When the Vikings drafted Ezra Cleveland 58th overall out of Boise State in last year's draft, it appeared that they had found their left tackle of the future. Cleveland played tackle for his entire college career, using his length and athleticism to shine at that position.
But with expensive veteran Riley Reiff still around, Cleveland's immediate future in Minnesota was less certain. There was a brief period of time where it seemed like Reiff was going to be cut, opening up the job for the rookie, but then he took a pay cut to stay with the Vikings. Complicating matters even further is that Reiff had one of the best seasons of his career in 2020, allowing just 21 pressures and one sack on nearly 600 pass-blocking snaps.
"I thought Riley played very consistent last year, had probably one of his best years here," GM Rick Spielman said on Wednesday. "He's just so smart, so competitive, and he's really learned over the years how to play very efficient, and he was definitely one of our most consistent offensive linemen last year."
In an attempt to find playing time for him as a rookie, the Vikings moved Cleveland to right guard in training camp. But they took things slow with him, only putting him into the starting lineup in Week 6 after both Pat Elflein and Dru Samia had gone down with injuries.
Unsurprisingly, given how awful Elflein, Samia, and Dakota Dozier were, Cleveland ended up having the best results of any guard who played for the Vikings last season. He was good in the running game and showed flashes of greatness in that area. But that doesn't mean he was immediately excellent from an overall standpoint. Cleveland allowed 23 pressures and five sacks in fewer than 400 pass-blocking snaps, including rough outings against the strong interior defensive lines of the Falcons, Bears, and Buccaneers (the latter of which beat him for eight pressures and three sacks). Still, it was a fairly encouraging nine-game sample size at right guard for a 22-year-old converted left tackle.
This offseason, the Vikings once again have a decision to make on Reiff, and how they feel about Cleveland and his long-term position will likely have a major impact on that decision.
Spielman was non-committal when asked about what position Cleveland will play in 2021 and beyond.
"It all depends on what happens over these next couple months on who’s here and who’s not here," Spielman said. "Then it’s the coaches figuring out what’s our best five and where are you going to line them all up at? We’re very excited about some of these young offensive linemen and usually these offensive linemen continue to grow and get better every year. So I think with a Bradbury and with O’Neill and now Ezra, I think we’re very excited about having a young core up there that’ll continue to grow and get better. But I think the coaches will determine what’s the best lineup, and we have had a lot of discussion about that already."
It's one of the most fascinating and important subplots of the Vikings' offseason, considering how critically they need to see improvement on the offensive line in 2021. Reiff would create a ton of cap space for the Vikings if released, but there's a lot more to it than that, as I wrote earlier this week.
No player on the Vikings' roster would come with more cap space created by a release than Reiff. If they cut him, they would clear up nearly $12 million, according to Over The Cap. But it's not that simple. Reiff was the Vikings' second-best offensive lineman last year, allowing just 21 pressures and one sack all year long. If you release him, you're getting rid of one of the stronger links on a very weak O-line. It could create more problems than it solves. However, it's something the Vikings absolutely need to consider. If they feel like Ezra Cleveland is ready to move back to his college position of left tackle, releasing Reiff makes a lot of sense. They would then need two new guards, but they'd have some money to pursue them in free agency. The Vikings could also look to extend Reiff, lowering his cap hit in 2021 but adding guaranteed money to future years of his contract. The fact that they gave him a good faith $1 million bonus on an incentive he just missed suggests that an extension is a possibility. If the Vikings like Cleveland more as a guard, keeping Reiff around might be their best move.
It's a tricky decision. If you stick with Reiff, you probably have to extend him to lower his cap hit, which might cement Cleveland as a guard for the foreseeable future. If he adds some strength, he could wind up being excellent on the interior, and that would mean the Vikings would only have one hole on the offensive line (depending on how you feel about Garrett Bradbury). But by doing that, there's a chance that they'd be wasting the opportunity to have a great left tackle on a rookie contract.
Ultimately, it'll all come down to the Vikings' evaluations of both players and their calculations of what makes the most sense financially. Keep an eye out for news on Reiff's future in the coming weeks, because that's when we'll find out where Cleveland will be playing this fall.
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