Minnesota Should Follow Cleveland and Tennessee's O-Line Models

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has let down the rest of the offense for years now. PFF ranked the Vikings’ offensive line 26th in the NFL last season. After watching them play, even that ranking seems too high. After a defensive-heavy offseason, how does Minnesota’s line compare to the rest of the NFL heading into the draft?

Maybe the worst part of their ranking is the fact that they were relatively healthy all season. The only position that shuffled through multiple players was right guard, and that was eventually filled by the surprisingly polished rookie Ezra Cleveland.

But now the line seems to be in an even worse state than at the end of the season with the loss of Riley Reiff in free agency, who was their best pass blocker last year. That leaves the draft for the team to right their wrongs on the o-line. The Vikings are a run-first offense behind head coach Mike Zimmer, but they still need to protect their quarterback, considering Kirk Cousins is the seventh highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.

If the team is looking for a model in the NFL to emulate, it has to be the Cleveland Browns or the Tennessee Titans. Those are two run-first teams that have the balance figured out. And they are still good passing teams, just like the Vikings are with Cousins. Last season, PFF ranked Cleveland and Tennessee’s run blocking first and fifth, respectively. While the Vikings aren’t anywhere close to that, they can still follow their lead and build a solid offensive line to complement their game plan.

PFF ranked the Vikings 29th in pass blocking and 18th in run blocking, and Cousins was the most pressured quarterback in the NFL with a rate of 30.2% per dropback, according to Pro Football Reference.  So what have the Vikings done to improve the line? Well, they signed a backup center from the Arizona Cardinals. With the slight chance that Mason Cole is a better guard than Dakota Dozier, there is still a gap at tackle unless Rashod Hill is really going to start.

The only starters set in stone are Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, and Ezra Cleveland. And I don’t even know if Cleveland will remain at guard or be moved to tackle — the position he played in college.

It certainly helps to have Dalvin Cook’s rushing and pass-catching ability take pressure off of the line by giving Cousins extra outlets on any given play, but it’s not enough with how poor the line has performed. And I think Cook is the only reason the run blocking hasn’t been rated even worse.

So, how did the Browns and Titans build their elite lines?

The Browns started a rookie at left tackle in 15 games last year. Jedrick Wills Jr. was the 10th overall pick in last year’s, only four picks earlier than the Vikings have this year. If the Vikings are confident in Cleveland playing guard rather than tackle, they have to fill that spot with an early-round rookie.

I don’t know where the Vikings got the confidence to enter the draft with only three starting linemen on the roster, but they are looking to be set on drafting another tackle and guard going into next season. And one of the two is going to have to start the majority of the season.

The Browns proved it can work if you have the rest of the line in place, but that hinges on what the Vikings think they actually have in Bradbury and Cleveland because O’Neill is already an established star.

The Titans also have a viable blueprint Minnesota can follow. They drafted Taylor Lewan at 11th overall and Nate Davis in the third round, but all of their other linemen are free agent signings, something the Vikings already missed out on heading into the draft. However, if you go back just one more season to 2019, the Titans also had right tackle Jack Conklin, another draft pick. Ironically, Conklin is now on the Browns.

The Titans had similar production in 2019 as last season. Two years ago, Tennessee’s line looked very similar to how Minnesota’s line looks now. They had an awesome tackle in Lewan, a good but injury-prone tackle in Conklin, a struggling veteran center in Ben Jones, and the rookie Davis at right guard.

The biggest difference here is they had just signed Rodger Saffold from the Los Angeles Rams to a decent contract, so they knew he’d be the starter at left guard.

It’s not an identical situation, but Lewan and O’Neill were both surefire starters, and Bradbury is a struggling young player with potential like Conklin was. Cleveland came in and started as a rookie just like Davis did. It’s possible to emulate some of Tennessee’s success if those three can take a step and even just one incoming rookie can start effectively.

Going into the draft with a clear need at offensive line is good because while Rick Spielman typically prefers to take the best player available, the needs along the o-line outweigh all other holes on the roster.

And Rick Dennison is entering his third year as Minnesota’s offensive line coach, so he should create some stability with the emerging linemen already on the team.

The Vikings haven’t had the best history at drafting offensive lineman under Zimmer. But over the past few drafts, they seem to be turning that narrative around. With a great hit on O’Neill and a promising duo in Bradbury and Cleveland, there’s a chance that they will have a serviceable line going into next season with one more contributor.

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