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Center Garrett Bradbury has guided Vikings through QB, OL changes

The Vikings have started four QBs and Bradbury has been an 'underrated' in guiding the operation

EAGAN— During the opening weeks of Kevin O’Connell’s first training camp as Minnesota Vikings head coach, it wasn’t clear whether Garrett Bradbury was going to be his center. The front office had added interior linemen Chris Reed and Austin Schlottmann and O’Connell said that there was competition for that spot.

It was understandable that they would open up the battle because Bradbury was coming off a difficult 2021 season in which Mike Zimmer briefly elected to go with backup Mason Cole over the 2019 first-round center.

“I felt like, watching the tape, that I was playing to not mess up, playing a little timid,” Bradbury said late in the 2021 season.

The numbers at the time were not kind to Bradbury. Per PFF, he had allowed the fourth most pressures and scored the league’s lowest pass blocking mark.

That feels like a really long time ago now that Bradbury is in the midst of his second strong year under O’Connell. Last year he settled in at 14th of 32 starting centers by PFF and this season he’s sitting in a similar spot overall and 11th in pass blocking grade and has the sixth fewest QB pressures allowed in the NFL.

When it comes to pressure rates and PFF grades, they only tell some part of the story with Bradbury’s value this season. Last week against Cincinnati, Bradbury snapped to his fourth different quarterback in 14 games. The list of QBs includes a rookie and a player who arrived mid-season.

“I don't know if it's been talked about enough,” O’Connell said on Thursday. “No matter who's in the game, snap counts – I know it's been documented of us working through snap counts on the sideline down in Atlanta – but that all comes from the poise and the composure of your center, being able to handle that different voice, that different me-to-you factor and still execute. It's definitely been something that maybe I even took for granted, you know, knowing Kirk and him and all the time on task they had together, but I credit Garrett and our quarterbacks for being able to do what they've done.”

How tricky is it to snap to multiple quarterbacks? Two of his fellow linemen who have played center in the past — David Quessenberry and Dalton Risner — say that there is a lot more going on between center and QB than meets the eye.

“It is very difficult,” Quessenberry said. “That is one of they key starting points for any offense is the center-quarterback exchange. The dynamic between those two is one of the most important things in the whole offense. Seeing him being able to do that with multiple quarterbacks and doing it at a high level and still getting everybody on the same page is a testament to the player he is.”

“It’s tough… whether it’s the drop or cadence, where they are setting up and whether they are moving in the pocket, there’s so many different factors,” Risner said. “For a center you have to be able to handle the snap count even more, you have to snap it under center and that communication between the quarterback and center is important. It’s not an easy task.”

Garrett Bradbury

Garrett Bradbury

For both Quessenberry and Risner, the veteran center has played a big role in getting them acclimated to the offense too. Neither player was part of the team in training camp. Risner joined early in the season and eventually took the starting job from Ezra Cleveland (who was traded to Jacksonville) and Quessenberry was a late add right before the season.

“Being able to come into a spot where you have a guy like that, a pro’s pro, a guy who knows his stuff and can get everybody on the same page, it helps out me as I’m still learning some things,” Quessenberry said. “Dalton probably feels the same way. It gives you a ‘whew [exhales], OK that’s what we’re doing,’ if it’s an exotic front or something we haven’t seen he’s getting everyone on the same page and alright let’s play ball.”

“You never want to be on a ballclub with a center who doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing or isn’t vocal or doesn’t know the calls,” Risner said. “Garrett knows what he’s doing so I can lean on him. He’s been here, he understands the offense and understands the objectives.”

Quessenberry explained that Bradbury has created his own language to deal with different things that he sees from the defense, which helps everyone quickly understand their assignments.

“Him being able to rattle that off at the line of scrimmage and get everybody on the same page, it’s big for me as a tackle because I know that he knows what he’s doing and sometimes he tells me what I’m doing and what Ed [Ingram] is doing,” the veteran linemen said. “It’s a big comfort to me to be able to have a guy like that direct traffic and do it so quickly and efficiently.”

O’Connell talked on Friday about the challenges of all the roster shuffling. Overall the Vikings have had just had two games where they had their entire current starting O-line and starting quarterback together.

“You’d love to have the same group out there consistently all season long and getting every rep together for communication purposes, just like you’d love to have the same quarterback, working hand in hand communication-wise with them, but that has not been our story here in 2023,” O’Connell said. “We’ve seen kind of that unit be able to handle, [guys] going down here or there and then the next man up.”

As a whole the Vikings have put together an excellent pass blocking unit that PFF ranks tops in the NFL heading into their matchup with the Detroit Lions. Before Kirk Cousins went down with an Achilles tear, he produced a 122.1 QB rating against blitzes. Last week we saw Nick Mullens go 13-for-17 with 157 yards and a 123.9 rating vs. the blitz, which speaks to the communication between center and QB in order to handle the extra rush.

“It really truly is kind of a workman relationship there where lot of times it's [the quarterback] confirming maybe what Garrett's [Bradbury] is thinking or the quarterback just has to make the call, and ultimately, make sure that everybody else is on the same page,” O’Connell said. “I think the best offenses have a good combination of both because then you have ownership in really both spots and that makes it a little bit easier.”

Risner called center the most “underrated” position on the field because the mental part of the game isn’t easily visible while watching the game from the couch or the stands. Star left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who ranks as PFF’s No. 2 pass blocking left tackle in the NFL, sees it the same way.

“A lot of people don’t know what goes into it from the week to week,” Darrisaw said. “Defenses can run whatever they want and as an O-line we have ways to block any way they line up. For him to be able to memorize what type of defenses they are in and communicate it across the line and still know the snap count and get it to the quarterback on time, it’s one of the most underappreciated positions. Garrett [Bradbury] has been balling. Here in this building we appreciate the hell out of him.”

Asked why the starting center has come into his own under O’Connell, Darrisaw cited working with offensive line coach Chris Kuper, who was an interior offensive linemen during his career and an increased belief in himself.

“I think why he’s playing at a high level is his confidence,” the star tackle said.

As we head into the 15th game of the season and the Vikings offense has continued to operate in part because of its center, it’s clear now that the decision to bring Bradbury back last offseason in free agency. He will be a building block for the offense going forward and regardless of what they do at quarterback the Vikings know they will have someone to guide QB1.

“We were happy as an O-line to be able to keep him because we know what type of player he is, he’s a leader, he’s one of a kind,” Darrisaw said.