Since Matt Birk left in 2009 and went on to win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings have been looking for their next long-term center. The rest of the offensive pieces have been put into place, but the O-line is one of the few things holding this offense back from greater success. Garrett Bradbury was drafted as a first-rounder in 2019 to be a pillar in the middle of the line. Bradbury was to replace Pat Elflein at center, a decent placeholder at the position but never looked as comfortable as he was at guard — the position he played at Ohio State.
An offensive lineman can earn a good living if he becomes a staple on his team’s O-line. While a lineman’s job can be more about guiding and protecting others rather than making flashy highlight plays, the position’s merits highly outweigh the drawbacks. What a center may lack in notoriety they make up for in high average pay and stability, allowing them to form relationships with their peers. There is no danger of being on the bad side of a targeting call, and the lack of quality players at the position makes a solid center a premium for most teams.
Dynasties tend to be anchored by a quality center. The most successful years of Tom Brady’s time with the New England Patriots were fortified by nine years of Dan Koppen. The same story can be said about Jeff Saturday, who was pivotal for the Indianapolis Colts’ dynasty with Peyton Manning behind him for 12 consecutive years. And who could forget Chris Johnson’s CJ2K season where he was posted up behind one of the greatest centers in history, Kevin Mawae, who happened to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 of his 16 NFL seasons. Getting a pillar of the offensive line cemented for a decade relieves a lot of pressure on the quarterback, running back, and tight end corps.
Bradbury started all 16 games in his first two years in the NFL and improved significantly between his mildly underwhelming rookie and sophomore campaigns. He reduced his offensive penalties from eight in 2019 to only four in 2020 and showed significant increases in his run-game protection and downfield blocking ability. Bradbury’s ceiling remains high, and it is important to consider that his evaluations are slightly affected by subpar guard play around him. Coming into this season, he should do a couple of things to make sure he becomes a lynchpin of the O-line and gets the payday of a top offensive lineman in his next contract.
Bradbury needs to show improvement in the passing game this season. He allowed far too many sacks and pressures last year, which anyone could see on tape. The standard for a great offensive lineman keeping your name out of bad plays and Bradbury was present for too many protection breakdowns. His run-blocking grade improved from his rookie to sophomore seasons, but his pass protection was flimsy at best. A well-rounded lineman is a successful lineman, and Bradbury should look to make a significant jump with pass protection if he wants to keep his starting position.
The second thing Bradbury needs to do is take command of his fellow offensive linemen. He needs to help others improve their play, so there is no need for him to pick up lost coverage and get an unwanted hit to his stats and reputation. Brian O’Neill is doing his part at left tackle, but the other three linemen are mostly unproven against top NFL defenses. I believe that the third year is when a player truly needs to develop from a rookie mentality to a veteran leader, and Bradbury is no exception. The Vikings’ entire offensive line is young, especially their depth and rotational players. A group like that needs a defined leader in the middle for their long-term development as a team.
Finally, one of the most important things Bradbury must do this season is staying off the injured list. Given that any number of players may not be available due to COVID protocols, a player who gets injured or needs to take time off for any reason can hurt a team even more. Bradbury is young enough that he may feel he is still invincible. Still, he must stay healthy to show longevity and commitment in a season that may be important for contract negotiations. So far, Bradbury hasn’t missed a game in his NFL career. With young talent waiting on the horizon, just one game off could be enough to give a recent draft pick time to shine.
The Vikings are ready to take the next step on the offensive line. They have several 2020 and 2021 draft picks that are playing or are ready to play, so it is time for Bradbury to make the necessary adjustments to his game. His supporting cast is much improved over previous seasons, so we will finally see what he can do when he is not hindered by lesser linemates — and, most importantly, the Vikings’ front office can gather some valuable data to make a decision come contract renegotiation time.