Last Friday, the Vikings entered their first live game action of 2019 with their Preseason Week 1 game against the Saints. There are many questions surrounding the team, but perhaps none more important than the offensive line, a group whose lackluster performances during the Mike Zimmer era has left fans consternated.
The line underwent a major renovation this past offseason, with different faces at each interior spot. Garrett Bradbury, the crown jewel of the Vikings’ draft class, will take over the starting C spot, which kicked Pat Elflein to LG, a position he hasn’t played since his first year starting at Ohio State. Josh Kline was brought in as a free agent to hold down the RG spot. Throw in the new faces and the transition to an outside-zone heavy blocking scheme, and there was a lot to watch for with the starting offensive line.
Starters are not the entirety of the group, however, and Vikings fans are very used to the team calling upon its depth along the offensive line in recent years. Dru Samia and Oli Udoh were also added in the draft, Brett Jones and Rashod Hill were pushed into action last year, and there are handful other players that were competing for a depth job, all got playing time.
The first team OL
We only got a short look at the starters along the offensive line, with the exception of Brian O’Neill, who was out with injury. In limited action, the group acquitted themselves very well, and the Vikings drove down the field and capped the drive with a Kirk Cousins TD pass to Alexander Mattison.
Including plays that were negated by penalty, we saw three runs by the Vikings, all of the outside zone variety. In the passing game, there were a number of bootleg designs off of the outside zone action, as well as a couple of straight drop backs.
Bradbury was the player I was most interested in, and he played well enough in his first NFL action. He showed the movement skills that made him a coveted player for the Vikings’ new system and worked well with Kline in pass protection. On his first snap, he anchored well. On the play below, he does a very good job to reach the 3t to the play side and keep him moving out of the play:
Bradbury did have one blemish on his otherwise clean sheet of a game, and that came on the first rushing attempt. Below, he gets outmuscled and cannot control the 0t, who ends up tripping Mattison up:
Elflein showed promise his rookie year but struggled last season after starting off with an injury. He still flashed moments of strong movement skills but often got overpowered, something he was able to mitigate with leverage in college. In this game, I think Elflein helped alleviate some of those concerns by his performance.
He was very strong in pass protection, anchoring well and winning his one-on-one assignments. In the run game, he worked double teams with Reiff and was able to release into the second level, although he did have a bit of trouble sticking to targets. His best play was this pancaking of Saints’ up-and-coming DT David Onyemata:
Reiff played well. He stonewalled Marcus Davenport in pass protection, and got movement in the run game, showing a couple of reps where he got to the second level well.
Kline did not have many impactful plays, in pass protection he was relegated to double teaming an NT with Bradbury. He and Bradbury seemed to have good chemistry on double teams, so that’s a positive. He did have one negative play that is similar to Bradbury – on the first play shown above he struggles to get across the 1t he is supposed to reach block, and that DT is able to get an arm on Mattison for the tackle.
While the rest of the game’s starters generally performed very well, Rashod Hill struggled mightily. He saw the second most snaps on the OL in this game, behind Storm Norton, and started off on the wrong foot with a holding penalty on the first play. He followed this up with another holding penalty later.
Hill had significant issues moving in space and trying to climb to the second level or reach defenders, which could project disastrously moving forward with the Vikings’ new scheme. He also seemed to struggle on communication with Danny Isidora. Hill was fine when asked to use his strength, but I fear he may be miscast in this scheme.
Here are the holding plays:
Jones graded out the best of all the linemen in this game for me. This should be taken with a grain of salt against the starters, who played just a limited number of snaps, but Jones is a veteran with starting experience that I feel good about backing up the interior of the OL. He moved well in space, controlled DTs at the line of scrimmage, and communicated well with his fellow linemen in passing off a stunt. See some good plays below:
Norton did not have many mistakes, nor did he stand out. That’s ok for an offensive lineman, as usually your job is to not let bad things happen. Norton started out the game on a strong note, controlling former first round pick Marcus Davenport, who did not have a good game. He faded towards the end of the game, struggling technically and with movement in space.
Similar to Norton, Dozier did not fail all that often, but he stood out in a positive way even less often. He allowed a batted pass, and often got shocked initially in pass protection (although he was generally able to recover and anchor). Dozier is not someone I would be confident with playing for a significant number of snaps.
The final member of the second team, Isidora had a few communication issues with Hill that hurt his grade. He occupies a space similar to Dozier for me, I don’t want him seeing the field often, if at all.
We finally got to the third team at the start of the second half, which means we got to see two more Vikings rookie in action. Samia started off nicely with two wins in pass protection, but then suffered a bad loss that caused a pressure. He executed a few nice double teams with Udoh, and showed flashes of his athleticism, but struggle some with play strength and especially in pass protection, allowing two pressures. He also got called for holding. That’s not exactly what you want to see from a 4th round pick that played in a prolific passing offense.
Here are the positives:
Here is the hold and pressure he allowed:
Udoh, taken well after Samia, played much better than his rookie counterpart. He worked well in conjunction with Samia, often did a good job sealing the edge, and even had a highlight of a pancake on the Boone TD run. If he can continue this performance for the next three games, he may find himself on the roster after cutdowns.
Here are some good plays:
Edison was not the worst performing offensive lineman in this game, but as the third string center with competition from rookies and FAs, he faces an uphill battle to make the roster and did not distinguish himself. Edison showed a good anchor in pass protection but struggled to move to the second level in the run game, a skill that is key for a zone blocking scheme. He also got called for holding.
Keenoy, like Edison, is buried on the depth chart. However, he graded well enough in my charting to warrant a further look. He struggled some with strength but was also able to use positioning to create movement in the run game. He’s still a longshot to make the team.
Catalina had a couple of positive flashes but has since been replaced on the roster by Nate Wozniak.
Process and Grading
In interest of full disclosure, below is a breakdown of how I charted each player. I have it broken down into good plays, where the player made a positive contribution, bad plays, where the player negatively impacted the play, and neutral plays, where the play was either too quick to evaluate or the player showed a bit of a mixed bag (but did not negatively impact the play).
When looking at this, I would suggest that blown block % is significantly more important that good block %. If an offensive lineman isn’t impacting a play, that’s typically a good thing. There can obviously be highlight blocks that help successful plays, but if an offensive lineman fails, that almost always means a play is dead. If he simply doesn’t dominate but doesn’t fall it may not impact the at all. Therefore, I would say someone like Norton, who has a low success rate but also low failure rate, had a better game than Samia, who had a lot of variance with a high success rate and high failure rate.
In terms of player stock, I am concerned about Rashod Hill. He still has a backlog of tape to justify a spot on the team, but he bears watching the rest of the preseason, because he could be a surprise cut if he can’t get his act together. After this game, I feel very good about Brett Jones’ chances to stick, and while I would have counted Storm Norton totally out before this game, I can see him having an outside shot at the roster now. Dru Samia did enough to keep considering the investment the Vikings made in him, and I think Oli Udoh significantly improved his chances. Dakota Dozier remains on the bubble, but probably looking out, I can’t see the Vikings keeping three interior guys with just 9 linemen, and I don’t see them going up to 10. John Keenoy is still an extreme longshot to make the team, but he a least deserves credit for a good game.