EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has been in a steady rotation of media availabilities since training camp opened.
Some have featured a multitude of topics, but Saturday's session focused on the fellas up front to end Minnesota's first week of training camp in full pads.
The Vikings have usually been rolling with Christian Darrisaw at left tackle, Ezra Cleveland at left guard, Garrett Bradbury at center, Jesse Davis at right guard and Brian O'Neill at right tackle. When Davis was issued a preplanned vet day on Aug. 2, rookie Ed Ingram got the call to step in with the first team at right guard.
O'Connell was asked first about Darrisaw and said "he's having a really good camp so far." The first-year head coach touted the physical gifts that helped make the second-year lineman a first-round pick.
"The strength, he's got great feet, he's got the length to play that position," said O'Connell before adding, "It's tough with some of the rushers they have to go against, but I think it's an underrated thing we don't talk about enough – the game makes sense to him.
"He's not one of those guys that needs to be told every little thing, every little adjustment," O'Connell continued. "He naturally sometimes just does things based upon the right play – the smart way to hit a block, how to pass off a stunt – just understanding how we want to execute in the screen game, the play-pass game. I couldn't be more excited about where he's at right now."
View photos of players during 2022 Vikings Training Camp practice on August 6 at the TCO Performance Center.
The pairing of Darrisaw with Cleveland on the left side of the line for a second year is something the Vikings have liked seeing. O'Connell has enthusiastically talked about O'Neill whenever asked about the fifth-year right tackle.
That returns the conversation to the interior, specifically the right guard spot where Davis and Chris Reed worked with the first team during the offseason program, and center. O'Connell said there is competition occurring at both spots.
Since camp opened, Reed has worked at center and both guard spots with the second team during training camp, although Austin Schlottmann has spent more time than Reed at center with the second team. Position versatility can be critical for reserve offensive linemen.
"Luckily, a lot of the communication between that guard spot and center kind of goes hand in hand," O'Connell said when asked about Reed playing more center than he has in the past. "A lot of those combinations, whether you're working with a center or away from the center in protection, so I think there's some carryover in our system and a lot of systems really, but there's nothing like having to be the guy making the calls.
"The snapping element, as you guys have seen, probably some of my stronger frustrations through camp have been when the ball has been on the ground via the quarterback-center exchange," O'Connell added. "That's a real thing, and every single one of those has its own story, but we don't want to see the ball on the ground at all, especially in that center-quarterback exchange, but I think where [Reed is] at right now, he's able to handle it as the veteran player he is. He's played enough football to make that transition.
"I don't worry at all about the mental side. It's just the physical nature of having to deal with, being the starting point to every play on every down while also still having a critical role in our communication," he continued. "I think that's where you've seen with Kirk [Cousins] and that first group, if Chris has been in there at center at times or even at right guard, just that group's ability to communicate some of the nonverbal stuff they're already progressing to within our system. It's really cool to see them kind of start pushing the envelope there because that's what we're going to need to do throughout 17 games this year."
O'Connell was then asked multiple questions about Bradbury, who started his first 39 career games at center after being selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Bradbury has shown "a real understanding" of Minnesota's run game that includes zone and gap plays, O'Connell said.
"We do a lot of different things in the run game that sometimes look like a lot but as long as the center can get us dialed in and targeted the right way, everybody else, all other 10 guys can be on the same page, and he's done a great job with that," O'Connell said. "Obviously in pass pro, he's had some real moments of some strong performances, and then there's been some other ones where, listen, Mike Pettine and Ed Donatell and Mike Smith know how to isolate people just like all the great coaches in this league do.
"That's where we're challenging him every time, 'Technique, technique.' He's got a good anchor when he's got his feet underneath him," O'Connell added. "He shows power in the run game, so we're really finding ways to try to simulate those tough downs."
View the best photos of Vikings C Garrett Bradbury from the 2021 season.
Bradbury gained about 10 pounds of muscle this offseason in an effort to bulk up in pass protection. O'Connell said there might be unknown factors adding to the "overpowered" narrative that has been circulated by some on social media.
"I can think of probably two plays where we've had a mental error on either side of him and he's ended up being on his own when he was not supposed to be and at the last moment trying to basically save the play," O'Connell said. "I don't know if a couple of those may be some of the ones that fans or you guys watching closely can see, but I will tell you it's something that we're aware of, but at the same time, he's showing to have some real value at a lot of facets on how we're going to play."
O'Connell then shifted gears to mention a couple of "subtle pocket movements" Cousins executed to turn plays with pressure from the defense into completions to Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn in Friday's practice.
"That throw to Adam [Friday] down the right sideline, that's a situation where a lot of quarterbacks in this league are tucking and running," O'Connell said. "There's a little push, but our guys on the right side are trying to anchor down, and he just subtly, nobody even notices it, nobody even sees it, but subtly slides to the left side all in one motion and is able to throw that ball, that's playing quarterback in the NFL.
"You watch the greats in this league, that pocket presence and awareness without having to look at it, and feel it and still play within the rhythm and timing of the snap is a huge key to really helping all of our guys up front," the former NFL backup QB added. "The rhythm and timing of our passing game, really trying to attack coverages through our progressions and the way we set them up, but ultimately the quarterback's decision making and being able to process and get through the progressions with five eligibles coming to life helps those guys up front."
The toss to Osborn was one of Cousins' most brilliant of camp. He ripped it with velocity and delivered it with precision. Beyond the physical execution, O'Connell explained it as an example of a quarterback solving a "tough down" and "make it right" for the offense.
"Critical third down, getting the ball to K.J. Osborn [Friday], that's an all-out kind of pressure disguised look, he had some options at his disposal, he made an unbelievable protection call, and then to attack downfield, that's our offense in a nutshell," O'Connell said. "[Defensive Coordinator] Ed [Donatell] had a great defensive call right there, tried to disguise, tried to confuse us up front on a critical third down.
"Kirk's able to assess that, get the blocking assignments in order, Dalvin Cook does a great job stepping up, and although they didn't bring a pressure, they left themselves susceptible on the back end for basically one throw in one rhythm in one timing," he added. "And our guy made that to K.J., and it ended up being a huge play to kind of win the drill."