At long last, the terrifying reign of Rashod Hill is coming to a close. He has been an unmitigated disaster as a left tackle through five weeks. In the fifth of those games, Hill rotated with rookie Christian Darrisaw. Hill’s game went as well as the rest of them went, which left us keenly watching Darrisaw’s debut.
For Darrisaw to go in, he has to be ready to play. You’ve probably heard questions about whether a rookie is “ready to play” too often to believe in it. After all, look at how bad Hill is. If a tackle is going to struggle, why not pick the rookie tackle with the potential to improve? The reason is that a bad tackle is always going to be worse than a good tackle who doesn’t know the calls. Protection calls are complicated and require flawless execution. But now that we have some tape on Darrisaw, we can see for ourselves if he is ready instead of taking the team’s word for it.
Mike Zimmer confirmed that he was rotating Darrisaw into the game to ease him into NFL speed. Zimmer said he has only had 12 practices up to this point, so a performance behind the curve is understandable.
Darrisaw’s day included four offensive possessions and a total of 28 offensive snaps. He and Hill earned similarly mediocre grades from PFF (a 60.0 and a 54.2, respectively). He has his ups and his downs but mostly looked like the player he was in college. That’s more of a good thing than a bad one since that college resumé earned a first-round selection.
Darrisaw looked reasonable, though imperfect, in pass protection. Per PFF, Darrisaw didn’t give up any pressures on the day, though he did have a blemish or two. We’ll talk about those, but all in all, his day was very positive. He shows a lot of anchor, a lot of fight, and the mean streak we often look for in bigger offensive linemen.
There are a few things that are particularly encouraging about Darrisaw’s day. For one, he demonstrated an ability to anchor that Hill seldom showed. Offensive line play is all about recovery. No offensive lineman, not even prime Joe Thomas, wins every rep from the initial engagement. If you lose the initial leverage battle, the good linemen will find a way to salvage the rep. The bad ones let it spiral into an embarrassing sack.
Darrisaw also showed good awareness in his limited action. Pass blockers get to choose how they set in pass protection. It’s an important decision that has to be made at warp speed depending on the defensive alignment, the play design, the decision the players next to you make, and so on. A huge part of being ready to play is the ability to make this decision correctly. If you hesitate, or worse, choose wrong, you’ll give up terrible pressures.
On Darrisaw’s day, there were a few mistakes, but none of them materially impacted the play. That doesn’t excuse those mistakes; it’s just a nice turn of luck. One rep had Darrisaw lose the leverage battle and almost fail to anchor, but help from Ezra Cleveland salvaged the rep. On the Vikings’ only touchdown of the day, Darrisaw was beaten almost instantly, but Kirk Cousins threw the ball quickly enough to nullify that result.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was unquestionably better than Hill has been over the last 4.5 games. PFF’s pass-blocking grades (60.4 for Darrisaw, 53.2 for Hill) agree with me, but I think they undersell the difference. In pure pass protection, Darrisaw is ready. He knows the protection calls and is more or less making defensible decisions in his pass sets. He gives up leverage too often and did get caught lunging, but I’d much rather deal with those problems than Hill’s numerous ones.
In the run, things for Darrisaw were more up-and-down. There were moments where his strength and athleticism were highlighted and moments that made you notice his inexperience. The first play of the game displayed much more of the latter.
Still, his strength and athleticism were on display for many other run reps. The raw talent of Darrisaw is showing up on the field the way the Minnesota Vikings hoped it would.
Perhaps encouragingly, the aspects of the game Darrisaw struggled with were things he improved upon elsewhere in the game. It’s nice to see a rookie avoid repeating the same mistake. He let his pads get high on him on a couple of occasions. That cedes leverage and with it the strength advantage that Darrisaw has on most players. But seeing him fix that problem on the fly is encouraging. Some linemen carry technical problems throughout their entire careers.
On the mental side of things, Darrisaw did not seem out of sorts. He made a few mistakes. It was no worse than Oli Udoh, who struggled mightily on the mental side for a second week in a row, and Udoh’s hold over his job appears safe for now. As time goes on, Darrisaw will become more and more comfortable with the nuances of left tackle in the NFL. Still, whatever rookie struggles befall him appear to be less damaging than Hill’s general ineptitude.