There are some things in Minnesota sports that can’t be figured out. For the Minnesota Vikings, the offensive line is that unsolved mystery.
Like mosquitoes in late August, offensive line debate has been a staple of Minnesota summers. Whether it’s scouting potential candidates on YouTube or surveying the participants in the annual training camp “Can He Play Guard?” Battle Royale, the offensive line is a hot topic.
However, that hasn’t been the case this year.
For the first time since 2013, the Vikings will return all five starters on the offensive line. That continuity is a reason to feel comfortable with this group heading into next season. Still, there are concerns. That’s why we should be talking more about the offensive line over the next several weeks.
Minnesota’s tackles are the biggest reason why they feel optimistic about the offensive line. Christian Darrisaw brought stability to the left tackle position since the Vikings selected him in the first round of the 2020 draft. Brian O’Neill has developed into one of the league’s best right tackles.
The Vikings shouldn’t have concerns about Darrisaw even though he missed a handful of games with a concussion last season. After ranking eighth among qualifying offensive tackles in PFF’s overall grades last season, Darrisaw is a building block for the Vikings. He should have a lucrative new deal to show for it next spring.
O’Neill is already there after a solid stretch over the past three seasons. However, he enters this year with some risk. He suffered a partially torn Achilles in a Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. While O’Neill is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, it’s still a major injury for a player who will turn 28 in September. Even if O’Neill is ready for Week 1, there is a chance he isn’t the same player and could weaken one of the most stable parts of the line.
However, even if O’Neill returns at 80%, Vikings fans would still feel pretty good about their tackles. But it’s a different story when it comes to the interior of the O-line.
Garrett Bradbury has been the face of Minnesota’s struggles the past couple of seasons. He has perennially been one of the leaders in pressures allowed since coming into the league in 2019. Bradbury had one of his best seasons under Kevin O’Connell last year. However, he is still ranked third among centers in pressures allowed despite missing four games with a back injury.
The Vikings re-signed Bradbury to a three-year, $15.75 million contract this offseason, but they can get out of that deal with only $3.25 million in dead money after this year. That structure doesn’t give Bradbury a vote of confidence beyond this season, and it could lead them to look for another center next year.
To be fair to Bradbury, the guard position has been a revolving door throughout his time in Minnesota. Ezra Cleveland has started at left guard since the midway point of the 2020 season. However, he still finished third among all linemen in pressures allowed.
Cleveland’s game has improved since converting from an offensive tackle, but he still has his share of off-games. Despite reports of Cleveland’s interest in a contract extension, nothing has been agreed upon. With Cleveland set to become a free agent after this season, it could leave a big hole in the offensive line again.
Then there’s Ed Ingram. Some believed that the Vikings reached for Ingram in the second round of last year’s draft, and his rookie performance validated those worries. Ingram led all offensive linemen with 63 pressures allowed last season and made smaller mistakes such as stepping on Kirk Cousins’ foot.
When looking at all five linemen, there’s a scenario where the offensive line implodes. That would leave one of the league’s few true pocket quarterbacks without any protection. It would also open up a debate that has raged on throughout the past decade.
But there is also a scenario where the offensive line turns out as planned.
Darrisaw should be an All-Pro candidate, barring injury. If O’Neill returns to form, the Vikings will again have two of the best offensive tackles in the league.
Cleveland could find a new level of consistency, and Ingram could take a step forward in pass protection to complement a PFF run-blocking grade that ranked 27th among 85 guards with a minimum of 270 snaps.
If the Vikings hit on the other four positions, it could bring out stability in Bradbury in his second year in O’Connell’s scheme. As a result, Minnesota would get a bargain on his contract.
All of these scenarios require gambling in the trenches. The Vikings could have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. But the biggest factor of all may be the health of this group, which is exactly where this debate should be centered heading into next season.
Minnesota’s offensive line finished 13th in PFF’s final offensive line rankings for 2022. However, it took a massive hit due to injuries.
Bradbury’s back was the first domino to fall, as his injury thrust Austin Schlottmann into the starting lineup. When Schlottmann broke his ankle against the Green Bay Packers, The Vikings threw Chris Reed into the fire after playing five seasons at tackle and guard.
Minutes after Schlottmann went down, O’Neill joined him in the training room with his injury. That left the Vikings scrambling over their final two games and praying that Blake Brandel would be healthy enough to start in the playoffs. Although that was the case, Brandel was a massive downgrade from O’Neill.
Both of these situations could happen again. It would be catastrophic if Cleveland or Ingram sustained an injury. Although both players have their flaws, their absence would thrust Reed, Brandel, or Oli Udoh in at guard.
The Vikings didn’t address this during the draft, partially because they had limited capital and bigger needs on the roster. They could still sign veterans Justin Pugh, Rodger Saffold or Dalton Risner. However, all three veterans could be priced out of the range of a team that is limited on cap space and wants flexibility – perhaps to make another big move at the trade deadline.
It leaves Vikings fans holding their breath, hoping that everyone will stay healthy. Perhaps they will find a UDFA to step up during training camp. Either way, Minnesota needs to address the offensive line. Otherwise, it will continue to be the black hole it has been for the past decade.