Film Breakdown: Can Ezra Cleveland Help Fix the Vikings' Offensive Line?

AP Photo/Gary McCullough

Ezra Cleveland was a first-round prospect, ranking 27th overall on the Grinding the Mocks consensus, and the Minnesota Vikings almost drafted him in the first round. So the Vikings landed quite a steal when Cleveland fell all the way to the Vikings with the 58th pick, at a position where they have been desperate for help for what seems like forever.

Each year, Pro Football Focus ranks every offensive line based on each team’s performance. Where have the Vikings ranked over the last six years since Mike Zimmer became head coach? Nineteenth, 29th, 22nd, 29th, 14th and 21st. Poor offensive line play has been the team’s lingering Achilles’ heel, contributing both to the 2016 and 2018 teams missing the playoffs and to the 2017 and 2019 teams crumbling in the playoffs when completely outmatched in the trenches.

The Vikings selected Cleveland with the hopes that he could help turn that story around. As the most athletic tackle in the draft, combined with the off-the-charts athleticism of Garrett Bradbury and Brian O’Neill, the Vikings are building the most athletic offensive line in the NFL, hoping to translate that athletic upside into reality. But even with all that upside, Cleveland’s lack of strength and raw technique might leave him riding the bench his rookie year. How far away is Cleveland from becoming an NFL-caliber starter, and how far away is he from becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player?

The Most Athletic Tackle In The Class

In a very talented offensive tackle class, Cleveland was arguably the best athlete of them all, posting the highest Relative Athlete Score (RAS) of any offensive lineman in the class, and the fourth-highest RAS of any tackle outside the seventh round in the last decade (behind only Lane Johnson, Taylor Lewan and Kolton Miller):

You can see that elite burst and speed with just how effortlessly Cleveland hits his mark on his pass sets:

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Cleveland here is facing an edge rusher lined up in a wide-nine technique, which is the farthest away any defensive lineman can line up. Nevertheless, Cleveland employs a jump set, trying to immediately get in front of the edge rusher to stop them from building momentum rather than setting vertically or at an angle and allowing the rusher to come to him. For most offensive linemen, jump setting is aggressive and rare, given that it requires exceptional burst and athleticism and can be very risky given how easy it is to over or under set. It’s even more rare against a wide-nine technique given how much ground the tackle needs to cover. But Cleveland with his athleticism makes it look like a walk in the park, with a patient and controlled punch that immediately shuts down any chance of the edge rusher winning the matchup.

You can also see Cleveland’s elite agility with just how easily he mirrors and redirects:

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Cleveland initially jump sets out as the edge defender bursts upfield, setting up the inside counter, which (particularly after an aggressive jump set) can often be difficult for a tackle to recover from. But Cleveland has no issue mirroring back inside, reestablishing himself with a well-timed, well-aimed punch. The defender then tries to break outside again, but by that point, Cleveland has his hands on the defender’s chestplate and the rep is essentially over, as Cleveland uses his excellent upper body strength to stop the defender in his tracks.

That kind of athleticism pays huge dividends in pass protection for a couple reasons. First, it makes it very difficult for defenders to win with a speed rush to the outside. Most offensive linemen are much worse athletes than the pass rushers they’re tasked with shutting down. Cleveland is the rare exception where NFL defenders won’t often be able to out-athlete him. Most offensive tackles have to put so much effort and attention into not getting beaten outside, but Cleveland’s athleticism allows him to focus his efforts elsewhere.

Second, it gives Cleveland extraordinary recovery ability, such that even when he is beaten, he’s able to regain position immediately. O’Neill has only given up two sacks over two years starting at tackle for the Vikings, and the main reason is his recovery ability — he may get beaten often enough, but his exceptional recovery skill enables him to prevent pass protection losses from turning into sacks. Cleveland has that same advantage.

But Cleveland’s athleticism is even more evident in the running game, where Cleveland regularly makes extraordinary reach blocks, like the example below:

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This is an exceptionally difficult block, as Cleveland is tasked with walling off the seven-technique edge defender, which — for a less athletic tackle — would be virtually impossible. But Cleveland’s elite quickness and explosion allow him to get out in front of the defender in the blink of an eye to take him out of the play.

And that burst and speed is equally impressive when Cleveland is tasked with blocking downfield — take, for example, this long touchdown run, where Cleveland clears through two defenders on his way to the end zone:

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The ease with which Cleveland pulls out and gets in front of the defense is tremendous, and equally impressive is his ability to stay balanced and locked on while blocking multiple defenders. That kind of talent will reap immediate rewards for Kubiak’s offense, as the Vikings love to pull their tackles on stretch plays exactly like this. You also have to love the effort in Cleveland chasing his running back all the way to the end zone.

Make no mistake, Cleveland isn’t just a good athlete. He’s a great athlete. Of the more than 1,000 offensive linemen who have been tested for the draft since 1999, Cleveland has a top 30 40-yard dash, a top-100 broad jump, a top-50 short shuttle and the fifth-best short shuttle. So as raw as Cleveland might be in some areas, his athleticism gives him unique advantages that make me optimistic about his short-term chances of starting and his long-term upside. And as much as raw, athletic offensive linemen get harped on for their bust potential, the upside and hit rate is surprising — just look at the only 10 offensive tackles with a faster 40-yard dash than Cleveland who were drafted in the first three rounds in the last 20 years:

  1. Terron Armstead
  2. Lane Johnson
  3. Joe Staley
  4. Trent Williams
  5. Brian O’Neill
  6. Tristan Wirfs
  7. Taylor Lewan
  8. Khalif Barnes
  9. Greg Robinson
  10. Joe Thomas

Not bad company to be in! Cleveland is long way away from being compared to those future Hall of Famers, but his athleticism gives him as good a shot as any to reach that incredibly high ceiling.

Great Intangibles, Too

But as impressive as Cleveland’s combine measureables are, his football character is equally exciting. As Jamaal Stephenson, the Vikings’ Director of College Scouting, put it, “He’s mature. He’s tough. He’s a grinder. He loves football.” Cleveland is young, having just turned 22 in May, but he started 41 games at left tackle at Boise State, only missing one game over his entire college career after suffering through a turf toe injury early in his 2019 year — and playing through that injury for the rest of the year.

That toughness shows on film, too. Some scouts knock Cleveland for supposedly lacking a mean streak, but I don’t see that at all:

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Cleveland dominates this zone run rep instantly, but winning isn’t enough for Cleveland, who doesn’t stop until he knocks his defender onto his butt. And he doesn’t stop there either, taking the time to walk over and mean mug his defender, too. That’s the kind of nasty and toughness you love to see from your offensive linemen.

And Cleveland’s football smarts are exceptional as well. Former Boise State teammate Alexander Mattison praised him as “extremely smart,” but you don’t have to take Mattison’s word for it — Cleveland also scored the highest Wonderlic score of all tackles in the draft class. And those smarts show up on the football field plenty:

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The defense here is running a complicated blitz, involving both edge defenders feinting upfield before dropping back into coverage while both three-technique defenders loop around the edge. Cleveland picks up the stunt immediately, turning his head and feet towards the looping defender at the exact same time as the edge rusher drops back into coverage.

The speed with which Cleveland regularly recognizes and picks up stunts is impressive:

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But perhaps the most exciting of Cleveland’s intangibles is how dedicated he is to improvement. As Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin put it, “What I love about Ezra is he has no complacency to him.” You can have all the upside in the world, but if you don’t have the work ethic and don’t love the game, it won’t mean much. Cleveland loves the game and has shown at every opportunity that he’ll put in the work to reach his potential.

More Technically Advanced Than You’d Think

Read any scouting profile of Ezra Cleveland and you might get the impression that for all his potential, he’s only just starting to learn the position, rather than having started at left tackle for three years at Boise State. Cleveland certainly has plenty to work on, but it’s more a matter of fine-tuning than a total rebuild. And on a number of levels Cleveland is pretty advanced for a rookie: His pass sets are terrific, with great footwork regardless of whether he’s jump setting, on an angle or vertical setting, and his punch timing is consistently excellent.

Particularly impressive is his patience as a pass blocker, as demonstrated on the two reps below:

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The first play showcases Cleveland’s smooth, fluid feet on an angle set, while the second play shows Cleveland jump setting into the defender’s frame. But on both plays, as immediate as Cleveland’s feet are, his hands are coiled patiently, striking only immediately after the defender punches first. That enables Cleveland to land a well-aimed blow that knocks the defender back and gives Cleveland full control as he rides the defender down the arc, leaving plenty of space between the rusher and the quarterback.

Cleveland’s technical prowess also shines on combo blocks, whether double teaming in duo or inside zone:

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On each of the three runs above, Cleveland overpowers the defensive tackle at the first level, then smoothly climbs up to the linebacker at the second level and walls him off from the play. Cleveland does a great job getting low to win the leverage battle at the first level and connecting at the second level with a great sense of timing and natural ability to connect with a defender upfield.

In fact, Cleveland’s ability to connect with defenders on the move is one of his most impressive skills:

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Locking on to defenders like a homing missile can be pretty challenging at 300-plus pounds, but Cleveland makes it look too easy, consistently zeroing in on his defender and making good, strong contact to take them out of the play.

Relatedly, Cleveland’s balance and footwork while blocking on the move is very good:

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Cleveland here does a good job establishing and re-establishing his grip on his defender’s chest, but particularly impressive is his piston-like footwork to stay balanced while moving the defender out of the way and eventually into the ground.

So while Cleveland may have a few things to work on, his fundamentals — pass sets, combo blocks, reach blocks, footwork, punch timing, etc. — are largely NFL-caliber, and some of his traits, like his blocking in space, are already quite good for an NFL tackle.

Lack of NFL-Caliber Strength

But despite all that skill and athleticism, Cleveland has one glaring weakness that could keep him from succeeding in the NFL: lack of lower-body strength. While his upper-body strength is fine (he recorded the most bench press reps of any tackle at the combine), Cleveland’s lack of lower-body strength rears its ugly head in a number of key areas.

First, he rarely bulldozes defenders. He generates very limited vertical displacement in the run game, and when drive blocking he’s happy to settle for stalemates. And while he times his punches very well and aims his punches generally fairly well, he lacks the heavy hands to jolt defenders back, whether as a run blocker or pass protector. Good coaching and added time in the weight room can help him to a certain extent here, but Cleveland will probably never be known as a mauler.

Second, and more importantly, he struggles to anchor against power rushers. In the play below, despite a good pass set and initial punch, Cleveland gets stood up and thrown off balance as he gives up a sack:

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That lack of strength, compounded by playing with his pads too high, allows the defender to counter with his left arm inside, and the force of the counter knocks Cleveland onto one foot, where the defender can easily push past him for the sack.

And while Cleveland clearly needs to add strength, his issues with power come just as much, if not even moreso, from poor anchoring technique:

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In both of these plays, Cleveland gets walked back into the pocket due to playing with very little hip sink and due to his tendency to give up his chest. Those two things combined make him an absolute pushover against power.

The good news is that learning the proper technique to anchor against power is a quicker fix than spending a redshirt year in the squat rack. Right now Cleveland can often play with his hands too wide and his pads too high. But he’s capable of moving deftly while squatting down and keeping his hands tightly coiled inside, as he’s demonstrated on other plays, so if he can learn to play lower and tighter, he may be able to start in the NFL quicker than expected. He’ll still need to add some sand in his pants, but his strength is adequate enough for him to see the field early if he gets the technique down.

Technical Fine-Tuning

But even aside from the glaring lack of strength and anchor, Cleveland has plenty of other technical issues to iron out. Perhaps at the top of that list is how Cleveland has a tendency to open himself up to inside counters by oversetting:

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Cleveland sets way too wide here and is late to react to the defender’s inside counter, so much so that the defender can just run past Cleveland for the sack. It’s certainly a fixable issue, as Cleveland demonstrates the ability to redirect inside and mirror with his elite agility and reaction speed, but that said it’s a habit that may die hard, as it shows up a number of times on Cleveland’s film:

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The problem may stem from Cleveland myopically focusing on finishing his initial pass set rather than being able to interrupt himself as needed, or it may stem from Cleveland turning his hips too far too soon. In either case, it can be a difficult problem to solve, as Cleveland can also be susceptible to undersetting and allowing himself to be beaten outside, too:

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Cleveland here does a nice job feinting with his initial punch to draw the defenders hands before thrusting out a second punch, but he doesn’t quite get far enough out and the defender easily rips through Cleveland’s punch en route to the quarterback.

So while Cleveland certainly has the burst and agility to hit the correct landmarks in his pass sets and mirror defenders that counter inside, right now he simply lacks the consistency to do it every down.

Another issue to mention is that while Cleveland is generally very good at timing his punches in pass protection, sometimes his aim can be off the mark. Relatively short arms (21st percentile for a tackle) give him limited room for error here as well.

One last criticism worth mentioning is that Cleveland doesn’t always play through the whistle. On the play below, Cleveland does a characteristically good job reacting to the edge defender dropping back into coverage and sliding back inside to knock the looping defender on his butt. But the problem is that Cleveland takes the rest of the play off:

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As you can see, the quarterback eventually tucks the ball and runs, leaving the defender Cleveland was initially tasked with blocking a clear shot at the quarterback. Cleveland’s inconsistency in playing through the whistle may explain some of the scouting reports with the impression that Cleveland lacks a mean streak, but Cleveland’s problem seems to be more of a matter of focus than attitude.

In fairness to Cleveland, according to Pro Football Focus, he played over 500 passing blocking snaps at Boise State last year, while only surrendering 12 total pressures (including three sacks). This article has showcased over half of them, but don’t get the wrong impression — for every pressure he surrendered in pass protection, he had over 40 snaps where he kept his quarterback clean. At the same time, there is a world of difference between the level of difficulty of the Mountain West Conference and the NFL, and right now you do have to worry a bit about how Cleveland would handle himself when tasked with blocking Za’Darius Smith or Khalil Mack one-on-one this year.

Where Does Cleveland Fit Into the 2020 Vikings?

Given Cleveland’s fantastic football character and elite athleticism, it’s not difficult to imagine him developing into a very high-quality left tackle in a few years’ time. But will Cleveland be able to help the Vikings win games this year, or will he be forced to ride the bench as he adds weight and refines his technique?

There is plenty of logic in not throwing Cleveland to the wolves as a rookie. It’s a lot easier to put on muscle when that is your sole focus at the gym, rather than trying to balance strength training with being able to achieve peak performance on Sundays. And starting a rookie too early can often result in players making bad habits, cheating on their technique to scrape by, or reinforcing existing bad habits. Moreover, the ongoing pandemic greatly limits the amount of time and number of opportunities Cleveland will be able to refine his craft before being thrust into action.

All that said, I think Cleveland will be starting at left tackle for the Vikings sooner rather than later, and would not be surprised at all if he earns a starting job right out of the gate. First, while Cleveland certainly needs to add strength in his lower half, his problems with anchoring are more technical than physical. If Cleveland can learn to consistently sit lower in his pass sets and better protect his chest, he should be able to handle himself well enough against NFL power.

Second, while Cleveland may lack the oomph to overpower defenders in the run game, Gary Kubiak calls outside zone runs more than any other offense in the NFL. And not only is Cleveland more than ready to step into that rushing offense from Day 1 given all the similar concepts Boise State employed, Cleveland is ready to shine with his exceptional ability to make the difficult pulls and reach blocks required by those stretch runs.

Third, I think the most valuable thing the Vikings can do for Cleveland’s development is throw him into the fire. Aside from his issues with strength, the most important thing for Cleveland to develop, both in the run game and in pass protection, is consistency. The best way for Cleveland to develop that consistency is with in-game reps against NFL competition. Like O’Neill or Kolton Miller, his rookie season might not be pretty, and might require a good deal of help from tight ends and backs, but that rookie playing time will pay huge dividends later in his career.

Fourth and finally, as flawed as Cleveland is right now, I have little doubt that he is one of the Vikings’ five best offensive linemen. Right now Cleveland cannot compare to Brian O’Neill or Riley Reiff, but I still have a lot more confidence in Cleveland starting at left tackle than I do in Pat Elflein, Aviante Collins or Dakota Dozier starting at left guard. I think ultimately the Vikings will put their five best offensive linemen out there, and right now, warts and all, Ezra Cleveland is one of the Vikings’ top five guys.

So I do see Cleveland starting early at tackle for the Vikings. Like O’Neill, it may take a few games, and it will likely be a trial by fire — don’t be shocked if Cleveland plays poorly as a rookie. But given his elite athleticism, intelligence and work ethic, don’t be shocked either if in a few years’ time Cleveland is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

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