The Vikings made their first move to address a perpetually underperforming offensive line this offseason by trading a sixth-round pick for Cardinals center Mason Cole on Thursday.
At first glance, it's not a particularly inspiring acquisition. 30 of Cole's 32 career starts have come at center, and the results haven't been pretty. As a rookie in 2018, the Michigan product was thrust into action due to an injury to A.Q. Shipley and ranked 23rd out of 25 full-time centers in PFF grade (Vikings center Pat Elflein was 25th). He lost that job when Shipley returned in 2019 but got it back in 2020 and finished 28th out of 32 centers (Garrett Bradbury was 24th).
So why would the Vikings acquire one of the NFL's worst starting centers when they already have one? Bradbury hasn't been great, but Minnesota is hopeful that the former first-round pick will make a big leap in his third season.
I think the Vikings traded for Cole for a couple reasons. It didn't cost much, for one. The pick going to Arizona, No. 223 overall, is the sixth-to-last pick in the sixth round. It's almost a seventh-rounder, functionally. More importantly, I expect the Vikings to move Cole to guard and have him compete for a starting job there.
That's where this move becomes interesting. While 30 of Cole's 32 starts have come at center, the other two are worth focusing on. In 2019, Cole was a backup for the Cardinals who stepped in and made two starts at left guard when Justin Murray was out with an injury. They came in Week 9 against DeForest Buckner and the 49ers and Week 10 against Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and the Buccaneers.
It's a small sample size, but what Cole showed in those two games at left guard was impressive and could bode well for his future in Minnesota.
Against the 49ers, making his first start at guard in the NFL or college (he was a left tackle and center at Michigan), Cole recorded a 68.3 PFF grade on 56 snaps. He played well in the running game and, despite being burned by Buckner for a sack, wasn't a liability in pass protection.
The following week was even more encouraging. Facing the Bucs' stout defensive line, Cole showed an impressive ability to anchor in pass protection. On 49 pass blocking snaps, he received a PFF grade of 80.7 and allowed just one pressure. Many of those reps were double teams or plays where Kyler Murray got rid of the ball quickly, but Cole had some nice moments going 1-on-1 against a defensive tackle.
Cole's overall PFF grade in that game was just 55.7 because he wasn't great on 18 run blocking snaps and committed a killer holding penalty at the end of the game, but that doesn't take away from the positives he demonstrated.
Through two full seasons, things haven't worked out well for Cole at center. But based on those two games of tape at guard, I think there's a chance that a position switch could really benefit him. At guard, he doesn't have to worry about calling out protections, snapping the ball, and immediately being hit by a big nose tackle. With an offseason to prepare to play guard, it's not out of the question that Cole could turn into a solid starter. That would be a welcome sight in Minnesota and a fantastic return for a late sixth-round pick.
With three years of experience and a $2.2 million cap hit in 2021 (none of which is guaranteed), Cole should at least get a chance to compete for a starting job at guard. If Ezra Cleveland moves back to left tackle, the Vikings will need two new guards. Even if they sign another lineman and draft one early, Cole will have the opportunity to earn a spot.
His tape from 2019 suggests he might just seize that opportunity and prove that he can be a much better guard than center in the NFL.
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