The way the Vikings’ 2020 season went down, it should come as no surprise that Week 17 was party to yet another missed opportunity. From one-point losses to playoff teams to Dan Bailey missing the third-most kicks of any kicker this millennium, “Missed Opportunity” is the runaway favorite for the title of the team’s 2020 highlight reel.
And in a week where the Philadelphia Eagles drew the ire of football purists for “tanking” on Sunday night — you can never have too much film on Nate Sudfeld — the Minnesota Vikings missed an opportunity to do something similar and see just what they might be working with along the offensive line in 2021.
With Riley Reiff ruled out early in the week, the Vikings had an opportunity to test-drive legitimate future left tackle options. In theory, the Vikings drafted Ezra Cleveland to be their left tackle of the future, but he’s played right guard all season. Here was a chance to give him snaps at his college position and get some reps on tape heading into another offseason where Reiff’s potential release will be a major topic of conversation.
Or maybe the Vikings could swing Brian O’Neill from right tackle to the left side. O’Neill hits free agency in 2022 and the upper end of right tackle money isn’t that far off from solid left tackle money — in the neighborhood of $15 million a year, or a couple mil more than Reiff’s contract calls for next year. O’Neill didn’t make the leap to upper-end status like the Vikings hoped he would, but there’s still an eight-figure payday in his near future.
Instead, the Vikings gave Rashod Hill the left tackle assignment on Sunday in Detroit. And Hill was decent, proving that if you have to plug a tackle into the lineup he definitely belongs on the list. Did he do enough to entice a team other than Minnesota to pay him decent money as he hits free agency this offseason? Maybe. There are plenty of OL-thirsty teams out there besides the Vikings.
They also whiffed on a chance to give someone else — anyone, please, for the love of all that is holy — reps at left guard. Dakota Dozier wrapped up the season by playing 1,083 snaps at left guard while posting the 112th-best pass-blocking grade and 110th-best run-blocking grade among all NFL guards per Pro Football Focus.
Each team plays two guards, so that’s 64. And then there’s a backup on every team; that’s 96. And then there are another dozen or so guys. And then Dozier.
The only guards with lower pass-blocking scores and at least a third of Dozier’s snaps at guard this season were beleaguered New York Giants rookie Shane Lemieux (16.9 grade on 504 snaps) and our old friend Pat Elflein (30.5 grade on 419 snaps between the Vikings and New York Jets).
Why not more run for Brett Jones, who posted the highest pass-blocking grade (76.1) and second-highest run-blocking grade (73.6) among Vikings linemen in 138 snaps of work? Why not Oli Udoh, who played three snaps all season? Why not seventh-round pick Kyle Hinton, who was added to the active roster but still hasn’t seen game action at a level above whatever level Washburn (the college, not the Minneapolis high school) plays?
Is it the consistency thing? We talked about the advantages of offensive line consistency when the Vikings unveiled their Week 1 starters. But there’s consistency and then there’s banging your head against a wall repeatedly without success. It shouldn’t have taken a thousand snaps for the Vikings to realize that Dozier isn’t the answer at left guard, and instead of some non-grainy film of Hinton pancaking future doctors and lawyers and insurance salesmen we enter into the offseason with a ginormous question mark on the offensive line.
On the bright side, if the question mark has a solid base — maybe entrench that dot in lead-filled concrete — it might not get shoved back into Kirk Cousins‘ face every stinkin’ play.
But I digress.
There’s also the very real possibility of yet another new play-caller for the Vikings, though you know Mike Zimmer is going to make sure the playbook has more run chapters than pass chapters. Hey, as long as it schemes more play-action and rollouts rather than dropping Cousins straight back behind the weakest interior line since the Maginot Line (go ahead, kids, look it up) I’m not picky.
Working within the constraints of the Vikings budgetary concerns and love of consistency, here’s a very early look at my projected 2021 Vikings offensive line room.
Kicking Riley Reiff to the curb would be a mistake. Yes, his cap hit goes from $13 million to $2 million when he walks out the door, but if he goes now you have to fill two more holes by either swapping O’Neill or moving Cleveland and hoping that works out while replacing them at right tackle or right guard, respectively.
With no second-round pick the Vikings would need to use their first-round pick on a Reiff replacement, and while I’ve already signed up for the Rashawn Slater fan club newsletter we all know if Zimmer gets ahold of the draft card he’s writing “defense no matter what.” Tough to bank on a third-round pick to step into Reiff’s void and deliver anything close to the solid play he provided at a discounted price in 2020. Work some cap gymnastics, ask Kirk if he’s willing to save a few bruises and slide a couple mil Riley’s way, and bring him back.
The Vikings don’t seem to think Brett Jones is a starter, but if he’s the insurance policy for the interior of this line I’m good with that. Brandon Scherff is the top guard on the market, but he’s going to command more money than Reiff currently gets — and fellow free-agent-to-be Joe Thuney won’t be far behind.
Would I love it if the Vikings invested in a guard in free agency? Absolutely. But I’m not holding my breath. My initial legwork on the aforementioned Slater talks about his position versatility, so the Vikings could draft him on a modified Cleveland plan and play him at left guard for a season until Reiff retires. You know the Vikings love their offensive linemen to be versatile, and in today’s NFL, you can never have too many tackles — especially if they can play guard.
You know who I didn’t mention? Dakota Dozier and Dru Samia. For obvious reasons.
Garrett Bradbury was better this year but he’s still spending too much time in Cousins’ lap. With a first-round pick invested in him, Bradbury isn’t going anywhere… except hopefully the weight room and the buffet so he can bulk up his anchor. Maybe a call to the Smoothie King, Jacksonville guard Ben Bartch (yet another missed opportunity for the Vikings) could help with Bradbury’s anchor. Jones offers center flexibility as well as guard insurance, but apparently, the Vikings have him on a limited snap count.
Is Ezra Cleveland locked in at right guard? If he kicks to left tackle, the Vikings will have to find two guards. Watching Cleveland leads me to believe he’ll be best served at tackle eventually, but as noted earlier, you can’t have too many guys with tackle experience on your roster. And now that Cleveland has demonstrated competency at guard, he’s locked in somewhere on the line. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’ll be right guard in 2021.
Pass rushers come from both sides in the NFL so Brian O’Neill doesn’t need to move across to the left side to have value. It would be nice to see the Vikings lock him in early coming off a “meh” season in 2020 that should keep his price tag down. There’s still potential here, and after being ahead of schedule at the beginning of his career there shouldn’t be too much hand-wringing about a slowdown in his development.
So in my perfect world — well, at least the one where Minnesota didn’t draft Bartch out of St. John’s — the Vikings have four tackles and a center in their starting five, backed up by Brett Jones and Oli Udoh. That leaves two more backup spots to fill, and that can be done cheaply and efficiently with draft picks, free agents with “show-me” deals, or current roster depth such as Kyle Hinton and Blake Brandel.
If only we had film on either of them facing an NFL team like, say, the Detroit Lions.
Oh, the missed opportunity.