Another trip around the sun, and still, the Vikings appear to be rolling the dice on their offensive line.
Monday they signed former Dolphins OL Jesse Davis, who fans fear is the latest to sign the guest book at the Right Guard Revolving Door Motel. All things are relative, so there’s a good argument that this is a better fix than the Vikings applied last season. Yet it fits the near-decade-long narrative of the Vikings using half measures and quick fixes to address a perpetual problem.
It is difficult to spin the Davis pick-up as anything more than that, but it’s also not terrible by Vikings standards.
It’s not Davis’s fault that he seems like the next Tom Compton on paper. There is just too much scar tissue for Minnesota football fans to feel inspired over the move, even with a new regime. When the booming U.S. Bank Stadium public address voice announces the offense in next fall’s home opener, “JESSE DAVIS!” isn’t going to yield more than a polite clap.
There’s no doubt, though, it’s a better effort than last year, and who knows, maybe there are more signings to come. The Vikings’ only effort to fix last season’s offensive line was drafting a rookie tackle in the first round. Christian Darrisaw may still be a star in the league, but it was a long shot that he’d be able to impact the Vikings right away, and he didn’t. Davis’s acquisition, at the very minimum, means Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is looking for an upgrade over last year’s 16-penalty performance by Oli Udoh, who was unfairly asked to switch positions in July.
Davis, most recently a right tackle, has one thing going for him. He doesn’t need to be spectacular to be an upgrade. Just adequate.
Right guard — heck, guard in general — has been a house of horrors for the Vikings since Joe Berger retired in 2017. In the four seasons since, the Vikings have used seven different bodies to fill their primary starting spots, which doesn’t include brutal cameos by Dru Samia and Danny Isidora. None of those seven have finished in Pro Football Focus’s top 50 in pass-blocking grade; not even Ezra Cleveland, the only starter to last multiple seasons in that stretch.
No formula has been successful for the Vikings. For one reason or another, veterans like Alex Boone and Josh Kline were jettisoned after one season under Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, while mid-round draft picks like Willie Beavers, Dru Samia and even Wyatt Davis in 2021 underachieved based on their draft position. Journeymen like Tom Compton and Dakota Dozier were also flawed, and players switching positions like Pat Elflein, Mike Remmers and Udoh didn’t take to their new spots.
All this commotion while employing a quarterback who struggles against interior pressure.
So what makes Davis, the 30-year-old former undrafted free agent, different?
For one, he’s not necessarily a journeyman. After floating around on the Seahawks and Jets 90-man rosters and practice squads, Davis spent his next five seasons in Miami, who was willing to sign him to a three-year, $15 million deal in 2019. He’s started in all but two games since 2018.
Dozier, for instance, had never played more than 360 snaps when the Vikings made him a full-time starter in 2020, and Compton only had one season over 342 snaps when the Vikings tried him as a starting guard in 2018. Davis is more seasoned at nearly 5,000 career snaps.
While he has the experience, Davis is nowhere near the caliber of a Boone, who signed on in 2016 to fortify the left guard spot. Boone’s lowest PFF grade in six previous seasons was 63.7. That’s higher than Davis’s career high. Kline, too, was a historically better blocker than Davis — five of his six previous seasons before signing with the Vikings were better than Davis’s best.
In the middle Davis sits, somewhere between journeyman backup and successful starter. There’s no questioning his seasoning: over 2,000 career snaps at guard and over 2,500 at tackle. That’s an improvement over Udoh’s zero experience and likely raises the floor from Udoh’s 2021 season. Davis has never committed more than six penalties in a year.
There is, however, still a gamble being taken on his switch back to guard, because tackle didn’t treat Davis well in 2021. As he hit age 30, Davis took a nosedive, allowing the third-most pressures in the NFL (57). His recent PFF rankings are as follows: 66th of 88 (2019), 62nd of 93 (2020) and 84th off 88 (2021) — all primarily as a tackle.
Minnesota will have to hope that a scenery change for Davis gets the best out of the veteran, who will likely be asked to pass protect plenty next to a center who struggles mightily in that area.
The Vikings last year tried to solve that by getting bigger at guard through the draft, but they weren’t able to utilize draft pick Wyatt Davis, who was slow to develop. Jesse Davis is plenty big, though, at 6-foot-6, 325 pounds, and he is traditionally a better pass-blocker than run-blocker — a change in priority for the Vikings’ decision-makers.
But it’s unlikely Davis will suddenly become a star at his age. There were only five 30-somethings that posted PFF grades above 70 last season (starter level), and all of them had done it multiple times previously. Davis has never gotten to 65, and it’s not probable that he has untapped potential after almost 5,000 regular season reps.
The Vikings can realistically hope for league-average right guard play and cross their fingers for above-average tackle play at both positions. Ezra Cleveland still has upside. And Garrett Bradbury? Well, that could be an issue.
Kind of sounds like last year’s offseason assessment.
Davis is ultimately a better right guard option than the Vikings had last year. While he may end up with the one-and-done distinction given to Boone and Kline, it wouldn’t take much for fans to view him favorably if he can play consistently and, for goodness sake, avoid holding calls.