With Verizon Vikings Training Camp set to open next week (Friday, July 26 is the first scheduled public practice open to the public), the Vikings.com writing staff is doing a Training Camp Primer series this week to take deeper looks at offseason topics that likely will be answered in camp practices and the preseason.
Wednesday: How Can the O-line Shape Minnesota’s Offensive Identity?
Thursday: After Thielen & Diggs, Receivers Will Try to Separate from Pack
Friday: Special Teams to Feature Competitions for Positions & Roster Spots
EAGAN, Minn. – The moment the Vikings made their first selection of the 2019 NFL Draft, the look of their starting offensive line changed.
Minnesota used the 18th overall pick to snag N.C. State standout Garrett Bradbury, who stepped out of the college ranks – where he was awarded the Rimington Trophy in 2018 – and directly into the cleats of an NFL starting center.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman addressed Twin Cities media members after the selection and emphasized Bradbury’s “natural athletic ability” and strength.
“[He had] a great Senior Bowl, great combine, fits everything from the criteria standpoint, not only positionally and schematically but also the character, the passion for the game, the smarts, everything that we look for as we build this offensive line,” Spielman said.
With Bradbury assuming the center role, second-year lineman Pat Elflein embraced a move to left guard.
Elflein, also a Rimington Trophy recipient as the nation’s best center (2016), said he and the rest of Minnesota’s offensive line welcomed Bradbury “with open arms.”
“I always knew I could play either [guard or center]. I’m position-flexible,” Elflein said. “We like Garrett, and it’s a smooth transition.”
“I was excited that we were getting another great lineman for this room,” he later added.
Riley Reiff will remain at left tackle, while Brian O’Neill, the Vikings 2018 second-round draft pick, will start at right tackle. At right guard, another fresh face for Minnesota.
The Vikings signed Josh Kline during free agency, adding an experienced lineman to the room. Originally going undrafted in 2013, he spent three seasons with the Patriots before joining the Titans from 2016-18. Of 79 games played, Kline has started 64, including 46 in a row.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer pointed to Kline’s agility after Minnesota inked the guard to a deal in March.
“He’s got very good feet, athletic,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s going to fit in well.”
Kline fits the mold of the vision for the offensive line, a unit that will be able to move well and get to the second level in Minnesota’s zone blocking scheme.
“Our guys have to be athletic,” Zimmer explained. “They have to have really good body control and balance, and then obviously they’ve got to be tough and physical and those things. We’re looking for guys with a certain skill set to do what we want them to do.”
Vikings offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison by-and-large shares a philosophy with Zimmer, naming “athletic, smart and tough” as the three traits he looks for in offensive linemen.
Dennison, who has more than two decades of NFL coaching experience, is just one of the new faces added to Minnesota’s offensive coaching staff during the offseason.
He is well-acquainted with Gary Kubiak, hired as the Vikings assistant head coach/offensive advisor, as well as tight ends coach Brian Pariani. Kubiak’s son, Klint Kubiak, will oversee quarterbacks, and Drew Petzing moved from QBs to coach wide receivers.
Kevin Stefanski is entering his 14th season with the Vikings but first full campaign as the team’s offensive coordinator, a role he took over late last season when John DeFilippo was relieved of his duties.
Under a new-look coaching staff, the revamped line should enable the Vikings to run (no pun intended – we’ll come back to that word later) their offensive system effectively. In February, Stefanski explained that his main goal is to be unpredictable offensively.
“We want to be a run team. We want to be a pass team,” Stefanski said. “We want there to be that marriage between the run and the pass game, and that is something that Coach [Kubiak] has hung his hat on over the years.”
In 2017, when the Vikings finished the regular season 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, 45.9 percent of their plays were run plays. Their pass-play percentage of 54.1 ranked 28th in the NFL. The 2015 Vikings ran 48.9 percent of the time, less than only the Panthers and Bills.
Minnesota passed the ball on 64.4 percent of plays in 2018, the fourth-highest in the league, running the ball just 35.6 percent of the time. Worth noting is that in the Vikings final three games, during which Stefanaski had the headset, passing plays made up just 52 percent of the calls.
Nine of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season ran the ball at least 41 percent of the time. Three of the teams that advanced to the conference championship games ran it more than 43 percent.
“I just want to be more balanced,” Zimmer said this spring. “Most of those [playoff] teams, even though they’re passing teams, they still run the football, and it makes it much more difficult for the defense if you can run the ball.
“It slows the defense down, the pass rush, which helps your offensive line,” Zimmer added. “Play-action slows down the defensive line. I think all of those things help you make an effective offense. We need to do a better job there.”
Stefanski also commented on the benefit of mixing in play-action.
“It’s going to be a constant point of emphasis for our entire offense, because when you talk play-action, it’s very simple to just say it’s the quarterback and the running back,” Stefanski explained. “But it’s the offensive line, it’s the tight end, it’s the wide receivers. It’s everybody working in conjunction so that the pass looks like a run.
“I think play-action is definitely an element of our system. Having said that, there’s so many aspects of how we’re going to attack the defense, I can’t say that we would pigeon-hole ourselves into just being a play-action team,” Stefanski continued. “[But] when you’re good at play-action, it’s difficult on the defense.”
Running back Dalvin Cook, who is hoping to stay healthy in his third pro season after struggling with injuries in 2017 and 2018, understands the value of mixing in run plays as well as play-action to keep an opponent guessing.
“I’m not a real statistic guy, but everybody knows Kirk [Cousins], and [play-action] is his thing,” Cook said. “We have the backs to run the offense and set him and the offense up for what we want to do. That’s going to be a big piece, but we have to run the ball a little bit.”
Behind Reiff, Elflein, Bradbury, Kline and O’Neill, the Vikings will look to establish their offensive identity through a zone-blocking scheme that utilizes a smart blend of passing, play-action and the run.
“You’ve got to be tough, be physical,” Kline said of Minnesota’s system. “You’ve got to be somewhat athletic because there’s a lot of running involved, obviously, with outside zone schemes, and you’ve got to be a good team player.
“You’ve got to know what to do and be cerebral because there’s a lot of things that can happen within a play,” Kline added. “An average play only lasts five-six seconds on average. There’s a lot of stuff that can happen, so you’ve just got to be ready for anything and be prepared for anything.”