Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
On a Zoom conference call with the Twin Cities media, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak revealed some details about the camp competition along the offensive line.
He said second-round pick Ezra Cleveland, who played tackle in college, was working with the guards and that the four returning starters from 2019 are beginning camp as the presumptive starters for this year.
When Vikings fans hear that the offensive line Pro Football Focus ranked 19th in the league in 2019 will be running back mostly the same group for another year, they might not exactly be inspired. After all, Kirk Cousins had the 10th highest pressure rate last season and among all regular interior offensive linemen, Pat Elflein had the second worst pass blocking efficiency and center Garrett Bradbury ranked 70th out of 87 qualifiers.
It appears Cleveland will be battling with 2019 draft pick Dru Samia and career backups Aviante Collins and Dakota Dozier for the only opening. Kubiak also confirmed that veteran tackle Riley Reiff would remain on the left side. Over the last two years, Mike Zimmer has brought up the possibility of him playing guard.
There are a lot of things in 2020 that we can’t predict but Kubiak indicating that the Vikings will remain mostly status quo along the offensive line confirms that they will need an impressive performance out of rising star right tackle Brian O’Neill in order to raise the level of the entire unit. And all the signs point to O’Neill trending toward stardom.
“The first thing I see with him when I walked in the building this year, I see confidence,” Kubiak said. “Young player last year. I see extreme confidence, knows exactly what we're doing, why we're doing it and has great ideas as a player. He's a very bright player, so when guys are going to become Pro Bowlers and great players you see them take huge steps from Year 1 to 2, 2 to 3, and you're watching that progression go with Brian, so we're very happy to have Brian on our team. I think he's going to became a leader as well.”
Last year the Vikings’ second-round draft pick had the sixth best pass blocking efficiency among tackles, allowing just 19 pressures on 480 pass blocking snaps. His 97.9% success rate was ahead of future Eagles Hall of Famer Jason Peters and just behind Pro Bowler Terron Armstead. O’Neill’s numbers are even more impressive considering he played in front of the quarterback who held the ball longer from snap to throw than anyone in the league.
Impressive for a tackle who didn’t win the starting job out of camp in his first season. The Vikings started Rashod Hill in O’Neill’s rookie year because they believed the Pitt standout was more of a raw athlete than fully-formed football player. He had only transitioned to tackle during college and needed more weight and plenty of work with technique. But he dominated the NFL Combine by running a 4.82 40-yard dash, which is in the 98th percentile of tackles according to Mockdraftable.
O’Neill got his first chance in Week 2 of the 2018 season against the Green Bay Packers when Hill got hurt. He shut down Clay Matthews in one of Kirk Cousins’s best performances of his career and never gave the job back.
Since then he has been on an upward trajectory. By the end of his first season he hadn’t given up a sack and by Year 2 in 26 total starts he only allowed one.
“When you look at O’Neill, there is so much value in not losing,” Eric Eager from Pro Football Focus said. “Whether it’s Riley Reiff at left tackle or Rashod Hill or Ezra Cleveland, there is so much less pressure on that player because one side of the offensive line is resolved. That’s the potential he gives the Vikings at that spot.”
But O’Neill said Wednesday that there is plenty more room to grow.
“Specifically I can clean up some penalties that I felt like I had a couple too many of, some things in the run game I’d like to improve and being able to pick up games and twists and stunts is something every O-lineman has to work on,” he said. “Those are three things I’ve tried to address. A lot of it is having a better understanding of the system and what you’re asked to do in certain formations and where the ball wants to hit – those kinds of things. That comes with time and hopefully I can dial in a little bit more mentally and clean up some penalties.”
O’Neill’s diagnosis is on the money. He was tied with the second most penalties on the Vikings’ offensive line with eight. However, he was still very good in the run game ranking 15th in run blocking grade by PFF out of 60 players who regularly played tackle last season. His quickness gives Kubiak and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison a chance to get creative, whether it’s pulling him out in space or using O’Neill in the screen game, where the Vikings ranked No. 1 in Expected Points Added.
As good as he was last year, the Vikings’ could rely more on their emerging star tackle in 2020.
In 2019 the Vikings tied for the most non-playoff teams on their schedule with 11. This year they are set to play a tougher group of teams and multiple quarterbacks with Hall of Fame resumes, including Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers twice, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Mixed in will be last year’s QB rating leader Ryan Tannehill, a presumably healthy Matt Stafford, rising star DeShaun Watson and Teddy Bridgewater -- who Vikings fans know not to underestimate.
That slate may offer more offensive shootouts, more high scoring games, more Cousins pass attempts in the toughest situations for offensive linemen. For example, the Vikings ran the fourth fewest passing plays on third-and-long in the league last year -- and that’s when defensive linemen are at their most dangerous. Expect that number to go up.
O’Neill will also be asked to make a jump with very little offseason time to gain chemistry with a new partner at right guard.
“These are the cards you’re dealt, and who’s going to make the most of them?” O’Neill said. “People don’t really care who you’re playing next to or what the situation was in the offseason, all those things.”
If O’Neill continues to ascend the way he has since his rookie year, there won’t be any reason for excuses and the Vikings will handle premier pass rushers better than at any point in the Zimmer era -- at least on the right side of the line.