From worst to first? - Hopes for 2021 Vikings OL post-draft
Minnesota Vikings fans have been incredibly vocal of their team's Offensive Line issues over the last few years, and it looks like GM Rick Spielman echoed those concerns going into this year's draft.
The 2020 season was not very favourable to the Vikings or their fans - largely due to many defensive starters missing significant amounts of the season due injuries or covid issues. However, to those who followed Minnesota’s season it was evident that the defensive issues were only part of the problem, and looks to be fixed with the return of many key starters in the 2021 season - as well as the addition of veteran free agents like Patrick Peterson.
Despite having a top five offense in total yards and being just outside the top ten in total scoring (ranked eleventh, and just four points behind tenth, despite serious kicking issues), the Vikings OL was one of the worst positional units in the league. It was Minnesota’s Interior OL that proved to be the most disappointing last season, with the unit ranking dead last of all thirty-two teams IOL’s over the last three seasons (ninty-sixth of ninety-six). Unfortunately this is not a new problem for the Vikings, as their 2018 and 2019 units ranked eightieth and ninetieth respectively.
Minnesota’s 2020 second-round pick Ezra Cleveland had a rocky rookie season, but definitely showed promising glimpses. Cleveland, who had played his entire college career at Boise State as a Tackle (mostly Left but took some snaps on the Right) was thrust into the starting Right Guard role halfway through the season due to the Vikings IOL weaknesses. Despite this, he still finished the season with the third highest PFF grade on Minnesota’s OL with a grade of 66.2 (out of 100), and had only one penalty all season - a holding call in Week Seventeen against Detroit. Now with his first season behind him, there is hope that the offseason and training camp brings further improvement before the start of next season.
It is with this in mind, and the departure of starting LT Riley Reiff, that the Vikings looked to bolster their OL in the draft. Originally holding the fourteenth pick, Minnesota opted to trade back to twenty-third with the New York Jets. This move left versatile OG/OT Alijah Vera-Tucker on the board - who was drafted with the fourteenth pick by the Jets - but allowed Minnesota to gain two more third-round picks. Thankfully for Minnesota, OT Christian Darrisaw - who reports had Minnesota interested in at fourteen - was still available at twenty-three. Spielman quickly turned in the card to draft Darrisaw with the pick - a prospect who was ranked ahead of AVT in some mocks pre-draft - and showed how he earned the nickname ‘Slick Rick’ with trades such as this.
Minnesota then used the two third-round picks they acquired in the trade with NY to draft QB Kellen Mond (sixty-sixth pick) and OG Wyatt Davis (eighty-sixth pick). In Mond, Minnesota upgraded their backup QB for the 2021 season, and showed possible signs for a future successor to Kirk Cousins. However it is the pickup of Davis that is most pleasing for many Viking fans. Ranked as high as the seventh best OL prospect pre-daft, Davis is a beast in the run game, and no doubt will provide great blocking for Running Back Dalvin Cook next season.
Darrisaw is expected to start at LT from Week One next season, filling the whole left by Riley Reid, who was cut by the team this offseason due to issues with cap space. Reid, who had the second highest grade on the OL last season (71.4), no doubt leaves big shoes for Darrisaw to fill, but the Vikings organisation are confident in their first-round pick - who allowed 0 sacks or QB hits in his final college season. Minnesota hopes that this pairing of Darrisaw and RT Brian O'Neill will give them one of the best young tackle pairings in the league, and a promising core for their OL for many seasons to come.
Davis is expected to take one of the starting Guard spots - which one depends on whether Minnesota wants to leave Cleveland on the right side or bring him back to the left, where he has played the majority of his football career. No matter what happens, Davis looks to be a clear upgrade over last season's starter at LG, Dru Samia, who had a league low 33.1 PFF grade. Minnesota hopes that these upgrades will help keep Cousins on his feet - who was sacked 39 times last year (sixth most in the league) and 40 times in 2018 (tenth most in the league) - as well as bolstering running lanes for Cook, who finished second in rushing yards and touchdowns last season with 1557 and 16.
Minnesota used two of their first four picks on not only their worst unit, but one of the worst units in the league. Using this kind of draft capital shows clear commitment to try and improve an area of obvious need, and allowed them to be considered the ‘Most Improved Unit’ by many commentators post-draft. This, the return of key defensive players, the addition of some veteran free agents, and the development of last year's young players, no doubt puts Minnesota in a great position for the 2021 season.