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2021 Vikings Position Recap: Offensive Line

EAGAN, Minn. — The bookends of the Vikings offensive line just might be set for years to come, but the interior may get another revision in 2022.

No team has committed more draft resources (in terms of Day 1 or Day 2 picks since 2018) to the offensive line than the Vikings.

The Falcons and Dolphins have each used four selections, 10 teams have picked three, and 18 teams have selected two offensive linemen in that timeframe. The Seahawks have only drafted an offensive lineman once (third round, 2020) in the first two nights of a draft since 2018.

The selections of Christian Darrisaw in the first round and Wyatt Davis in the third of this past draft made it five players tabbed in the first or second nights of drafts since 2018.

Minnesota got a return on the investment in Darrisaw, who battled through an injury that lingered from college and delayed his pro debut, to look the part of a promising left tackle.

Darrisaw's upside, combined with 2018 second-round selection Brian O'Neill's contract extension going through 2026, potentially gives Minnesota a lot to look forward to in future seasons.

After a couple of years of targeting athletic linemen who excel at zone blocking and getting to the second level for screen passes, former Head Coach Mike Zimmer asked for more bulk on the interior this season because of the unit's struggles against Hulk Smash interior defensive linemen like Akiem Hicks and Kenny Clark.

View the best offensive line photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.

The post-draft steam for Davis (listed at 315 pounds) was that he'd be primed to step in at right guard (between O'Neill and 2019 first-round pick, center Garrett Bradbury) as Minnesota moved Ezra Cleveland (a 2020 second-rounder who played left tackle at Boise State) over to left guard. Bradbury is listed at 300, and Cleveland's weight is listed at 312.

But Davis didn't launch. The Vikings leaned on the experience of veteran Dakota Dozier with the first group during Organized Team Activity practices before surprising folks at the start of training camp by moving Olisaemeka Udoh (a 2019 sixth-rounder listed at 320) from tackle to guard.

The move of Cleveland from the right of the pivot back to the same side of the line that he played in college seemed to work well. Cleveland and O'Neill each played every offensive snap in 2021.

"I'm really proud of Ezra and the season he put together," O'Neill said during his end-of-season media session. "You started to see him come out of his shell a little bit in training camp and coming into this season, and the strides he's made from the beginning of the season until now are pretty remarkable.

"I think by the end of it, he was playing football at a really high level," O'Neill added. "He's confident in himself, and he's learning more about himself and what it takes for him to play at a high level, what's required for him to go into a week of preparation and come out and put a good product on the field on Sundays."

Bradbury started Minnesota's first seven games of 2021 before landing on the Reserve/COVID-19 list despite being vaccinated. After Bradbury returned from the list, he remained on the sidelines as Minnesota rolled with Mason Cole for two more starts.

Bradbury used that time to self-critique. He had always been available, but he decided he had gotten too comfortable.

Cole had been acquired from Arizona for a late-round pick. The trade helped Minnesota, given that he made four starts at center and another three at right guard, but he's scheduled to be a free agent in 2022. The Vikings will have the option of bringing him back if they want to and he wants to return.

Udoh encountered some expected struggles during his position switch. He was assessed a team-high 16 accepted penalties that resulted in 114 yards being assessed and the nullification of 42 yards gained on plays that were negated by the infractions. Bradbury's eight accepted penalties were the second-most against any Viking this season.

Notable Number: 30

The Vikings offensive line surrendered 30 sacks, the fifth-fewest in the NFL in 2021.

That was nine fewer than 2020, despite playing a 17th regular-season game for the first time in league history. It was just the third time since 2000 that Minnesota has limited opponents to 30 or fewer sacks (27 allowed in 2017 and 28 allowed in 2019).

Memorable Moment

The Vikings put together their most complete half of football against the Steelers in Week 14 on Thursday Night Football, and the offensive line had a lot to do with it.

Clad in #PrimetimePurple uniforms, the offensive line helped Dalvin Cook rush 27 times for 205 yards and two scores. Cook totaled a franchise-record 153 yards in the first half on 14 carries — a whopping 10.9 yards per attempt. It also was the only 2021 Vikings game with two rushing touchdowns.

The offensive line didn't allow a sack of Kirk Cousins and blocked during a 14-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson and a 62-yarder to K.J. Osborn that provided enough of a cushion.

The Vikings finished with 458 yards of offense and averaged 6.8 yards per play.

Regular-Season Statistics

Christian Darrisaw

Started 10 of 12 games played at left tackle; played 653 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (57.2 percent)

Ezra Cleveland

Started all 17 games at left guard; played all of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (100 percent)

Garrett Bradbury

Started all 13 games played at center; played 883 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (77.4 percent)

Olisaemeka Udoh

Started 16 of 17 games played (14 at right guard and 2 at left tackle); played 1,076 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (94.3 percent)

Brian O'Neill

Started all 17 games at right tackle; played all of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (100 percent)

Rashod Hill

Started 5 of 15 games played (all at left tackle); played 342 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (30.0 percent)

Mason Cole

Started 7 of 14 games played (4 at center and 3 at right guard); played 472 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (41.4 percent)

Blake Brandel

Appeared in 13 games as an extra lineman or on special teams; played 65 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps (5.7 percent)

Wyatt Davis

Appeared in 6 games exclusively on special teams

Dakota Dozier

Appeared in 6 games exclusively on special teams

The highest highs

1. Going for it and getting it

The Vikings closed out the Chargers in Week 10 in the victory formation for the first time of 2021.

Minnesota was able to kneel the ball three times inside the 2-minute warning and take a relaxing breath as the seconds ticked because the Vikings gained 18 on a third-and-20 and converted a fourth-and-2 with a 4-yard run by Cook.

The "best formation in football" was welcome a week after Minnesota's third overtime game (and second loss in an extra session) of 2021. The Vikings were 12-for-22 on fourth downs (54.5 percent) during the season but went 2-for-2 in out-aggressive-ing the Chargers for the win.

2. Whopping output

Minnesota prevailed 34-28 in overtime at Carolina on a 27-yard pass from Cousins to Osborn.

The Vikings won the coin toss and opted to receive the ball. Minnesota picked up three first downs before the walk-off winner that included two runs by Cook and a key catch by Osborn on a third-and-3.

The 571 yards totaled by Minnesota were the third-most in franchise history, and the Vikings did not allow a sack in Darrisaw's first career start at left tackle.

The lowest low

1. Letdown in Motown

Credit the Lions for doing what they needed to get their first win of 2021, but the Vikings helped in so many ways.

Trailing 7-6 with 11:51 remaining in the second quarter, Minnesota had moved the ball to the Detroit 32-yard line when a horrendous two-play stretch prevented points.

Kene Nwangwu was tackled by Levi Onwuzurikie for a 1-yard loss to create a second-and-11. The Vikings called a pass play with deep developing routes. Cousins was pressured and hitched, and Charles Harris recorded a sack fumble that was recovered by Julian Okwara. The turnover denied Minnesota the opportunity to retake the lead with a field goal, and Detroit scored three plays later for a 14-6 lead of an eventual 29-27 victory.

Harris got another sack on Minnesota's next possession — the only time he's ever recorded 2.0 sacks in a game.

2 pressing questions for 2022

1.Can the Vikings reduce their number of negative run plays next season?

The Vikings run game struggled to stack positive gains and prevent negative plays that undermined possessions throughout the season.

Minnesota's rushing yards per game dipped from 142.7 (fifth in the NFL) and 4.88 yards per run (fourth in the NFL) to 113.5 (17th) and 4.30 (19th).

The Vikings totaled 1,930 rushing yards on 449 carries, but consider the following split:

Run plays that gained 2 or fewer yards: 211

Net yardage on such plays: 17

Run plays that gained 3 or more yards: 238

Net yardage on such plays: 1,913

Minnesota totaled 66 rushes that lost between 1 and 8 yards for minus-136 yards, including two that lost 8 apiece.

2. How will big decisions affect the group?

Although the organization is undergoing significant changes after the departures of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, the Vikings offensive line will head into 2022 with Darrisaw, Cleveland and Bradbury still on their rookie deals and with O'Neill already extended.

Minnesota will need to decide by May if it picks up the fifth-year option on Bradbury, declines to do so or signs him to an extension. The Vikings also must determine if Udoh could take a leap with more time at the right guard spot, if Davis will launch or if another plan needs to be implemented.

The offensive line was led in 2021 by Phil Rauscher and assistant Ben Steele. Rauscher was promoted when Rick Dennison was excluded from being in the building because of COVID-19 protocols.

O'Neill was asked specifically about playing for Rauscher during his end-of-season press conference and said, "I'll play football for Phil Rauscher any day, anywhere, anytime, anyplace."

"I respect him as a coach. I respect him as a man in what he was able to do in the situation … with Rick Dennison and how Phil was able to come in and do an unbelievable job with our group," O'Neill added. "I'm proud of the way he coached us and proud of how he grew throughout the year.

"He grew with us, and we grew with him," O'Neill continued. "We went through the growing pains together, and I think we're better now than at the beginning when he first got here. I think he's going to be an o-line coach in the NFL for a long time, and I'd love to have him coach me and our guys because I know our guys in our room feel the same way."

The retention of coaches/hiring of new ones will likely fall on Minnesota's next head coach, but the young core of players is probably in place thanks to the ample investments of high draft picks since 2018.