72 Days Until Vikings Football: Ezra Cleveland Probably Isn't Ready to Play Yet

Will Ragatz

As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is July 3rd, and there are 72 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means our next player preview is the Vikings' second-round draft pick this year.

Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 72 Days

Player Preview: Ezra Cleveland (No. 72, Offensive Tackle)

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  • College: Boise State
  • Drafted: 2020 second round (58th overall)
  • NFL experience: None
  • Age: 22 (Birthday was in May)
  • Size: 6'6", 311
  • 2019 PFF Grade: N/A

Ezra Cleveland is a classic high-ceiling, low-floor draft pick. The Vikings believe they can help him reach that ceiling, but it's going to take time – and Cleveland may not be ready to play in 2020 at all. 

When current 49ers tackle Trent Williams made it clear that he didn't want to be traded to Minnesota, the Vikings pivoted in their approach to upgrading at left tackle. They had been heavily engaged in talks with Washington about Williams, but they also were very fond of Cleveland and his fit in their scheme. Rick Spielman and company happily selected Cleveland with the 58th overall pick in this year's draft, giving them four years of cheap control of a player with incredible upside at an important position.

A native of Spanaway, WA – about an hour south of Seattle – Cleveland starred on both the offensive and defensive line in high school. He was actually listed by recruiting services as a three-star defensive tackle, but wound up choosing Boise State and becoming a full-time OT. After redshirting in his first year on campus, Cleveland started 40 games at left tackle over the next three years and was named first team All-Mountain West in 2018 and 2019. 

In 2017 and 2018, Cleveland helped pave the way for Boise State RB Alexander Mattison, who racked up 2,829 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns during those two seasons. When the Vikings were scouting Mattison – who they drafted in the third round in 2019 – they kept noticing the athletic left tackle wearing No. 76. Cleveland and Mattison are close friends, and they're now reunited as teammates.

As a prospect, the easy and obvious comparison for Cleveland is Brian O'Neill. Both players were taken late in the second round (Cleveland 58th this year, O'Neill 62nd in 2018). Both are extremely athletic tackles who are perfectly suited to block in the Vikings' outside zone running scheme. And both had serious questions coming out of college about their functional strength and technique in pass protection.

The instant success of O'Neill, who is on the verge of stardom as he enters his third season, might've contributed to the Vikings' decision to roll the dice on Cleveland. 

"We think he just has an extremely high ceiling," Spielman said about Cleveland back in April. "Felt almost identical when we went through that tape and then when we talked about Brian O'Neill two years ago, it was almost the same type of conversation. And I remember when Brian, you know, he was going to be a little bit of a project and then he ended up playing his rookie year and playing very well, and is now probably one of our most consistent offensive linemen up front. We see, I think a very similar path for Ezra, but who knows until we get everybody in here and get them out on the field where it shakes out."

The Vikings have earned the right to be optimistic, but there are no guarantees that things will work out the same way two years later with another developmental tackle. Here's part of what I wrote to defend my initial B- grade of the Cleveland selection:

By taking Cleveland, the Vikings are betting that they can replicate the success story of O'Neill, who shared some of Cleveland's strengths and question marks when he was drafted 62nd overall two years ago. O'Neill took to the Vikings' strength training and coaching quickly and is already one of the better young tackles in the league. Minnesota clearly thinks that Cleveland can follow the same path, but there's a chance that O'Neill is the exception and not the rule.

Cleveland's athleticism is obvious. It shows up on tape, and it showed up in a big way at the combine. He has the burst to execute reach blocks, pull around the formation, get to the second level, and get out in front of screens.

The issue is pass protection. Cleveland had significant struggles at times with anchoring against edge rushers and playing with proper balance and hand technique. He's very raw and needs a lot of work, both in the weight room and with Rick Dennison and the Vikings' coaching staff. A turf toe injury in 2019 didn't help, but he showed concerning moments on tape dating back to his redshirt freshman and sophomore years.

For that reason, I don't expect Cleveland to start in Week 1 against the Packers. Going from the Mountain West to the NFL – especially with a shortened offseason in which he hasn't yet gotten into the Vikings' facility – would likely be a recipe for disaster, and he would almost certainly give up a great deal of pressure on Kirk Cousins' blindside. Remember, O'Neill didn't start as a rookie until Rashod Hill got hurt in October 2018, and despite the well-known fact that he wasn't charged with a sack that season, he was average at best in pass protection.

I think the logical move is for Riley Reiff to open the 2020 season as the Vikings' left tackle, with Cleveland potentially taking over at some point midway through the year. If the Boise State product can follow in the footsteps of O'Neill and develop into a stout pass protector on the left side, the Vikings will have the league's most athletic tackle duo for years to come.

Vikings Offensive Tackles Preview: Will Ezra Cleveland Start as a Rookie?

Previous OL player previews:

You can find every single player preview to date – plus other offseason content – in this handy spreadsheet.

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