In recent years, the Vikings have prioritized athleticism when drafting offensive linemen to play in their zone-blocking scheme. Brian O'Neill, Garrett Bradbury, and Ezra Cleveland — all selected in the top two rounds in the last three drafts — are extremely fleet-footed players who can make all of the reach blocks and second-level climbs Minnesota requires of them in the run game.
The problem? That hyper focus on lateral mobility has caused their pass protection to suffer as a result. O'Neill has become a solid pass blocker, but Bradbury and Cleveland's lack of strength has been an issue as they try to anchor against big defensive linemen on the interior. The Vikings ranked 29th in PFF pass blocking grade last year and 27th the year prior, and Kirk Cousins' 39 sacks in 2020 were sixth-most among QBs.
Heading into this year's draft, the Vikings wanted to find someone with not just the athleticism to fit their scheme, but some strength at the point of attack as well. By trading back and still landing a top-tier left tackle in Christian Darrisaw, they were able to do just that.
"He’s a big, athletic left tackle," Mike Zimmer said on Thursday night. "He moves really well in the zone blocking scheme, he has good power. Felt like we needed, not just athletic, but some more size with our offensive line. We felt like we needed some bigger guys in there."
Darrisaw is a guy who can help in both aspects of the offense. He's got the wheels to get to the second level and lay out a linebacker on a run play, but he also offers more immediate upside in pass protection than any of the other linemen the Vikings have drafted in recent years.
In 2020, Darrisaw finished with the highest PFF pass-blocking grade (94.5) of any Power 5 tackle in this year's draft. He didn't allow a single sack all year long and was named first team All-ACC after a phenomenal season. Part of what makes Darrisaw such an effective pass blocker is that he's 6'5" and has 34.25-inch arms to go along with smooth feet and powerful hands. The Vikings' analytics research loved his length, Rick Spielman said.
"He has real long arms, so that helps him in pass protection against some of those speed rushers," Zimmer said.
Spielman also raved about Darrisaw's patience in pass protection, as well as his lateral mobility and ability to play in space at his size.
Despite playing in the ACC, a conference loaded with quality pass rushers, there were times where Darrisaw looked like he was playing at a much lower level due to his physical dominance. He can make edge rushers look silly with his upper-body strength and technique, racking up a highlight reel of pancakes throughout his three-year career.
The Vikings needed some of that nastiness and power. Having incredible athletes up front is great for creating running lanes and executing their scheme on the ground, but that brute force aspect was missing. Darrisaw can provide that. He'll come in and should be the Vikings' starting left tackle in Week 1 this fall.
Darrisaw's all-around game gives him a higher ceiling than Riley Reiff, who the Vikings released earlier this offseason. He has all of the tools to hold his own as a rookie in a division with Khalil Mack, Za'Darius Smith, and other talented edge rushers.
"I definitely think I have what it takes," Darrisaw said. "I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder. So no matter what situation I’m put in, I feel like I’m always going to come out on top. I’ve always been an underdog and there’s always been questions about me. But I know the heart and belief I have in myself and the confidence, I feel like I’m able to accomplish anything if I put my mind to it."
Darrisaw was an unheralded recruit who attended prep school before landing at Virginia Tech. That work ethic and motivation helped him become a three-year starter in a tough conference. Now he's a first-round pick and a Minnesota Viking, and he's thrilled about getting to play with Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and the other weapons on this offense.
"I know they have a top-10 offense if I'm not mistaken," he said. "Just watching Dalvin Cook hit the hole and break a 60-yard run, you’re saying to yourself I want to be blocking for a guy like that. Seeing Kirk Cousins throw like a deep ball to Justin Jefferson. Explosive plays happening all across the field from anybody on the field, you want to play in that type of offense."
Darrisaw feels like a perfect fit for what the Vikings need, which is why it's amazing that they were able to land him after trading down nine spots. He can move, but he's a mauler too. If he can improve his consistency in terms of finishing every play, he's got a chance to become an outstanding tackle over the course of his rookie contract and beyond.
The Vikings addressed their biggest need on Thursday night while landing the best player available at 23. They got even more athletic up front, but most importantly, they added some serious punch to their offensive line.
That's a great way to kick off a crucial draft for a team with major aspirations in 2021.
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