Improving the offensive line was a clear priority for the Minnesota Vikings heading into this season.
An offense featuring quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, running back Dalvin Cook and tight end Kyle Rudolph finished in the bottom half of the league offensively in 2018.
Garrett Bradbury became a central figure to the overhaul when he was selected with the 18th overall pick in April’s draft. With a summer under his belt, the Vikings like what they see of the former North Carolina State All-America center.
”He’s a brilliant kid, so that helps a lot,” coach Mike Zimmer said on the first day of training camp. ”He’s going to have a big load and a time like today will help him get back into the groove of things a little bit.”
Bradbury started every game the past three seasons for the Wolfpack, the last two years coming at center, where he has the winner as a senior of the Rimington Award given to the top center in college football.
”He’s very mature,” the veteran Cousins said of the 24-year-old Bradbury. ”Just talking to him in the locker room, I just feel like I’m not talking to someone who’s right out of college. I feel like I’m talking to someone who’s about my age, and I think that makes it a little easier, to just be on the same page and work together.”
The relationship between Bradbury and Cousins will be vital. Cousins took part in the initial days of training camp, days set aside for the team’s rookies and younger players before veterans reported.
”I think those guys are tied at the hip together out here,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. ”That’s no mistake. Those guys are spending time together because they’re in close quarters during the season. They’re getting to know each other and getting to know this offense.”
Bradbury isn’t the only one learning the offense.
Gary Kubiak joined the team as assistant head coach and offensive adviser, with Rick Dennison as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Minnesota is implementing a zone-blocking scheme reminiscent of Kubiak and Dennison’s time with the Denver Broncos, and one that fits Bradbury.
”It’s a new system for everybody, which is great because we can kind of throw things off each other and learn together throughout this,” Bradbury said. ”There is a wealth of knowledge in the O-line room, but it’s a new system for them at the same time. We are kind of learning together, which has been good as a rookie.”
The Vikings moved Pat Elflein from center to guard, where he played for two seasons at Ohio State, and signed Josh Kline to take the right guard spot. Kline has started 46 straight games at guard, the longest active streak at the position in the NFL.
Riley Reiff is back at left tackle after Minnesota discussed potentially moving him to guard before the draft, and Brian O’Neill is slated to start at right tackle. O’Neill started 11 games last season as a rookie after being picked in the second round.
”They’re all battlers and I think that’s important at that position,” Zimmer said.
Tackle Rashod Hill returns in a reserve role after starting 15 games the past two seasons. Guard Dakota Dozier was signed from the New York Jets, and the Vikings also drafted Oklahoma guard Dru Samia in the fourth round, Elon tackle Oli Udoh in the sixth.
The changes were necessary after Cousins was sacked 40 times last year, tied for the 10th most of any quarterback. And Zimmer hasn’t been shy of saying Minnesota needs to run the ball more. The Vikings were 27th in the league in rushing attempts per game and 30th in rushing yards.
”I think some of the things we are doing is way simpler for the offensive line,” Zimmer said. ”I don’t think it’s in our best interest to sit in the shotgun and drop back 35 to 40 times, for us or anybody else.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota used 17 offensive linemen the past three seasons, a trend it hopes ends with Bradbury solidifying the middle.
”He’s got a very business-like personality, wants to be right, wants to do things the right way,” Zimmer said. ”I think he’s got an aggressive nature. I think he’s going to fit in fine.”
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