It was late on a Friday night. Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury were on an epic road trip. After jamming out to all the Nickelback and 3 Doors Down they could handle, a Big Buddy got the best of Bradbury.
Cleveland reluctantly pulled into a rural Minnesota gas station, and Bradbury headed off to do his business. But as Bradbury was experiencing the relief he sought for the past 50 miles, he noticed a message on the stall door.
“FOR PANCAKES, BE HERE MARCH 4TH AT 2 A.M. SHARP!!!”
Bradbury checked his watch just as the clock hit 2 a.m., a man walked into the bathroom. Bradbury climbed up on the toilet. The door flew open. Bradbury screamed in horror as Akiem Hicks nodded in approval.
Such has been life for Garrett Bradbury in the NFL. The 18th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft was supposed to solidify the offensive line. Instead, he’s a reason why defensive linemen are giddy when they see the Minnesota Vikings on the schedule.
The Vikings have spent the past decade drafting prospects hoping their athleticism would lead them to success. But a new regime should lead to an altered approach. With Kwesi-Adofo Mensah entering his first free-agency period, his top priority should be to find a grown-ass man to fix the offensive line.
For years, the Vikings have adopted a simple approach to finding offensive linemen. They look for some of the most athletic players in the draft and then plug them into the offensive line. But that approach rarely produced results.
For every Brian O’Neill, the Vikings found an Oli Udoh. For every John Sullivan, they drafted a Bradbury. And for every guard they drafted, they picked a Dru Samia. Many have tried. Just about all of them have failed.
Bradbury was supposed to be the exception to this rule. His three-cone drill and 20-yard shuffle were off the charts. His bench press placed in the 93rd percentile. Bradbury was 24 when the Vikings drafted him, and he was supposed to be their center for the next decade. That is until Pro Football Focus gave him a pass-blocking grade of 0.0 in his NFL debut.
Bradbury’s debut performance was a sign of things to come. His pass-blocking grade ranked dead last among all centers who played 20% of the league’s lead in snaps in 2019 and 2020. Only Kyle Fuller and fellow Vikings bust Pat Elflein had a lower grade in 2021.
Bradbury also ranked in the top five in pressures allowed among centers in each of his first three seasons.
But to pin all of the struggles on Bradbury would be unfair. The more significant issue has been the Vikings’ failure to adapt.
It used to be that teams would look for a big run-stuffer to clog up the trenches. With teams creating their version of the “Williams Wall,” defensive tackles would march ahead to allow the linebackers behind them to clean up the mess.
But as the game has evolved, so have defensive tackles. Instead of just being big and strong, they have the athleticism to match their counterparts.
Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis broke the internet last weekend when he blazed a 4.78 second time in the 40-yard dash. That time would be great for any defensive lineman. But at 341 lbs., he will horrify anyone who lines up across from him.
It gets even crazier when you compare him to All-Pro defensive tackles over the past decade. Haloti Ngata (2011) and Damon Harrison (2016) were two similar prospects, but their athleticism pales in comparison to what Davis did on Saturday night.
That’s a problem for offensive linemen who breezed through the college game with RPOs and read options. When a giant mutant lines up across from them, they may not know where to slide the protection or how to slow them down. That is the reason why the Vikings’ line has struggled despite drafting six players on either Day 1 or Day 2 of the past five drafts.
Instead of going back to the well, it’s time to get a grown-ass man.
The good news is that this year’s free-agent class has plenty to choose from. According to Pro Football Focus’s free-agent rankings, a total of 10 interior offensive linemen place in the top 100 of the list. Of those 10, PFF ranks seven of them in the top 50.
Instead of combing through the draft to find a center with a decent three-cone time, the Vikings could just shell out some money for Ryan Jensen. Instead of drooping over a seventh-rounders broad jump, they could sign Brandon Scherff. And instead of having Grady Jarrett pile drive Kirk Cousins into the turf, they could flip the script by signing Laken Tomlinson.
The Vikings have cap issues to figure out, but this would be a better way to use their available funds. Last year, the Vikings opted to sign a second nose tackle and a 32-year-old cornerback for $31 million. Had they used that money on someone like Joe Thuney, perhaps their offense could have carried them to the playoffs.