Vikings offensive line shaping up a bit differently than expected
When the Vikings opened training camp, the expectation was that the starting offensive line would eventually work out to be LT Christian Darrisaw, LG Ezra Cleveland, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Wyatt Davis, and RT Brian O’Neill. It could still end up being that way eventually, but it seems more likely, after ten days of training camp, that the starting line-up may prove to be a bit different on opening day five weeks from now. In particular, it now looks like the rookies may not be the shoe-ins many people thought to take up starting jobs- at least not week one.
But before I get into that, let’s look at another change that was unexpected a month ago, namely the offensive line coach.
The Phil Rauscher Era Begins for the Vikings Offensive Line
Ahead of the start of training camp it came out that Vikings offensive line coach and run game coordinator Rick Dennison was unwilling to be vaccinated for Covid, which meant that he couldn’t be around players. After the initial reports that the Vikings had parted ways with Dennison because of that, the Vikings announced that Dennison would become a Senior Offensive Consultant, and that assistant Offensive Line coach Phil Rauscher would be promoted to Offensive Line coach.
Regardless of the vaccination issue, from a football standpoint this may well be addition by subtraction for the Vikings. Dennison has decades of experience as an offensive line coach, run game coordinator, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at times during his career, mostly under Gary Kubiak, but it’s unclear what his energy level has been around coaching up young guys and preparing for the season at this point in his career, and now that his long-time boss retired. Dennison will now provide insight virtually or however far protocol dictates he remain away from players and staff. Mike Zimmer has always valued having a long-time veteran coach on the offensive staff, whether Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur, Tony Sparano, or Gary Kubiak.
Phil Rauscher was hired after the 2019 season as assistant offensive line coach, coming from Washington where he worked under one of the best offensive line coaches in the league in Bill Callahan the two previous years. Callahan made a name for himself as an OL coach (he’d been a head coach and offensive coordinator previously) after coaching mostly top draft picks in Dallas into one of the most dominant offensive lines in the league with a meticulous training schedule. Rauscher had worked under Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak in Denver prior to that, who gave him his first NFL gig, and where he helped coach 6th round pick Matt Paradis into a solid rookie season, and an elite graded center his 2nd year. Rauscher played both offensive and defensive line for UCLA from 2003-05 before his playing career was cut short and he got into coaching.
Mike Zimmer said that Rauscher had received other coaching offers since joining the Vikings, which was a bit of news but not altogether surprising given his background. Zimmer was able to talk him out of taking them, saying he’d likely replace Rick Dennison when he retired- presumably telling him to hang on and he’ll get his opportunity. And so he has.
Will Ragatz, covering Vikings training camp with SI, mentioned that Rauscher is not shy in barking out instructions for his offensive linemen- Zimmer called him boisterous – bringing some good energy and challenging his offensive linemen which will likely serve them well as they prepare for the season. That was echoed by Andrew Krammer in the Star-Tribune:
“From “if you’re late, you’re dead” to other, less-printable mantras for Vikings offensive linemen, Rauscher could be heard across multiple practice fields while hovering over offensive linemen during 1-on-1 pass rushing drills.”
Dalvin Cook said Dennison had always let Rauscher be himself, but that, “he could be as loud as he wants now.”
Kirk Cousins, also commented on Rauscher and the transition from Dennison:
“It isn’t a major transition. Can’t say enough about his experience. He coached with Bill Callahan in Washington, who I was able to work with in Washington. There’s some similarities there. He goes way back even with this scheme back to Denver. He’s played the position of center so he knows his stuff and has great command of our offense.”
Rauscher said he got the loud demeanor working under Bill Callahan in Washington, who operated the same way, barking out praise or corrections to players by number on the practice field.
Bottom line, regardless of how it happened, the 36-year old Rauscher is an up-and-coming offensive line coach well prepared for the promotion, while the more understated, 63-year old Dennison may be a better Senior Offensive Assistant than offensive line coach at this stage of his career- particularly with a lot of young players to develop. Having the change happen the same year as the younger Kubiak taking over as offensive coordinator may prove to be timely. Here is his first press conference on Friday as Vikings’ Offensive Line coach. Pretty clear he’s a football guy.
Christian Darrisaw Off to Slow Start, Unlikely to be Week One Starter
Through the first ten days or so of training camp, rookie first-round pick Christian Darrisaw was not practicing, nursing a groin injury, while Rashod Hill remained in place taking first team reps at left tackle, which has been the case all off-season. Having not practiced until now, ten days into training camp, since being drafted and still being held out, it is very doubtful that Darrisaw will have developed to the point where he’ll beat out Rashod Hill for the starting job by week one. It may be that he eventually replaces Hill at some point during the regular season, but starting week one seems unlikely at this point. He’ll have to show an awful lot in practice and pre-season action to have a chance to start in five weeks. Mike Zimmer characterized Darrisaw and his injury as, “one step forward, two steps back” and that he isn’t going to win a starting job if he isn’t able to practice. My guess is that a more likely target for Darrisaw as a starter would be following the Vikings’ week seven bye-week, assuming he’s over his groin injury relatively soon and he’s able to eclipse Rashod Hill’s performance by that time. Neither of those assumptions are guaranteed either.
Oli Udoh Winning the Starting Right Guard Spot
Similarly, rookie 3rd round pick Wyatt Davis has missed some time during training camp, and has only taken a handful of first team reps at right guard. Dakota Dozier was getting those reps during the off-season workouts, but since the opening of training camp, third-year man Oli Udoh has been sharing in those reps, and looking pretty good too. I’ve written the past couple years about the promise of Udoh, and the possibility of him being moved inside to guard, and now we’re seeing it happen. By most accounts Udoh has been one of the more pleasant surprises of training camp so far, and looks to be on his way toward beating out Dakota Dozier, and Wyatt Davis, for the starting right guard spot. If Udoh does indeed become the starting right guard, that may well make Dakota Dozier redundant, and leave Wyatt Davis to compete for the primary interior backup spot.
In any case, Mike Zimmer seemed to confirm that Udoh has the inside track as the starting right guard, saying, “I like Udoh at guard. He’s a big-bodied guy. If he’s going to be the guard, we have to keep giving him reps so he gets comfortable with all the things that happen in there.” That would appear to be the intention as well.
Phil Rauscher also talked about Udoh at guard during his press conference on Friday, talking about making the transition from tackle to guard, and how he’s well suited for the athletic nature of the position in a wide-zone scheme.
Reviewing Rashod Hill
With Christian Darrisaw on the slow development track while he’s nursing a groin injury, the starting left tackle spot goes to Rashod Hill, who’s been swing tackle for the Vikings the last few years. Now that he’ll be the likely starter at the all-important left tackle position, let’s take another look at Hill and his body of work so far.
While Hill may not have Christian Darrisaw’s athletic upside, he does have good size and length for the position. Hill goes 6’6”, about 315 pounds, with very long 35 3/8” arm length according to his pro day results. Hill has done reasonably well as a pass blocker when called upon for the Vikings as well. For example, last season he gave up one QB hit and three hurries in 65 pass blocking attempts. Not bad. In 2019, he gave up one sack and one hurry in 89 pass attempts. Again, not bad. It will be interesting to see how Hill has developed now that he’ll likely be the starter. He was originally a UDFA in 2016, and landed with the Vikings late in the season. He’s now had several years to develop, lost some weight in the process- he was once around 325 pounds but slimmed down to his current weight a couple years ago.
Where Hill has struggled since entering the league has been in run blocking. His PFF run blocking grade improved to 69.1 last season, but on only 55 run-blocking snaps. Prior to that, his grade averaged in the mid-50s the previous four seasons. Mike Zimmer, talking about Hill this week, echoed his PFF grades in saying he’s done a nice job in pass protection, but needs to get better in his run blocking. It will be interesting to see if Hill is able to improve at both blocking skills now that he’s getting all the first-team reps and is the likely starter for at least the first part of the season.
No Rookie Starters
While the slow development of Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis may be disappointing, there is at least one upside factor- no rookie starters.
For just about every rookie starting offensive lineman, it takes awhile for them to adjust and step-up their game to the NFL level. For example, last season only 3 tackles had PFF grades above 70, and only two had pass blocking efficiency rates above 98%, which is the desired level for a good tackle. In 2019, no rookie with more than a handful of snaps had either.
Having Oli Udoh and Rashod Hill as starters, instead of Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis, means the Vikings will have guys that have been in their system for a few years and have more experience going up against NFL caliber defensive linemen, if only in practice for the most part. And both Hill and Udoh have shown they can hold up under the lights when they’ve been called upon, albeit in limited snaps the past couple years. Seeing how they do against Denver, who’ll come to Minnesota next week for practices leading up to the first pre-season game on the 14th, will be the first glimpse into where they’re at, although it appears they’re doing reasonably well in training camp so far- especially Udoh.
Garrett Bradbury’s Do-or-Die Season
After two seasons, Garrett Bradbury has yet to fulfill his promise as a first-round draft pick. While he made some improvement last year as a run blocker, his pass protection still leaves much to be desired. He has yet to eclipse a 41.4 (poor) PFF grade in pass protection after two seasons, which is worse than Pat Elflein in 2018-2019, and only narrowly better than Dakota Dozier last year.
Mike Zimmer said Bradbury was battling injuries most of last season, particularly the last half of the season, when he’d show up on weekly injury reports occasionally. That apparently effected his play down the stretch, with the last few games being particularly poor from a PFF grading standpoint.
That said, Bradbury has struggled most of his first two seasons in pass protection, injured or not, unable to hold up against bigger defensive tackles, and losing the hand fighting too many times, sometimes leading to quick pressures. He has short arms (31 3/4”) even for a center, which doesn’t help in pass protection- getting pushed back after losing the hand fighting against longer-armed DTs. His ability to anchor in those situations has been wanting, which after two seasons makes you wonder if that is something that will improve this year. And, to the extent Bradbury is seen as the weak link in pass protection, he’ll likely draw the opponents best pass rushers as much as they’re able to exploit that matchup.
I doubt that Bradbury’s development, or lack thereof, has gone unnoticed. The Vikings have brought in a few guys as potential backups for Bradbury, including Mason Cole this off-season and Kyle Hinton last year, not to mention a few other UDFAs. Mike Zimmer has said he wants to get bigger along the interior line, hoping that may help Bradbury some in pass protection, but ultimately he has to stand up by himself in one-on-one situations as well- although that’s not as common for a center. How well everything works out this season for Bradbury will likely have a crucial impact on his career trajectory. At this point he’s going down the Pat Elflein path, so barring any change he’s unlikely to have his 5th-year option exercised and may ultimately be released or traded.
Wyatt Davis a potential center?
If Bradbury continues to struggle, and Oli Udoh establishes himself as a quality right guard, that could lead the Vikings to consider Wyatt Davis at center. The Vikings did work with Davis at center, practicing his snapping ability, earlier in training camp, but transitioning him to center doesn’t appear to be in the immediate plans… yet. I suspect at this point they want Davis to compete at right guard, and focus on learning the system, making the needed corrections in his technique, and adjust to the NFL game at his long-time position of right guard. But if Udoh takes hold at right guard, and Ezra Cleveland is established at left guard, Davis’ best chance to crack the starting lineup may be to learn the center position if Bradbury fails to improve. The Vikings may also want Davis to learn the center position in order to be a primary interior line backup, which increases his value to the team. My guess is that until they’re satisfied with Oli Udoh at right guard, Davis will compete at that spot. But if Udoh does indeed establish himself as a quality right guard, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Wyatt Davis transition to center- particularly if Bradbury continues to struggle.
Outside of Rashod Hill, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Oli Udoh, Brian O’Neill, Christian Darrisaw, and Wyatt Davis, the other eight offensive lineman are all essentially ‘on-the-bubble’ when it comes to making the 53-man roster. Those players include Dakota Dozier, Mason Cole, Dru Samia, Zach Bailey, Blake Brandel, Cohl Cabral, Kyle Hinton, and Evin Ksiezarczyk.
You’d think that Dakota Dozier would manage to keep a roster spot, despite lackluster performance that’s unlike to improve, based on his NFL experience in the Vikings system. Mason Cole, as an experienced vet with over a season’s worth of combined snaps, the vast majority at center, would also seem to have the advantage of experience in securing a roster spot. On the other hand, the performance of both has not been overly compelling, and there is room for others to overtake them, particularly Dozier if Wyatt Davis is able to leapfrog him.
For other interior linemen, particularly those that aren’t candidates to play center like Dru Samia, their prospects of securing a roster spot seem less likely. There probably isn’t another tackle worthy of a roster spot either, particularly given Darrisaw’s development potential and the fact that both Ezra Cleveland and Oli Udoh can kick-out to tackle in a pinch. Guys like Blake Brandel, Zach Bailey, and Evin Ksiezarczyk seem likely candidates for the practice squad, however.
The interesting competition among the 2nd-3rd team guys will be who gets a roster spot as a backup center. Cole Cabral has been getting the reps as backup center, as Mason Cole and Kyle Hinton- both of whom can play center- have been getting reps at guard. Keep an eye on Hinton though, who has easily the best athletic profile of any non-starter. He looks bigger this year than last year too, which helps his cause if the Vikings are trying to get bigger along the interior line. It may be that both Cole and Hinton, along with Dozier, round out the final three (likely) roster spots given to offensive linemen. I’m not convinced Cabral has shown enough at this point to warrant a roster spot, and practice squad would seem a more likely landing place for him.
The Vikings offensive line is shaping up for some improvement, assuming Oli Udoh is a better guard than Dakota Dozier, and Rashod Hill can play as well as he and Riley Reiff did a year ago. I’d also expect improvement from Ezra Cleveland, now that he’s made the transition to guard and the NFL, and is more fluent in the Vikings scheme. Beyond that, with Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis developing, and likely to compete eventually for starting jobs, the Vikings’ offensive line depth appears to be improving as well.
Not to be lost in player development, however, is the coaching change at offensive line. Phil Rauscher will bring a lot more energy as a key position coach for the Vikings, and clearly has a solid background as both offensive line player and coach, including coaching in the Kubiak/Shanahan scheme.
Perhaps the biggest question, assuming left tackle and right guard work out okay regardless of who plays the position, is center. This is really a make or break season for Bradbury, and he’s had some poor reps (perhaps not unexpectedly) in training camp against Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson. There doesn’t appear to be a quality plug-and-play replacement for Bradbury should he falter, and it would seem unlikely that the Vikings would pull the plug on him this year. But it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a serious effort to develop a viable alternative to Bradbury, should he fail to improve and make a break from his current path to mediocrity.