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Xs and Os: How Drafted Offensive Linemen Could Impact Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. — Addressing the offensive line might not have been the Vikings clear-cut No. 1 priority in the 2020 NFL Draft, but the often-scrutinized position group was helped out three times over the final two days of the draft.

Minnesota used its second-round pick on Boise State tackle Ezra Cleveland, who was taken with the 58th overall pick.

The Vikings later took two more offensive linemen on Day 3, adding Oregon State tackle Blake Brandel in the sixth round (203rd overall pick) and Washburn (Division II) guard Kyle Hinton in the seventh round (253rd overall pick).

The selection of Hinton put a bow on the trio of offensive linemen taken, and also rounded out a 15-man draft class that set a seven-round record.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.

Here's a deep dive on how each of the drafted offensive linemen could figure into Minnesota's future plans:

Player Profile: Ezra Cleveland, Boise State, redshirt junior

There was some pre-draft chatter that Cleveland would go in the first round. But the Vikings were more than happy he fell to them near the end of the second.

Cleveland started all 13 games at left tackle for Boise State in 2019 and was named a First-Team All-Mountain West selection for the second consecutive year. He started all 40 games in three seasons with the Broncos.

Cleveland's selection meant a Minnesota reunion was on the horizon, as he was teammates at Boise State in 2017-18 with running back Alexander Mattison. Cleveland helped Mattison rush for 2,501 yards and 29 scores in those two seasons.

"Alex was the first person I texted when I got the call from the Vikings, and me and him celebrated together because this has been a dream of ours since he left here," Cleveland said. "I remember, I was one of his big reasons [why he was] teetering on either leaving or coming back. Being with him again is definitely a really cool experience."

Where He Could Play: It remains to be seen if Cleveland will earn the starting left tackle job, which could push veteran Riley Reiff inside to guard. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman also noted that Cleveland could also begin his career at guard before moving to the outside.

But no matter where the 6-foot-6, 311-pound lineman fits in, it's clear he has the athleticism to succeed. Cleveland clocked in at 4.93 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which was the third-fastest among all offensive linemen in Indianapolis.

"You watch the tape, first of all, and you see with your own eyes what you think he can do in our type of offense," said Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson. "But definitely when you get to the combine and he blows it out like he did, it just kind of re-emphasizes what you saw on tape, and you feel good about it."

Cleveland said he's already familiar with Minnesota's scheme that the Vikings will run under Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, which could help his transition in a year when all teams' offseason programs were canceled because of COVID-19.

"Oh, a hundred percent. At Boise, we're a big zone offense, as well," Cleveland said. "We do inside zone first, then power, then mid-zone. A bunch of our plays are the zone scheme that you're talking [about]. … I think it's a huge benefit for me to be coming from a zone-type scheme and going right back into one."

Coachspeak: "He's a really good athlete, and he's very bright. That's the type of guys we've had a lot of success with in our scheme. With Ezra, we're going to work with him doing a lot of things – working at tackle, he's going to move inside and work at guard. We're going to play our best five guys, so he makes us very competitive the minute he walks in the building. But his brain, his football brain, gives us the ability to do a lot of things with him and then settle him down where we feel best. A three-year starter, done it with some very good offensive football teams. We're going to ask you to run and get to the second level, do all those types of things, and naturally you've got to be able to pass-protect in our league. But Ezra will catch up very quickly. We've spent a few days with him, just kind of talking to him, and it's very clear to us that this kid could be a quick study for us moving forward."

— Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak

Film Breakdown: Former Vikings player and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Cleveland's tape from Boise State.

"A lot to like about this young man … he reminds me a lot of Brian O'Neill," Bercich said. "He's tough … a former high school wrestler … and coaches love linemen who used to wrestle because they understand the importance of leverage.

"You see his great footwork, and he has the athletic ability to get up on the defensive back in space [at the next level]," Bercich added. "Overall, he has a lot of athleticism and size. He's going to have to work a little bit, like Brian O'Neill did, to add strength. A very, very good pick. You can make a guy bigger and stronger, but you can't make him faster."

Player Profile: Blake Brandel, Oregon State, senior

Brandel might have been a sixth-round pick, but he is perhaps the most durable of any of Minnesota's 15 draft picks as he started all 48 games at Oregon State.

Brandel redshirted in 2015, then started all 12 games in 2016, with the first three games at left tackle before the final nine came at right tackle. He played his final 36 games as a Beaver at left tackle. Brandel's 48 starts are tied for the third-most in school history.

"It's awesome to be able to say that I've done that before. I think part of it is general luck because football is a physical game, contact sport. Guys are going to get hurt, but I'd also like to thank my strength and conditioning staff that's helped me out at Oregon State, because without those guys, I'm sure there'd be a lot more injuries. They've helped me out a ton, too."

An All-Pac-12 Second Team selection by numerous outlets in 2019, Brandel was also praised by Pro Football Focus. The analytics site issued a grade of 93.1 for Brandel's pass blocking last season, which was the best in the nation after he was judged to have allowed just one sack and four quarterback hurries. PFF graded Brandel at 90 overall and 82.5 in run blocking.

Where He Could Play: Well, if a guy plays every game in college at tackle, you likely don't move him from there.

Brandel likely won't be in the mix to start right away, but he could have a shot to make the roster as a depth swing tackle, similar to Rashod Hill's role in recent years.

Brandel could compete with the likes of Hill, Aviante Collins and Oli Udoh for depth behind the trio of Reiff, Cleveland and Brian O'Neill.

"He's very bright, just like Ezra, test score great, football brain very good when we visited with him, so we get a guy who's got all of the ability, all of the brain to come in here and be a part of our competition up front," Kubiak said. "He's done it against some good people, so we'll see what happens, but Blake is a nice addition to our football team, and we were very fortunate to get a player of that caliber that late in the draft."

Brandel is listed at 6-foot-7 and 307 pounds, as he has great size for his position.

Coachspeak: "The first thing that jumps at you, he starts four years at left tackle. I want to say [39] were at left tackle, obviously in a great conference in college football, so he's blocking great people on a week-in and week-out basis. He's got the size you need to play in our league."

— Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak

Film Breakdown: Bercich analyzed Brandel's play and abilities on film.

"When you're talking about offensive linemen that are 6-foot-7, you want to see how they bend and how they move their feet," Bercich said. "He can move his feet … and he keeps his shoulders square and drives the defender to the ground. He's a good finisher.

"He also has the speed to get up to the second level," Bercich added. "And as a pass protector, he has good feet. He is going to be a little bit of a project, but he does have that athletic ability. Give him a year or two, and Blake Brandel might have an opportunity to start and play a little bit."

Player Profile: Kyle Hinton, Washburn (D-II), senior

Hinton, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, primarily played tackle in college. But he said he also can play on the interior at guard or center, and feels he fits in well with Minnesota's zone-blocking scheme.

Hinton played 40 games for the Ichabods, including 34 starts on the offensive line. He was a four-time All-MIAA selection and was a three-time All-American selection.

"I see myself wherever they want me," Hinton said. "But yeah, they mostly talked to me about playing guard and center, mostly center, at the next level.''

Hinton got the attention of NFL teams with an impressive pro day performance in early March.

Since Washburn doesn't hold a pro day, Hinton instead showed up at Kansas State and turned heads there.

According to Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, Hinton completed 34 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds and recorded a vertical jump of 34.5 inches. He was also clocked at 4.86 seconds in his first 40-yard dash, and 4.70 in his second, although there were some timing concerns with his final run.

Where He Could Play: As Hinton mentioned above, he will slide from tackle to the interior in the pros.

He has been compared to former guard Brian Waters, who played 11 of his 13 seasons with the Chiefs and is in the team's ring of honor. Waters was not drafted, but he made six Pro Bowls and was a two-time All-Pro while making 170 career starts.

"He played tackle at his school, but undersized at that position for our league, but for him to move inside, that's going to be easy," Kubiak said. "We believe a lot in moving outside players from outside in when we think they have the athletic ability to do that.

"We're actually going to start him off at center," Kubiak added. "He's going to get to get behind Garrett [Bradbury] and Jonesie (Brett Jones) and learn a lot of good football from them."

Coachspeak: "We'll take it slow here because we know we're asking a lot of him, but we know we've got a very good athlete who was successful at his level, and we're going to try to make him fit at our level."

— Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak

Film Breakdown: Bercich also commented on Hinton's tape from his time at Washburn.

"Although he may be the last of the Vikings picks, he may have the best upside of anyone the Vikings selected," Bercich said. "He has quick feet and hips … he keeps his pads low, and you can see the athleticism.

"He's going to have work to do fundamentally," Bercich added, "but I think he's athletic enough to do it. In this zone scheme where linemen have to run, he's going to fit in just fine with the group."