Is Mason Cole An Answer at Guard, or Just Another Backup?

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has been below average for Mike Zimmer’s entire tenure, so it was a welcome move when they made another surprise splash in free agency on Thursday and acquired Arizona Cardinals’ starting center Mason Cole in exchange for a compensatory sixth-round pick.

The move bears a striking similarity to one Rick Spielman made three years ago when the Vikings traded a seventh-round pick for New York Giants’ backup center Brett Jones. Both trades involved a Day 3 pick only a few spots away — Cole was acquired with the 223rd pick overall; Jones with the 232nd pick overall. Both players carried a cap hit slightly above $2 million — Jones carried a $2.9 million cap hit; Cole will carry a $2.2 million cap hit. And both players have been low-end centers in the NFL. Jones was a three-year backup who did an impressive job filling in for the Giants in 2017 after Weston Richburg was placed on IR; Cole played all 16 games as a rookie but was benched in 2019 due to struggles in pass protection and with snapping the ball, then re-earned the starting job last year.

But there is reason to believe that while the Vikings saw Jones as only rock-solid depth, they may see Cole as a potential starter. First off, despite his struggles, he was the Cardinals starter all through last year. Second, assuming Cole makes the final roster, Minnesota will pay Cole about as much as they are paying Stephen Weatherly, who himself figures to play plenty of snaps if not start himself, and the Vikings did not fork over any draft picks to bring in Weatherly.

So have the Vikings finally found a potential guard of the future in Cole? Or, like Brett Jones, is he just another solid backup?

Can He Play Guard?

Cole played left tackle and center in college and has mostly played center again for the Cardinals. Nevertheless, Cole very likely figures to play guard in Minnesota, as multiple reports have intimated. That’s a big switch — despite the fact that both positions are played along the interior of the offensive line, they are about as different as a 1-technique nose tackle is from a 3-technique defensive tackle. Guard is a more physically demanding position, as guards are frequently left one-on-one against 3-technique defensive tackles, whereas centers are typically left only having to double-team the nose tackle. As a result, the average guard weighs over 10 pounds more than the average center, with arms longer by nearly an inch on average, to help them hold up in protection, per MockDraftable’s database. Conversely, centers are required to be much more athletic, such that they can regularly reach-block nose tackles after snapping the ball without any help, and that goes doubly true for teams running an outside zone scheme like the Vikings in which the reach blocks are that much harder for the center.

Aside from physicality, though, center is a much more mentally challenging position. The center is generally responsible for reading the defensive front in each play and adjusting the protection call (and communicating that adjustment) accordingly. They need to be smart and do their homework every week, and always be prepared for last-second shifts and stunts designed to prey on unprepared offensive lines.

And of course the biggest difference of all is the center actually has to snap the ball to the quarterback. That means they start each play with one hand in the dirt, snap the ball to the quarterback, then immediately get into position to block a 300 lb defensive lineman barreling into them. That’s another reason centers tend to be lighter and more nimble: so that they can quickly snap into position from a three-point stance every play.

So what does all this mean for Cole switching from center to guard?

For one, it means Cole would no longer have to struggle getting up into his stance in order to snap the ball:

Cole allowed two sacks last year, and both of them feature him doing a poor job getting quickly out of his stance, the defender giving a head fake to get Cole to open his body the wrong way, and the defender ripping (uppercutting the armpit) their way to the quarterback. The easiest way to solve this problem? Stop having Cole snap the ball so that he can start each snap in a two-point stance and not worry about his initial balance or stance.

Cole has always been inconsistent snapping the ball, both in college and in the NFL. This leads to botched snaps, fumbles, and delay-of-game penalties when he’s not on the same page with the rest of the team:

[videopress 7ZXbHKbc]

Granted, shotgun snaps where you’re snapping the ball through your legs a few yards back are significantly harder than under-center snaps where you’re mostly just handing the ball to the quarterback. And that’s relevant because the Cardinals played out of the shotgun on 92% of snaps last year (most in the NFL), while the Vikings played out of the shotgun only 36% of the time (least in the NFL). So if Cole needs to play at center in a pinch, he’s a lot less likely to have an issue snapping the ball for the Vikings. Either way, it’s another reason to move him to guard.

And while many football players are center-only due to size limitations, Cole does not have that problem. He is well above average in size for a center and fits the thresholds for guard duty. His arms are short, even for a center, but he can make up for that with his height and wingspan. And the solid broad jumps and 3-cone numbers understate his functional athleticism, which pops all over his tape.

Can He Run Block?

A cursory glance at Cole’s career PFF grades suggest that, while he may struggle in pass protection, he’s a solid run blocker:

I think those grades are generally an accurate snapshot of Cole’s career so far. But as useful as PFF grades are, they leave out a lot of important context, such as whom players were matched up against, how much was asked of them, and what their assignment was. And I think the Vikings see Cole as someone who is a much better fit for their wide-zone offense than Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid-inspired offense. Kingsbury’s rushing scheme was pretty wildly different from what Gary Kubiak and the Vikings ran last year. Kingsbury ran a zone-read-heavy attack that featured Kyler Murray as a threat from the shotgun, mixing in inside zone, power, trap, and a whole handful of other concepts. In contrast, over the past couple years the Vikings had the most outside-zone-heavy offense in the NFL.

With that context, I think Cole’s PFF grades actually undersell how good of a run blocker he can be in Minnesota. While he lacks the oomph to thrive in gap-scheme runs, he looks great at all the reach blocks, cut blocks, and combo blocks that are heavily featured in Minnesota:

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As you can see on those reach blocks, Cole has no problem exploding out of his stance to cross a 1-technique nose tackle’s face and seal him off from the other side. Those are tough blocks to make and sustain at the NFL, and Cole makes them look easy. He also works well with the guard across from him on combo blocks and is an easy climber to the second level to take out linebackers and other defenders once he’s taken care of business at the line of scrimmage.

That athleticism and ability to take out defenders beyond the line of scrimmage also shows when Cole is asked to pull or climb upfield, where he made some of his better blocks:

[videopress e2LmGci7]

That will be a boon to the Vikings, who love to take advantage of their offensive line’s athleticism and Dalvin Cook‘s ability in space in the screen game. And if Cole starts at guard, it will also help them when they run power (which they started to sprinkle in a fair amount last year) to take advantage of his athleticism and ability to connect with defenders on the move.

Overall, I would say Cole is a starting-caliber run blocker with the potential to be slightly above average in the Vikings’ offense where his athleticism, balance, and ability to reach and block on the move will feature heavily in their outside zone scheme. He lacks strength and often has to settle for stalemates (at best) on duo or other gap-scheme runs, and on zone runs he can overrun his landmark or sometimes be easily shed by heavy-handed defenders. But his strengths and overall profile fit very nicely with what the Vikings like to do, which I imagine is why they traded for him and think they can set him up to succeed in Minnesota.

Can He Pass Block?

Cole’s PFF grades suggest he has greatly struggled in pass protection. In his rookie year, Cole ranked dead last (out of 38 qualifying centers) in pass-block grade and ranked 35th out of 38 in pass-block grade last year among qualifying centers.

Generally speaking, centers actually have a much easier job in pass protection compared to guards. They usually only have to hold up in a double-team against nose tackles. Switching to guard would mean Cole going up one-on-one against the league’s top interior pass rush threats like Aaron Donald or DeForest Buckner.

My biggest concern with Cole moving to guard is he just doesn’t have a lot of sand in his pants, and his tape last year has countless examples of him getting bull rushed into the pocket:

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A lot of these issues crop up against 0-technique nose tackles because Cole struggles to properly set and establish an initial half-man relationship against opposing defensive linemen. Otherwise, his technique isn’t terrible. He has active hands and adequate aim, he’s often able to establish leverage to stand his ground, and as shown above he can use a hop technique to slow down bull rushers. But at his marginal size, he has very little room for error, and the issues come up too consistently to feel confident in his pass protection.

That said, Cole has had plenty of moments where he shows he’s capable of anchoring with good leverage, hand placement, and technique:

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Despite his lack of size and lower-body strength, Cole generally holds up well against power, at least initially, thanks to good knee bend and leverage. He is not the kind of offensive lineman who will stonewall defenders all day, but for an offense like the Vikings’ that relies heavily on both play-action or bootlegs and West Coast quick-passing concepts, Cole could maybe get by.

And it’s worth mentioning that Cole plays with good awareness, looks for work, and has some really impressive plays picking up stunts or adjusting to blitzes:

[videopress 3RFCaoL9]

As shown above, on two separate occasions Cole faced a double A-gap blitz, saw both linebackers drop into coverage, and immediately responded by going to block the free blitzer on the edge. That’s great awareness, and for a team like the Vikings who often struggled last year to pick up basic stunts, that is certainly valuable.

However, a number of other issues do pop up on tape for Cole. He often will lunge into pass rushers, and particularly against 0-technique nose tackles he struggles to properly set (often undersetting) and can open his shoulders, giving up an easy path to the quarterback. His arms are relatively short, and his hand usage, although active, is not always precise.

The overall profile suggests a player who unfortunately is not a starting-caliber pass protector. That may be why the Cardinals tried to hide his pass-protection limitations at center rather than exposing him to one-on-one matchups at guard.

That is not to say all hope is lost for Cole holding up at guard. Due to injuries along the Cardinals’ line in 2019, Cole ended up playing about 200 snaps that year at guard, and there his pass-blocking grade was solid: 63.3, which would rank about 70th out of 118 guards. Not great, but good enough to get away with as a starter. And the tape matches that grade:

Two hundred snaps is a small sample size, but Cole seems to anchor better as a guard, perhaps because he no longer struggles to get out of his stance and properly set when he does not have to worry about snapping the ball. His technical issues and lack of size, strength, and length will still impede him at guard the same as they do at center. But there is a possibility he may be an adequate pass protector at guard despite struggling as a center.

So Is He the Answer?

Overall, Cole is an average run blocker with good initial quickness, balance, and ability in space to potentially be better than average in Minnesota. But he has struggled to anchor and properly set as a pass protector. Despite starting last year in Arizona, his struggles in pass protection are worrisome enough that I personally would only consider him a high-end backup, similar in some ways to Pat Elflein.

However, there may be additional upside for Cole at guard, where he will be more easily able to properly set without having to put his hand in the dirt and snap the ball. And the Vikings’ emphasis on play-action, boots, and quick three- and five-step West Coast passing concepts may sufficiently hide some of his weaknesses in protection.

I would wager the Vikings made this trade hoping they can tweak a few things and have him compete for a starting guard job, but that they are also not counting on him to start Week 1. If the change in scenery, new coaching, and position switch enable Cole to win the starting job, then the trade is an obvious win for the Vikings. But if he winds up as merely a solid backup, much like Brett Jones, he would at least come with the versatility to play at all three interior spots, giving the Vikings a much higher floor if an injury happened and Cole had to come into a game rather than Dru Samia. For a super-utility backup with an outside chance to turn into an adequate starter, I could think of worse ways of spending a sixth-rounder.

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