The Minnesota Vikings’ Interior Offensive Line Could Define Season

The Minnesota Vikings have an elite tackle unit, but does that mean anything when they have so many concerns along their interior offensive line?

The Minnesota Vikings might have the best offensive tackle group in the NFL with Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw, both of whom seem to be performing at the top of their positions. Nevertheless, they haven’t drawn much confidence from the NFL media at large.

Pro Football Network’s own OL rankings might be the most generous, placing the Vikings eighth overall, but the rankings from Pro Football Focus are in line with other NFL observers, placing them 15th overall. The difference, of course, comes with the uncertain interior offensive line situation, which could present a problem in both the short and long term.

Minnesota Vikings’ Offensive Line Theory

In football, there are some position groups that are “strong-link” positions, defined by the best performance on a particular play, while others are “weak-link,” where the worst performance controls the outcome.

“Creation” positions like edge rusher and receiver will succeed if only one of them accomplishes their task, while cornerbacks and offensive linemen only succeed if all of them succeed. So while there’s significant value in a high-level offensive tackle, there might be more value in a roster full of above-average linemen.

One way to think of it is to compare the pressure rates of offensive linemen based on certain lineups. It’s possible to look at a lineup of one elite tackle, one poor tackle, and three average linemen and compare it to a line composed of players who are all above average in pressure rate and another line of two elite tackles with three below-average offensive linemen.

We can use the following “non-pressure” rates to make those calculations, grabbed from five years of PFF pressure data.

PosEliteAbove AvgAvgBelow AvgPoor

From there, we can compare those three offensive lines to the non-pressure rates, assuming they’re independent on an average play.

Offensive LineNon-Pressure Rate
Elite OT, Poor OT, Avg IOL78.6%
Above Avg OL84.7%
Elite OTs, Below Avg IOL80.9%

This tells us that the one thing that teams need to avoid is a critically bad lineman more than anything else. It also shows us that the theory of the “weak link” plays out, that the worst performer controls the interaction more than the best performer does.

That might be why the Vikings could be in trouble despite high-level tackles this year.

Prospects for the Vikings’ Interior Are Bleak

After a rough showing on the right side of the offensive line, Ezra Cleveland turned things around at left guard to put in average and above-average performances over the last two years. But he’s still a much better run blocker than pass blocker.

Cleveland’s non-pressure rate has fluctuated from below “poor” at 89% to just above 95%, which is average for the position. His athleticism hasn’t been a big part of the discussion surrounding him, but Cleveland was one of the most athletic offensive linemen to come out of the last few drafts – overshadowed by his second-round status, conversion to guard, and the unusually athletic OL class he was a part of.

After converting from one of the most athletic tackles in the class to guard, Cleveland became one of the most gifted athletes in the NFL at his position. His ceiling has yet to be tapped, and he could improve beyond that. For now, it might be worth considering Cleveland an average pass protector.

Minnesota Vikings

Garrett Bradbury has been worse than the “poor” standard listed above for most of his career but did better last year. Better for Bradbury, however, still meant a below-average performance, and it’s tough to imagine a ceiling for him higher than what he’s hit before. It does help, though, that Minnesota’s offense and this offensive line coaching staff have only had one year with him and could potentially unlock more.

Yet, at 28 years old, it’s difficult to imagine Bradbury getting better rather than worse. While he’s an able run blocker with some stellar moments, he continues to be a liability in the passing game. For the most part, it’s probably best to think of Bradbury as having had one highlight season — below the NFL average — that he can only hope to repeat.

As for Ed Ingram, it’s entirely possible he plays better next year. However, as a rookie, he struggled more than almost any guard in the NFL. It’s rare to see a guard who has struggled this much early in their career turn into a high-level player at any point, but it’s somewhat common to see those players turn into average-level athletes — like Alex Cappa or Jonah Jackson.

But for the most part, that level of play tends to sustain more than improve. For the most part, the Vikings are likely to see a small improvement in play from Ingram more than anything. Outside of Cleveland, though, the prospects on the interior line are bleak.

The Vikings Could Help Their Offensive Line

The Vikings can help their offensive line in several ways. The first way is to increase their play-action rate, something that Minnesota’s publicly committed to with their newfound emphasis on improving the run game.

There are two reasons why that helps. First, it forces pass rushers to hesitate as they attempt to diagnose the correct play. Second, it moves the quarterback away from the offensive line and creates a new pocket for him, buying him additional time to throw the ball.

The Vikings could also invest in a quick game. Jordan Addison, Minnesota’s first-round rookie wide receiver, has demonstrated talent as a screen receiver and could generate yardage after the catch on short, quick passes. With Kirk Cousins at quarterback, the Vikings haven’t emphasized the screen game very much and have often struggled with it.

But it’s no coincidence that his lowest pressure rate with the team (33%) occurred in the year he had his fastest time to throw — 2.59 seconds, one of the faster rates in the NFL. But Cousins has mostly oscillated between 2.67 seconds and 2.87 throughout his career. A lot of that is play-action, but much of it comes in the passing concept.

Cousins naturally takes a bit more time than most quarterbacks in similar passing concepts, so standard passing plays are going to induce a little bit more pressure on him than other QBs. That’s usually worth it, but it puts strain on an offensive line that hasn’t shown the ability to protect against that extra time. In order to offset, a more screen-friendly passing game could protect the interior OL and emphasize the things they do well, such as blocking in space.

But ultimately, that’s window-dressing. Deep passes are the most efficient passes in the NFL, and they take the most time to develop. The Vikings will need the interior offensive line to improve if they want to really compete in the NFL.

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