addition to that tandem, here are four more options for upgrading the depth and competition along Minnesota’s interior line.

Sep 8, 2018; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Karan Higdon (22) rushes behind offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz (51) against the Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Cesar Ruiz

Ruiz’s potential draft position is typical of the top-end interior O-linemen: on one hand there’s talk the Cowboys may use their first-round pick on him to replace Travis Frederick; on the other, he was available in the third round of more than one of the draft simulations I ran for this article.

Ruiz fits the versatile mold of recent Vikings’ IOL picks, as he started at both guard and center during his three seasons at Michigan.

Scouting reports suggest Ruiz would be best suited for a drive-blocking scheme, but he’s demonstrated enough athleticism to succeed in the pulls, screens and move blocks of the Vikings’ system as well. His leverage, hand placement and punch allow him to hold up against bigger defensive tackles, which is exactly what the Vikings need from the interior of their offensive line. Adding Ruiz would also give the Vikings three interior linemen with center experience (joining Elflein and Garrett Bradbury).

Aug 30, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz (61) looks to snap the ball during the second half against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Biadasz

As you might expect from a Wisconsin offensive lineman, Biadasz is efficient and technically sound, with a high football IQ. He started at center for all 41 games of his Badgers career, earning All-American honors and the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center in his final season.

After spending his career paving the way for Jonathan Taylor, Biadasz is a solid run blocker with strong hands he uses to manipulate his man out of the play. He may not be athletic enough to accomplish all the move blocks the Vikings ask of their guards and center, and his struggles to anchor in pass protection don’t solve Minnesota’s key issue of keeping interior pressure off Kirk Cousins.

Ultimately, Biadasz may be a better fit for a drive-blocking scheme, and thus more valuable to another team.

Jan 25, 2020; Mobile, AL, USA; North offensive lineman Matt Hennessy of Temple (58) blocks in the first half of the 2020 Senior Bowl college football game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Hennessy

Hennessy fits the model the Vikings have drafted for their interior: smart, technically sound and athletic enough to move and reach the next level.

In the past that has meant sacrificing size and strength, which in turn has led to difficulties holding up against bigger interior defensive linemen. A three-year starter at center for Temple, Hennessy also played some guard as a freshman in what ended up to be a redshirt season. Perhaps Hennessy’s efficiency and ability to leverage larger opponents will help him avoid being overpowered; if the Vikings are convinced he can pull that off, he’ll be a value pick in the third round — and an immediate contributor up front.

Apr 20, 2019; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks offensive lineman Shane Lemieux (68) blocks during the Oregon spring game at Autzen Stadium. Mighty Oregon beat Fighting Ducks 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Lemieux

A four-year starter at guard for Oregon, Lemieux was tabbed by one pre-draft publication as the best pulling and trapping guard in this class. His quickness and balance allow him to reach the second level and seal off defenders, and while he’s not a prototypical “mauler” he’s aggressive with a nasty streak that serves him well in the ground game. Lemieux is adept at pass protection as well, though he struggled at times with interior stunts — something the Vikings don’t want to live through again in front of Cousins.

There’s much to work with here, and if Vikings coaches believe Lemieux’s pass protection issues can be smoothed over he could follow the anticipated path of Dru Samia: a redshirt rookie season followed by a move into the starting lineup.

Even if the Vikings prefer to address other needs in the first round, they could still find an athletic tackle with upside or an immediate contributor on the interior — maybe both — during the second day of the draft. It’s a path they’ve used of late, and with so many other holes to fill it could very well be the route Spielman opts for as the Vikings look to reload rather than rebuild.

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