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From Right to Left & Learner to Leader: Cleveland & O'Neill Embracing New Roles for Vikings OL

EAGAN, Minn. – Ezra Cleveland bulked up and slid over.

After playing right guard as a rookie last season, this spring he's shifted to the left guard spot on Minnesota's offensive line. Cleveland, whom the Vikings tabbed out of Boise State in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, said experience gained during that first campaign – atypical as it was – is invaluable.

And now he's back on an even more familiar side, having played left tackle for the Broncos in college.

"I think it'll help me tremendously, just having that experience at guard and moving back to my natural side," Cleveland told Twin Cities media members Wednesday. "I'm excited for that, and I'm excited for this year."

Cleveland, who started nine games at right guard last season alongside right tackle Brian O'Neill, received praise from the 2018 second-round pick. O'Neill now has a front-row seat to the youngster's development during voluntary Organized Team Activity practices.

O'Neill said Cleveland has looked "great" at left guard thus far.

"I think he looks bigger, he looks stronger, he looks more confident, he's answering questions a lot quicker," O'Neill said. "His footwork looks tight, he's in great shape … I think he's really excited and happy to be here. I think he feels really good about being himself in our room, not that he didn't last year, but when you get that confidence in yourself as a person, it's able to translate to the field a lot as a player, in my mind.

"That's kind of when the jump hopefully happened for me, when I felt comfortable, and he definitely feels comfortable," O'Neill added.

No matter how you look at it, Cleveland hasn't been a small guy in quite some time. But he does look different heading into Year 2.

Standing at 6-foot-6, Cleveland was listed at 311 pounds last season. He didn't disclose his current measurements, but the 23-year-old acknowledged that he's dedicated plenty of time to the weight room.

After a two-week break following the season to recuperate, Cleveland noted, he started consistently working out with the support of a friend.

"He's into nutrition and all that stuff. We were just lifting, and he was running me through programs," Cleveland explained. "I knew getting stronger was one of the things I had to work on, so I was hitting the weight room hard, working with him and doing some conditioning and stuff, and I think it's paying off pretty well.

"I feel great out there on the field," he continued. "It's kind of 1-2 step right now, but my footwork is feeling great, and I feel like I'm in a really good place right now."

Rather than sliding to the left, O'Neill is staying at right tackle, where he's been since becoming a starter as a rookie in 2018.

But that doesn't mean his role is entirely the same.

After being under the tutelage of Riley Reiff for the past three seasons, that will change with Reiff's relocation to Cincinnati in free agency. O'Neill is now – tangibly or intangibly – stepping into a spot of greater responsibility within the room.

"In terms of my mentality, I don't think it changes that much. You might have a few more pointers for the young guys, but at the end of the day, it's all about trying to progress myself and have the best season I possibly can, and try to help lead this group the best way I can," O'Neill said. "It's been fun. It's been a good group so far and a great vibe around the building and great vibe in the room. Everybody is excited to be here."

O'Neill was asked about his goals for this season, and he echoed recent sentiments of running back Dalvin Cook.

"I want to be back in the playoffs, and I want to make a run at this thing," O'Neill said. "I think that's been stated pretty clearly around here, that that's the expectation and that's the goal. We've got to pick right back where we left off on offense and try to improve on a lot of things.

"There's a lot of places to get better," he continued. "I fully expect my goal for myself and our team is nothing other than to get into the playoffs and make a run. There's a lot of work that needs to be done before then, though. But it's definitely to be right back there in the mix, no doubt."

The good news for O'Neill and Cleveland is that there hasn't been a lot of turnover on offense. And even with a new coordinator in Klint Kubiak, the system hasn't changed too drastically from his father Gary's playbook.

"Schematically it's been pretty close to the same; I haven't really noticed any difference," Cleveland said. "Been doing wide zone [in the run game], and the passing has pretty much been the same. I'm excited to work under Klint."

O'Neill reiterated the benefit of terminology remaining largely the same under the younger Kubiak, who last season coached the Vikings quarterbacks.

"We're all speaking the same language, so to speak," O'Neill said. "Klint's done an awesome job; you can feel his confidence when he walks into the room. It doesn't seem like it's the first time he's ever done this. He's coaching guys hard. He's coaching me hard, he's coaching Justin [Jefferson] hard, he's coaching Dalvin — he's coaching guys at the top, guys at the bottom, everybody the same way. And you can tell he's really real.

"He's excited to be here and excited to work, and you're like 'OK, this guy really loves football,' and you saw that with his dad too," O'Neill added. "I'm excited to have him. I think it's going to be great."