By: Sam Thiel
Leadership comes in many forms.
Some express it vocally. Others showcase it by example.
For Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill, his leadership style is channeled through two words: positivity and consistency.
"I try to be positive throughout the day, throughout the building, day after day. I [also] try to be consistent, I try to always be available," O'Neill said. "I appreciate guys who are positive and guys who are consistent in their approach and their ability to help each other on this team. I think those are characteristics you see a lot of the guys on our team have."
One person who noticed O'Neill's leadership was quarterback Kirk Cousins, who joined Minnesota via free agency in March 2018 after six seasons in Washington. A little more than a month later, O'Neill was drafted 62nd overall out of Pitt in the second round by the Vikings.
Cousins said O'Neill has impressed him from their first moments together as teammates.
"Brian has been phenomenal for us from day one. I remember his rookie year and the challenge that it is to go in as a rookie right tackle and hold up, and he did it and he's been doing it ever since," Cousins said. "One of the things I love about Brian is he's very positive; very consistent; doesn't complain; doesn't get down. He always believes the next play, the next game, the next thing is going to be good. I get a lot of positive energy from him [by] playing with him because he has been such a great teammate and such a great influence on not only me, but a lot of the O-linemen and really our whole offense."
O'Neill was put to the test early in his rookie season. Rashod Hill moved over to left tackle after Riley Reiff suffered an injury, allowing O'Neill, who had been inactive in Week 1, to make his first career start at right tackle in just his fifth NFL game against Arizona.
He never gave it up.
From that moment on, O'Neill's only missed one game in his career (the regular-season finale against Chicago in 2019 due to rest for the postseason) and has started 46 consecutive contests.
"I take a lot of pride in it," O'Neill said about being able to become a steady presence for the Vikings offensive line. "I like to think I do a lot to my body throughout the week in order to be out there for my teammates. I just want to be somebody my teammates can rely on, to produce at a high level and be out there consistently and be a positive force in our locker room and our huddle. If I can do that, do my job at a high level and help us win on a consistent basis, then I'd like to think that I'm doing my job."
Even though O'Neill has continued to anchor the right side, he's dealt with the challenge of having four different offensive line coaches in five seasons.
For many athletes, that amount of turnover and lack of consistency could be seen as frustrating. For O'Neill, he views each moment as a learning opportunity.
"I think it gives you an opportunity to learn from a lot of different people, learn how to play in different situations," O'Neill said. "I always like to say that I'd like to think that I've taken something from everybody that I've been coached by. I'm really excited about the coaching staff that we have here and their ability to develop us and help us grow. [I've] just got to be able to take something from everybody."
O'Neill's current position coach is Chris Kuper, who is in his first season with Minnesota. Kuper has plenty of experience in the NFL, playing guard for eight seasons with the Denver Broncos (2006-13). Kuper joined the Miami Dolphins as their offensive quality control coach in 2016 before spending two seasons in Miami (2017-18) and three with Denver (2019-2021) as an assistant offensive line coach.
"He's done an awesome job; I'm really proud of how he's done," O'Neill said. "He played at a high level for a long time and pushes us hard, and we have a tight-knit group. I'm really happy with the job he's done and really fortunate to play for him."
Kuper said he was aware of O'Neill before he came to Minnesota, adding the existing talent of O'Neill and rest of the O-line room captured his attention while he was searching for his next coaching role.
"The whole group, the whole room kind of made it appealing to come here, specifically guys like Brian — a smart player who's done it for a while, [has] good athleticism. It's been great," Kuper said.
Kuper added O'Neill's leadership is seen through being highly attentive to the details that often go unnoticed. Those details have helped O'Neill limit his sacks allowed this season to just four.
"Just the small things that maybe not everyone sees," Kuper said. "Whether or not we're going hard enough in individual [drills]… and overall, this year working with Ed [Ingram] as a rookie, he's taken on another role to kind of help him move along."
O'Connell said having a leader like O'Neill on the line has made his transition into his first year as a head coach a much easier one.
"Just overall, that offensive line group consistently being led by a guy like Brian, who's in my opinion been one of our foundational leaders," O'Connell said. "His performance level has been very consistent and that puts you at ease as a play caller and coach. We feel strong about our depth, but that right side has been pretty darn effective for us on that edge."
Chemistry & Captain Consistency
Over the past few years, the Vikings have invested high picks on the offensive line, beginning with O'Neill in 2018. Minnesota drafted center Garrett Bradbury 18th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Next came left guard Ezra Cleveland with the 58th overall selection in 2020. Then it was left tackle Christian Darrisaw's turn at 23rd overall in 2021 before the Vikings rounded out the line by selecting the right guard Ingram 59th overall in 2022.
O'Neill described a "continual process" of the group strengthening its bond.
"We try to get better every day; we're not a finished product. We're trying to keep our foot on the gas pedal every day at practice, in meeting rooms. Hopefully it will allow us to play our best football as the season goes on," O'Neill said. "I think I'm better now than I was three years ago. I think C.D. will be better next year than he is this year. I think Ezra's better than he was. I think ideally everybody gets better with time and experience and reps and being able to play together. We're never a finished product."
Bradbury said the linemen have a close-knit bond that's built on a mutual respect.
"We're such good friends. We spend 12 hours a day for six months out of the year together, so we're close," Bradbury said. "I think we all respect each other; the way we work, the way we go about our business, so it's just a fun group to be a part of. [Brian's] an awesome leader to have at the front of it."
Last season, O'Neill was named a team captain for Minnesota for the first time and followed up by earning his first Pro Bowl nod.
O'Neill used the experience in Las Vegas as an opportunity to pick the brain of his right tackle counterparts from across the league.
"It was a cool experience," O'Neill said. "Being able to spend time just in the locker room, around the couple of days in Vegas with guys who have played at a high level for a long time, you always pick something up, a tidbit here or there, talk pass rushers, guys that you've gone against, what's worked, what hasn't."
O'Neill then earned the honor of being named a captain for a second consecutive season this year.
One of eight Vikings captains, O'Neill said he tries to be a genuine leader and can feel the leadership qualities throughout the entire locker room.
"I think I just try to be myself and if people can find something that I do beneficial, then great, but it's more of a testament to everybody on this team," O'Neill said. "[O'Connell] has said many times this year, I think 22 guys on our team got a vote to be captain, which is pretty cool just because we have really good guys top to bottom. I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Bradbury added that O'Neill sets the tone for the rest of the locker room.
"He's the best. He sets the standard for not just the O-line room, but the offense and the team of how you should prepare, how you should carry yourself. He's such a professional," Bradbury said. "The success he has, I think a lot of it comes from his preparation. He works his butt off in practice, he watches as much film as anyone and just pays a lot of attention to details."
O'Neill said there's definitely a balance when it comes to staying focused and holding others accountable while maintaining a fun, positive atmosphere.
"At the end of the day, it's people doing a job, and in my opinion, if people feel good about the job they're doing, the product's more likely to be better," O'Neill said. "I think that's true in the NFL and in other lines of work, too. If people are excited and motivated and feel like what they're doing is important and there's a chance for them to have success and contribute to a greater cause than just their individual selves, the outcome's going to be a lot better. I just try to live by that, and I think our O-line embodies that."