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Kevin O'Connell Believes Vikings O-Line is Set Except for Right Guard Competition

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have 15 total wins over the past two seasons and haven't been above .500 in the standings in each of those years.

But Minnesota's new leadership in General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell have a strong belief in the current roster, as recent moves have shown an expectation to be playoff contenders right away in 2022.

"I came in with kind of an independent eye — obviously I've studied this roster a lot before even arriving here," O'Connell said Tuesday from Florida at the Annual League Meeting. "But then you come in and you actually see, you know, this game comes down to little things, little details.

"Sometimes execution by some of the players you're talking about, no question," O'Connell added. "But I'm excited to give these guys an opportunity in really all three phases to go out and feel really good about what we're doing schematically and kind of put it together piece-by-piece here this spring."

On a more micro level, Minnesota's conviction in much of the preexisting roster can also be applied to the offensive line, a position group that is always seemingly in the offseason spotlight.

As the Vikings get set to return to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in less than two weeks, O'Connell suggested Tuesday that that group is nearly set in stone as far as the starters go, with right guard being the only apparent open competition.

"There's plenty of time to figure that spot out, but there's a lot of coaches in this room right now that are talking about two or three or four spots on their offensive line coming together," O'connell said. "It feels really good to know that we're going to have some real healthy competition there, but we also feel really good about some of the foundational points that we have."

As we take a deeper dive into that unit, we'll begin with the only spot that's available, where newly-acquired Jesse Davis and Austin Schlottmann could battle with returners Olisaemeka Udoh and Wyatt Davis.

View photos of new Vikings OL Jesse Davis who joined the team during free agency.

Jesse Davis, who spent the past five seasons with the Dolphins, played in 80 games and started 72 of them in that timespan.

The 30-year-old played all along the line with Miami, but he mostly spent time on the right side. He played 1,863 snaps at right guard and 2,212 snaps at right tackle with the Dolphins.

Udoh started the first 11 games in 2021 at right guard and switched to left tackle for the next two games before missing Week 15 due to COVID-19 protocols. He then returned to right guard for the final three games of the season.

"Jesse gives us a veteran presence there to go along with some guys who got snaps there last year," O'Connell said. "Udoh was one of those guys that I think, we really want to find a spot for him that, whether it is at that swing tackle spot or we're going to have him compete at guard, I think we'll get some answers."

O'Connell later expanded on Jesse Davis in an interview with Gabe Henderson of Vikings Entertainment Network.

"He's played a lot of football," O'Connell said. "I think he's missed one start over the past four years. Durable. Experienced. Brings a lot of things culturally that we want as a fit for the locker room."

Wyatt Davis, a 2021 third-round pick, played in six games as a rookie but didn't see the field on offense. He played 28 total snaps on special teams.

O'Connell's revelation that there will only be one open competition was welcome news for Garrett Bradbury, who appears in line to resume his starting spot from the past three seasons.

The 18th overall pick in 2019, Bradbury has endured some ups and downs in his time in Purple.

He's started 45 games but was also benched for a period of time in 2021, as Mason Cole — who is now with the Steelers — occupied the center spot after Bradbury was eligible to return from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

But O'Connell expressed a belief in the 26-year-old, saying Tuesday that he's essentially looking at Bradbury with a clean slate.

"With Garrett, there was a lot to love about Garrett coming out a few years ago," O'Connell said. "I watched a ton of his tape coming out. And schematically, what we do may be a little bit different overall from what kind of has been done, that I think could maybe put some tools in his toolbox to have some success consistently, snap-in and snap-out."

At left guard, Ezra Cleveland will once again occupy that spot as the third-year lineman showed strong growth in 2021.

A 2020 second-rounder who played tackle in college, Cleveland played right guard as a rookie before switching to the left side last season. He solidified that spot and was also durable, playing all 1,141 offensive snaps in 2021.

O'Connell expressed an excitement in Cleveland, who will turn 24 in May, continuing to elevate his game, too.

"I think Ezra is going to have a great offseason and continue his progression," O'Connell said. "I think you see such a great skill set from his feet, to his hand placement, to his power in his hands. That guy's got a lot in his body."

That leaves the two tackle spots, and it feels as if Minnesota has long-term answers on both the left and right sides of the line for the first time in a long time.

Brian O'Neill made his first Pro Bowl in 2021, which was also his first season as a captain. And 2021 first-rounder Christian Darrisaw showed flashes of greatness in a dozen games, 10 of which were starts.

A former quarterback himself, O'Connell said having two stout bookends will only be a benefit for Kirk Cousins in the pocket.

"I think you feel good about the starting point because of your tackles, always," O'Connell said. "I think those guys, the more and more I've been able to study our group up front – I think Brian's one of the best right tackles in football. I really do.

"And then I think we have a young left tackle in Christian that, there is so much to love about his game, his skill set, his physicalness, his size – all the things that made him a high pick for a lot of people to consider coming out of the draft – that's all there," O'Connell added. "And I'm just excited to get our hands on him and start coaching him up on a daily basis so he knows just exactly where his ceiling is, because it's way up there."

There are others on Minnesota's roster, too, as tackle Blake Brandel was used in jumbo formations in 2021. Schlottman, who started seven of the 42 games he's played for Denver since 2019, joined a room that also includes Kyle Hinton and Timon Parris.

But as far as the starters go, four-fifths of the Vikings offensive line appears set as the calendar turns to April.

O'Connell didn't rule out the possibility of continuing to add depth to that group in the draft, but also noted that the emphasis going forward will be on getting the unit to be a cohesive and confident group, while also figuring out the final piece.

View photos of Vikings G/C Austin Schlottmann getting introduced to the team for the first time at the TCO Performance Center.

"We're going to allow those guys to compete in there [at right guard]," O'Connell said. "We're going to get the best five.

"We really want to come out of training camp knowing who's going to be wearing a uniform on game day," O'Connell added. "You normally get eight up on game day, we want to have a really solid group there that we can have some depth, but also feel really, really good about that starting five."

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