On Wednesday morning, the Minnesota Vikings will practice for the first time as a full team in front of reporters this season.
It’s their first opportunity to send a public message about where players stand, including on the offensive line. Minnesota drafted tackle Christian Darrisaw in the first round and guard Wyatt Davis in the third round. An opportunity to show their confidence in two rookies expected to be staples who will revive a perpetually weak unit.
Based on how the Vikings typically operate, Minnesota will opt to practice with veterans in the starting group before promoting their first-year players either right before the season or several weeks in. Pat Elflein went through it in 2017, Brian O’Neill in 2018, and Ezra Cleveland in 2020.
It’s likely Minnesota takes the same approach in 2021, but a change would be refreshing.
“I hate to say instant starter,” Zimmer said of Darrisaw on draft night. “This guy’s got to come in here and prove himself just like everybody else does. Hopefully, that’s what he is.”
May as well apply that logic to Davis, too.
But keeping it a mystery feels like a charade. Never have two starting spots been more preordained for a pair of rookies. The Vikings cut loose longtime left tackle Riley Reiff and drafted Darrisaw as his replacement with the 23rd-overall pick. At guard, they stood pat throughout free agency aside from retaining one of the league’s worst-graded guards Dakota Dozier. Rick Spielman practically parted the Red Sea to open up a path for rookies to come in and take jobs. He and the coaching staff, therefore, should let them accept those roles immediately.
Presumably, the Vikings have brought rookies along slowly for a few reasons: to keep them hungry, perhaps. To make them learn from wiser players above them. To promote the idea that their draft status doesn’t guarantee them playing time. There can be merit in these values, but it doesn’t mean they’re best for the team.
In 2018, the Vikings gave Rashod Hill the starting right tackle job instead of trusting O’Neill, the second-round pick. Hill graded out 52nd of 54 tackles in the first six games before getting hurt and passing the baton to O’Neill, who didn’t allow a sack the rest of the season.
In 2020, the Vikings declined to let Cleveland have a place at the table in their left guard competition, choosing to pit Dozier and Aviante Collins in a curious two-man competition. Collins wound up being waived, and Dozier was brutal by most metrics. Cleveland might never have seen the field if right guards Pat Elflein and Dru Samia hadn’t gotten hurt. He ended up being one of the team’s best guards (albeit a low bar to clear).
Minnesota took the slow path with Justin Jefferson last year, as well, which is laughable now. Bisi Johnson was declared more ready in Week 1, but Jefferson usurped him by Week 3 and had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL lore.
Recent history suggests that the Vikings’ placeholders for high draft picks are straw men, existing to be inevitably cast aside. While they might serve a purpose in creating healthy competition, they also stand in the way of chemistry, particularly when it comes to the offensive line.
Darrisaw and Davis should have every chance to get reps with the starting unit. If Cleveland is the new left guard, he should be attached at the hip to his left tackle of the future. Garrett Bradbury has had a miserable two years trying to break into the league with subpar guard play on either side of him — let him start learning Davis’ tendencies. Not to mention Davis can learn a lot from O’Neill on his other side.
If the Vikings had more accomplished veteran plug-ins, this would be a different story, but the two paper tigers in 2021 are retreads from our earlier anecdotes. Hill will likely be the so-called competition at left tackle, but he hasn’t had significant snaps in the league since his aforementioned below-average effort in 2018. Dozier is probably the stopgap right guard, but he’s coming off the sixth-worst grade of any guard in the past 15 years.
If Darrisaw and Davis start Week 1 and struggle, so be it. They’ll be closer to maturing as players than they would be standing on the sideline and taking second-team reps in practice. The Vikings’ potential gains by playing replacement-level veterans are negligible when you consider the ceiling of said veterans.
Anticipate the Vikings following the same playbook and keeping the public guessing as to their Week 1 alignment. This writer’s take: It doesn’t hurt to put some faith in two of your most valuable future assets.