Vikings Working Ezra Cleveland at Guard in Camp, Pat Elflein Remains a Starter For Now
With training camp finally underway, one of the most interesting and important storylines surrounding the Vikings is the configuration of the offensive line. Week 1 against the Packers is less than six weeks away, so the coaching staff doesn't have a ton of time to evaluate the competitions at various spots up front.
What makes the offensive line puzzle particularly fascinating in this year's camp is the number of players with positional versatility on the Vikings roster. That includes the group's prized newcomer, second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland. The Boise State product played tackle for his entire college career, but with Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill returning as starters, there had been speculation that the Vikings could experiment with moving Cleveland inside.
While speaking to the media on Wednesday, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak confirmed that the Vikings are currently working Cleveland at guard, and that he expects Reiff to stay outside at tackle in 2020.
"The nice thing is we think he has flexibility," Kubiak said of Cleveland. "We know he’s played tackle for a long time. Through the walkthrough period, we’re working him at guard right now, so he gets reps next to Blake (Brandel) as they work together in the young group, and we’ll go from there."
Kubiak went on to say that there hasn't been a concrete decision about which position Cleveland will play this season. The move to try him out at guard so far is all about getting him accustomed to a new spot and maximizing the team's options going forward.
"We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there," Kubiak said. "We know he has a comfort zone to go back outside. We’ll settle him down probably after about a week and we’ll take a look at exactly where we think he should be and what gives him the best chance to help our team."
From a long-term perspective, Cleveland is clearly going to play tackle. That's where his experience is, it's why he was drafted 58th overall, and it's where he can provide the most value to the Vikings. If all goes as planned, he's the left tackle of the future and will form one of the league's most athletic duos with Brian O'Neill on the right side.
But for 2020, especially with this unique and truncated offseason, it doesn't seem realistic that Cleveland would be ready to start at left tackle from Day 1. Reiff had some struggles last year, but he's still a solid veteran presence who has a lot of experience in the NFL. Kubiak made it clear that he feels good about Reiff at that spot going forward, and said that they aren't considering moving him to guard.
"I think Riley played really well for us last year," he said. "I think we can do some things offensively and me as a play-caller to help all our players and help Riley more, from that standpoint. I'm a big Riley Reiff fan. I love him as a person, a player and a leader on our team. Expecting Riley to have a great year."
With both tackle spots accounted for, trying Cleveland at guard is a way to potentially get the ultra-athletic rookie onto the field in 2020. His skillset could help the Vikings right away, especially in the running game. O'Neill also spoke to the media on Wednesday, and he had a lot of praise for his new teammate.
"From my experiences with him so far, in virtual meetings and in the building so far, I can tell he's locked in mentally," O'Neill said. "I'd say he's definitely in better shape physically than I was at this time, coming in a couple years ago. Really excited about what he can bring to us, and I'll help him as much as possible and so will Riley."
Based on Kubiak's comments, we can safely say that Reiff is up there with O'Neill and center Garrett Bradbury as locked-in starters on the offensive line, barring any major developments or injuries in camp. That leaves the two guard spots as the only uncertainties. The Vikings released right guard Josh Kline this offseason, creating one obvious vacancy. It has also been assumed that Pat Elflein's left guard job is up for grabs, considering his struggles over the past couple seasons. GM Rick Spielman said after the draft that he expects "open competition" at both interior spots.
However, while Kubiak preached a need for competition, it's notable that he commented multiple times on the Vikings bringing back four of five starters from last season. He made multiple comments that indicate Elflein is still a starter for the time being.
"Our starting five, we lost one player so we’ve got four of those guys back and it shows when we go to walk through," Kubiak said. "Those guys have been playing together, working together."
"As we line up today, we have four of our five back and somebody will end up playing the other guard position. We'll see what happens but it's going to be a very competitive nature through the course of camp. We have six weeks until we play a game and a lot to get done."
If Elflein is still at left guard for now, that creates an important competition at right guard. Kubiak mentioned three names that are competing there: Dakota Dozier, Aviante Collins, and Cleveland. Interestingly, he didn't mention Dru Samia, who has been predicted by most to be the favorite to replace Kline at RG.
However, Kubiak did say he has "big expectations" for Samia when asked about the 2019 fourth-rounder's progress. O'Neill also had a lot of good things to say about Samia.
“I think Dru in the last year has really matured a lot in terms of knowing what’s expected of him and trying to work within the framework that the coaches give us," O'Neill said. "I think anybody in the building would tell you that he’s a lot more aware of what he needs to do now, which is good. Not that he wasn’t before, but when you come in there’s so much going on around you and what you need to do and how you need to do it and now he’s really dialed in to what he needs to do. He looks great. He’s physically in a much better spot and he’s excited to be here."
I wouldn't write Samia off just because Kubiak didn't mention him in this instance. He could absolutely factor into the competition at RG along with Cleveland, Dozier, and Collins, but that has to be earned in practices. Also, despite what seems like a vote of confidence from Kubiak, Elflein shouldn't be considered a lock to start at LG by any means. The team is just going through walkthroughs right now, so a lot can change when they are actually able to put the pads on. Some players are going to emerge and others are going to falter.
Another player that wasn't discussed is Oli Udoh, who is currently still on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and unable to participate. Along with Cleveland and Collins, he's a tackle with the versatility to become part of the competition at guard.
Ultimately, Kubiak's press conference created as many questions as it did answers when it comes to the offensive line. The main takeaways are that Reiff won't move to guard, Cleveland is currently working there, and Elflein is still running with the first team. But this is a fluid situation, and there's plenty of room for flexibility once practices really get going.
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