Minnesota Deserves Credit For Developing Brian O'Neill

Photo Credit: Ben Ludeman (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s the summer preceding the contract year for Brian O’Neill and the rest of the remaining 2018 draft class. That’s prime extension season for players like O’Neill and Tyler Conklin, who have played well. O’Neill has been a bright spot on the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line amidst the usual chaos and mayhem. How he got to that point is a triumph all its own.

O’Neill’s development since his rookie year is not unlike Rashod Hill‘s, who completely re-vamped his technique between then and now. Of course, O’Neill was a much better player in 2018 than Hill was, but both have grown considerably. We must, to some degree, credit the Vikings’ coaching staff for this. O’Neill’s rookie year started with the tragic passing of Tony Sparano, meaning he started his career under a wide-eyed Andrew Janocko and tight ends coach Clancy Barone.

For a player who came out as a raw-but-athletic project lineman, that could have spelled disaster. But O’Neill earned a starting job midway through his rookie year and has not relinquished it. In 2019 and 2020, Rick Dennison joined the Vikings as offensive line coach, alongside Gary and Klint Kubiak and tight ends coach Brian Pariani. In that time, O’Neill has only improved. While he had a couple of tough games last year, it was largely more of the same.

In fact, O’Neill has added to his game. No longer does he win with athleticism alone or lose when that’s not enough. Instead, O’Neill has learned to utilize his hands and posture better to shore up some of his biggest weaknesses.

The anchor problem

O’Neill was a classic Vikings offensive line pick. He was an athletic tackle with a ton of technique flaws and a general power issue that would take time to develop. The biggest blemish on O’Neill’s resumé was his ability to anchor against power. When Riley Reiff got injured, thrusting O’Neill into the lineup as Rashod Hill kicked to the left side, that weakness was exposed.

There are two main causes for this; one fixable, one not. The unfixable thing is a general lack of upper body strength relative to his opponents. It’s just the style of player he is, and the quickness the Vikings get in return is plenty useful. That doesn’t mean that every reasonably strong rusher can bowl him over. If he can employ the right technique, he can still anchor despite losing the leverage battle at the initial engagement.

O’Neill has gotten very adept at getting his feet behind him in anchoring situations. The steeper you can stand, the more power you can absorb — raw strength be damned. Whether he learned that through hard work and determination, good coaching, or both, we’ll happily take the improvement. O’Neill’s biggest issue, his ability to anchor against power, has greatly improved.

PAtient Hands

O’Neill has faced a slate of elite rushers over his career. He’s faced Cameron Jordan every year, Khalil Mack, and J.J. Watt, to name a few. Part of what makes those players elite is their hand technique. Swatting a tackle’s hands out of the way can set up exactly the engagement the pass rusher wants. Jordan, in particular, is adept at this. Unfortunately, in his younger years, O’Neill had a nasty habit of playing right into the pass rusher’s hands.

When you give a pass rusher your hands, you expose yourself to any number of techniques they’ve learned to counter that. After a couple of years with any coaching at all, O’Neill learned to be more patient with his hands and even flash them to draw his opponent into poor timing. Here are two later reps against Cameron Jordan.

O’Neill is not without persistent issues. He had a couple of bad games against the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys last year. But in terms of committing the Vikings to three or more years of O’Neill, that should bring you nothing but comfort. He came into the league with less to learn than his pre-draft evaluation implied. But O’Neill hasn’t been stagnant. Dennison and the rest of the staff deserve credit for polishing O’Neill’s game and making him more resilient to elite pass rushers.

With Dennison, both Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill have improved in material ways. While it’s natural to blame the offensive line coach for offensive line deficiencies, it’s also important to give credit where it’s due. Of course, Dennison also bears some responsibility for the team’s inexplicable loyalty to Dakota Dozier and the struggles that befell Ezra Cleveland in his rookie year. But as with all things, there’s some good and some bad. With O’Neill, it’s okay to appreciate the Vikings finally developing a good offensive lineman.

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