Vikings

Can Kevin O'Connell Save Garrett Bradbury's Career?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

Garrett Bradbury came into the National Football League with a lot of hype. A first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2019 draft, Bradbury was supposed to be a cornerstone of the offensive line but has fallen short of expectations.

Entering this season, Bradbury has a lot to prove. The Vikings predictably declined his fifth-year option, and it would have been understandable if the team had decided to move on. But Kevin O’Connell sees something in Bradbury and, despite his declaration of a training camp competition at center, he may believe he can save Bradbury’s career.

Bradbury came into the NFL as a draft darling. His relative athletic score was an astounding 9.96, and he was a perfect fit for the Vikings’ zone-based scheme. Although he was on the smaller side of the prototypical center, his technique and ability to process information figured to give him the upper hand, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein.

“Bradbury’s body control, core strength, movement skills, and intelligence check very important boxes for teams looking for immediate center help,” Zierlein wrote. “His pass-pro tape against Clemson proves he can hold his own against a variety of pass-rush flavors, while his strength and athleticism make him scheme-flexible. He is a candidate to become an early and long-time starter in the league.”

That evaluation hasn’t played out to this point. Bradbury has been adequate in the running game, but he has become a liability in pass protection. Pro Football Focus gave him a pass-blocking grade of 0.0 in his first career game, and his 26 pressures allowed ranked seventh among centers.

Those numbers could be chalked up to growing pains, but Bradbury never improved. His 29 pressures allowed ranked fourth among centers in 2020. A year later, his 26 pressures allowed ranked fourth again, establishing him as one of the worst pass-blocking centers in the league.

Not even his expertise in the running game could save Bradbury’s PFF rating. He graded 29th out of 36 qualifiers with at least 20% of the league lead in snaps during his rookie year, and he graded 28th of 39 qualifiers and 38th of 41 qualifiers over the next two seasons.

With his lack of performance, it would have been understandable if O’Connell had just moved on. But his comments at the NFL Scouting Combine suggested that he could tap into Bradbury’s potential.

“I see a guy [with] really, really good movement skills,” O’Connell said. “Obviously, a guy that was drafted high for a reason. … He did a lot of really good things in college, and it’s just been a matter of finding the right fit for him and the right system, and what you are asking him to do, snap in and snap out, that gives him the best possible chance for success.”

Many dismissed those comments as coach speak, but the Vikings backed them up with their actions. They probably couldn’t afford an upgrade in free agency, but Minnesota passed on adding a center in the draft. When they reported for training camp, Austin Schlottmann received reps at second string before Bradbury struggled in pass-protection reps.

“He’s had some real moments of some strong performances, and then there’s been some other ones where Mike Pettine, Ed Donatell, and Mike Smith…know how to isolate people just like a lot of great coaches in this league do,” O’Connell said of Bradbury. “That’s where we’re challenging him each and every time. We’re really finding ways to try to simulate those tough downs.”

O’Connell later admitted that the Vikings were having a competition at center, but it still feels like Bradbury’s job to lose. Neither Schlottman nor Reed has played center during a regular-season game, and their issues with snapping the ball give Bradbury the inside track.

Another year of Bradbury gives Vikings fans nightmares of Akiem Hicks or Kenny Clark moving him like Michael Oher did in The Blind Side, but it might give O’Connell a different kind of flashback. Before Bradbury was struggling in Minnesota, Austin Blythe was having issues with the Los Angeles Rams. After a solid rookie season, Blythe’s overall PFF grade ranked 36th out of 36 qualifying centers in 2019.

The Rams made some tweaks the following offseason with O’Connell’s arrival, and Blythe was one of the main beneficiaries. In 2020, he ranked 13th out of 39 qualifiers and parlayed that performance into a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.

After Blythe’s departure, the Rams turned to Brian Allen, who graded 34th out of 36 qualifying centers in 2019. Allen suffered a major knee injury in November 2019 before missing the 2020 season. However, he returned with a vengeance, grading fifth out of 41 qualifiers last year.

While Blythe and Allen have had previous injuries play key roles in their development, that track record should be a good omen for Bradbury.

Much like O’Connell aims to do for Kirk Cousins, his main goal should be to give Bradbury the answers to the test. If O’Connell puts him in a position to succeed, it should prevent pressure up the middle, giving Cousins a better chance to attack downfield. It’s also not out of the question that Bradbury could improve as his linemates get more comfortable in the offense.

“I can probably think of two plays where we’ve had a mental error on either side of [Bradbury], and he’s ended up being on his own when he was not supposed to be and at the last moment basically trying to save the play,” O’Connell said. “There’s a lot of centers around the league, when they get isolated on a [Za’Darius Smith] or [Danielle Hunter] inside in different matchups, it’s going to look like that.”

Bradbury will never be the All-Pro center that some had projected him to be out of college, but the Vikings don’t need him to be that. If he is adequate, Minnesota should be able to use Ezra Cleveland and a combination of Jesse Davis and Ed Ingram to help him out.

It could still mean the Vikings might be looking for a new center next offseason. But, for now, O’Connell may have an idea to make it work.

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