Levi’s Stadium has built a reputation for having one of the worst playing surfaces in the NFL. Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers served as a reminder of this, with the turf monster collecting bodies left and right. Chief among them was Christian Darrisaw, who left in the fourth quarter and didn’t return.
Given that Darrisaw had a minor tweak in camp that persisted into the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up missing a few games. Swing tackle Rashod Hill filled in for the rookie left tackle and is the most likely candidate to be thrust into the starting lineup should Darrisaw continue to miss time.
Hill is in his sixth season with the Minnesota Vikings and is the elder statesman of the team’s offensive line room. If Hill gets the nod to start at left tackle, it wouldn’t be his first time doing so. Hill started 46% of games from the start of the 2017 season to the end of the 2018 season. This marks the fifth consecutive year in which Hill has started at least one game.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Hill is the best option moving forward. His overall PFF grade is 42.2, the lowest among tackles that have played at least 20% of their team’s snaps. The Vikings could essentially start pretty much anyone else and get better results.
Speaking of better results, Brian O’Neill has been Minnesota’s best offensive lineman by a large margin for the past couple of seasons. He’s an above-average pass blocker with experience at left tackle, having played on the left side for most of his college career at Pitt. But it’s been nearly five years since the last time O’Neill played left tackle. Putting him on the opposite side also means he would have to modify his hand placement. Considering that O’Neill is the Vikings’ long-term answer at right tackle, making him undergo sudden changes to his technique is likely more trouble than it’s worth.
Minnesota has another former left tackle on the roster in Ezra Cleveland, who could fill the void left by Darrisaw. Unlike O’Neill, Cleveland is only in his second season in the NFL and may have a better chance of remembering how to play his original position. He may not be on the same level as O’Neill in terms of production, but he certainly offers more upside with his athleticism than a veteran like Hill would.
The potential downside to moving Cleveland to left tackle is the vacancy it creates at left guard. The Vikings would either be forced to kick Hill inside or start rookie right guard Wyatt Davis on the left side of the line. The last thing the Vikings need is another Dru Samia situation, where a redshirt player who isn’t ready to start is thrust into the lineup and loses their confidence.
Finally, there is a player not named Rashod Hill the Vikings could start without having to make other players change positions. Blake Brandel played four years at left tackle at Oregon State and was the nation’s highest-graded FBS pass-blocking tackle. His high marks weren’t due to a lack of quality opponents either. Brandel only allowed three pressures in ten games against Power 5 defenses. At 6’7″ and just over 300 lbs., Brandel has more than enough size to wall off defensive linemen. He also displays solid technique and has experience in the same zone-blocking scheme the Vikings run.
However, Brandel is severely lacking in the athleticism department. He may be better suited as a guard in the NFL. His lack of significant playing time is another issue, with Brandel only playing 18 snaps on offense this season. I don’t see the Vikings starting the second-year tackle anytime soon unless the offensive line gets hammered by injuries.
The injury to Darrisaw has opened a Pandora’s Box full of possibilities the Vikings could take in the short term to shore up the offensive line. With each option presenting varying levels of risks and rewards, the team needs to figure out where their priorities lie. Do you set Hill in the starting lineup and forget about it with the risk of him providing sub-par play, or do you roll the dice on a younger player who has the potential to be better but risk hurting his development by rushing him out onto the field? Regardless, the Vikings will have a decision to make at left tackle.