The Vikings shook up their coaching staff this offseason, using internal promotions and external hires to put six assistants in important new roles for 2021. They have new coordinators on offense and special teams, three new or shuffled-around position coaches, and a new senior defensive assistant.
And yet, one move that they didn't make stands out almost as much as the changes that actually occurred. Despite the retirement of his longtime partner and buddy Gary Kubiak, Vikings offensive line coach and run game coordinator Rick Dennison is still around. Given the team's struggles on the offensive line over the past two seasons since Dennison arrived, an argument can be made that replacing him should've been one of the team's bigger priorities this offseason, especially when considering that there have been a number of impressive O-line coaches available since the season ended.
Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos in the 1980s, overlapping with Kubiak for eight years. They both joined Denver's coaching staff in 1995, spending the next 11 seasons there. When Kubiak got his first head coaching gig in Houston in 2006, Dennison replaced him as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. Four years later, Kubiak brought Dennison to the Texans to be his OC. They both spent one year with the Ravens before rejoining the Broncos (as head coach and OC, respectively) in 2015. When Kubiak got back into coaching with the Vikings in 2019, he brought Dennison with him.
Hiring Dennison hasn't worked out like the Vikings were envisioning. The results over the past two seasons have been remarkably poor, with woeful pass protection consistently holding back an otherwise impressive offense. It's hard to know whether that falls on Dennison, the front office, or the Vikings' offensive scheme. In reality, it's probably some combination of all three.
As they looked to implement Kubiak's wide zone system, Minnesota's first draft pick was athletic center Garrett Bradbury. The pick was seen as a reach at the time and looks like a major mistake two years later, although there's still time for Bradbury to improve. He has been solid in the running game but horrendous in pass protection, which is a microcosm of the Vikings' offensive line as a whole. The selection of Bradbury, combined with an appalling lack of attention paid to the guard position, has resulted in the Vikings having a glaring weakness on the interior of their O-line. Tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill have been solid, but not nearly good enough to make up for the poor play of the interior trio.
In 2019, the Vikings finished 27th in pass blocking grade and 12th in run blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus. That was a slight improvement from 2018 but still a significant dropoff from the final season under the late Tony Sparano in 2017. Despite using a draft pick in the first two rounds on an offensive lineman (Ezra Cleveland) for the third straight year in 2020, the line got even worse last season. Replacing a reliable guard in Josh Kline with perhaps the league's worst guard in Dakota Dozier was the catalyst of a drop to 29th in pass blocking grade and 18th in run blocking grade.
As I mentioned, blame can be put on the Kubiak scheme, which is outdated in its focuses on running the football and rarely ever using 11 personnel (three wide receivers on the field at once). The front office, in trying to maximize that scheme, has drafted players like Bradbury whose athleticism is a plus in the running game but whose inability to pass block has hindered the Vikings in a major way. The focus on "scheme fit" among offensive line prospects has frustrated fans because it seems to prioritize mobility over protecting Cousins.
But blame can also be assigned to Dennison for the troubling lack of development among offensive linemen since he arrived. Bradbury doesn't appear to have taken any meaningful strides since he was drafted. O'Neill regressed slightly in 2020, which may be concerning for the Vikings as they enter into extension talks with his camp this offseason. Day 3 picks like Dru Samia and Oli Udoh haven't panned out, which may or may not have anything to do with poor coaching. It's still too early to tell with Cleveland.
Dennison is not the only issue contributing to the endless struggles of the Vikings' offensive line, but that unit's play over the past two seasons makes the team's decision to keep him on board in 2021 a questionable one. There were –– and still are –– intriguing replacement options available, if they wanted to go in that direction.
Earlier this offseason, longtime Packers offensive line coach James Campen became available when the Chargers let him go. A few weeks later, he was hired by the Texans. Recently, another opportunity presented itself when Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer parted ways with Los Angeles. In 2017, Kromer's first year with the Rams, they ranked 13th in PFF's pass blocking grades and fifth in run blocking. In 2018, those rankings improved to seventh and first. The Rams' O-line struggled in 2019, but was once again a top unit this past season, ranking tenth in pass blocking and fourth in run blocking.
Operating the same wide zone scheme that the Vikings use, the Rams' offensive lines have excelled in the running game without sacrificing pass protection. Kromer has been a huge part of that.
If the Vikings wanted to explore hiring Kromer, they could either move on from Dennison or make him just the run game coordinator. It seems unlikely that it will actually happen, but it's something they should be considering.
In the likely event that the coaching staff is set for 2021, this will be a critically important season of evaluation for several components of the Vikings' offensive line, most notably Bradbury and Dennison. Another disappointing performance from that unit would be a frustrating outcome, particularly when looking back at the team's decision not to replace Dennison this offseason.
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