Vikings Offensive Tackles Preview: Will Ezra Cleveland Start as a Rookie?

Will Ragatz

With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we're going to take an early look at each position on the Vikings' 2020 roster. We'll break down any notable competitions for certain roles or roster spots before making a prediction on who makes the 53-man roster, who winds up on the practice squad, and who will be continuing their football career elsewhere. We begin a two-part look at the offensive line with an overview of the tackles.

Two weeks ago, the Vikings came very close to finalizing a trade that would've made their offensive tackle group look a whole lot different than it does now. They were one of the teams who pursued former Washington left tackle Trent Williams the hardest, and everything seemed to be in place for a deal to happen over draft weekend. We all know what happened next: Williams made it known that he didn't want to be traded to Minnesota, the Vikings drafted Boise State's Ezra Cleveland in the second round, and Williams ended up with the 49ers.

While landing Williams would've made the Vikings a lot better in 2020, drafting Cleveland sets them up for the future and conserves a great deal of money over the next four years. Focus now turns to the development of their young left tackle, who likely needs a considerable amount of coaching and added strength in order to become a capable NFL starter. 

Cleveland was a somewhat polarizing prospect in the pre-draft process, though it's hard to deny that the Vikings got good value by landing him with the 58th overall pick. He shot up draft boards after an incredible combine performance confirmed the elite athleticism that he shows on tape. Cleveland's mobility and intelligence makes him an ideal fit in Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, and his upside was enough to generate some first-round buzz leading up to the draft. However, there are enough question marks on his tape that a handful of analysts gave him a round three grade or worse. Cleveland is lacking in play strength and tenacity and needs to improve the consistency of his technique in pass protection.

In that regard, he's rather similar to his new teammate Brian O'Neill, who had many of the same strengths and weaknesses coming out of Pittsburgh in 2018 and was also a late second-round pick. 

"We think he just has an extremely high ceiling," Rick Spielman said after the Vikings drafted Cleveland. "Felt almost identical when we went through that tape and then when we talked about Brian O'Neill two years ago, it was almost the same type of conversation. And I remember when Brian, you know, he was going to be a little bit of a project and then he ended up playing his rookie year and playing very well, and is now probably one of our most consistent offensive linemen up front. We see, I think a very similar path for Ezra, but who knows until we get everybody in here and get them out on the field where it shakes out."

I'm slightly skeptical that the Vikings will hit twice in three years on raw, developmental tackles, which is why I gave the pick a B- grade in my initial analysis.

By taking Cleveland, the Vikings are betting that they can replicate the success story of O'Neill, who shared some of Cleveland's strengths and question marks when he was drafted 62nd overall two years ago. 

O'Neill took to the Vikings' strength training and coaching quickly and is already one of the better young tackles in the league. Minnesota clearly thinks that Cleveland can follow the same path, but there's a chance that O'Neill is the exception and not the rule.

If the Vikings are able to help Cleveland become the next O'Neill, they'll be in fantastic shape at the position for years to come. O'Neill was an above-average right tackle last year and appears poised to become a star as he continues developing. However, he was merely decent as a rookie, which is probably the best-case scenario for Cleveland. That raises the question of how soon the Vikings will throw the Boise State product into the fire, especially with the remaining uncertainty about when the team will actually begin practicing.

In his press conference following the third day of the draft, Spielman made a notable comment about "Riley Reiff holding down the fort on the left side until we see what we have." The Vikings won't be able to truly evaluate Cleveland's NFL readiness until they get him onto the practice field, and even if he exceeds initial expectations, it might be smart to hold onto Reiff for this season, perhaps with a restructured contract. Reiff takes a lot of flack because he hasn't completely lived up to his big-money deal, but he's a solid veteran option at left tackle with a higher floor than Cleveland for the upcoming season.

Behind the top three players, the leading candidates for the Vikings' swing tackle role are veteran Rashod Hill and 2019 sixth-rounder Oli Udoh, both of whom seem like fairly safe bets to at least make the roster. The Vikings re-signed Hill to a one-year deal this offseason because of his pass-protection ability, while Udoh is an intriguing prospect with size, length, and athleticism. The former Elon star impressed a number of people in the organization – Spielman among them – with his performance in his first career start against the Bears last Week 17.

Rounding out the roster are two players who face uphill battles to survive cuts but absolutely have the potential to do so. Veteran Aviante Collins is another outstanding athlete who has shown some flashes of potential but has also dealt with injury issues. The Vikings selected Blake Brandel out of Oregon State in the sixth round of this year's draft to bolster their depth at the position. Brandel is a fundamentally sound tackle prospect who doesn't necessarily have the athletic upside of players like Udoh and Collins.

Predictions

Starters: Riley Reiff (LT), Brian O'Neill (RT)

Backups/depth: Ezra Cleveland, Rashod Hill

Make 53-man roster: Oli Udoh

Practice squad: Blake Brandel

Cut: Aviante Collins

Given the uncertainty surrounding this offseason, I think the Vikings will value the known quantity of Reiff heading into this season. My guess is that he starts the year at left tackle, with the possibility of Cleveland taking over midseason and Reiff sliding over to left guard. Hill will likely retain his role as swing tackle, through Udoh will make the roster and could push for that job. I think the team moves on from Collins unless he really impresses.

Other post-draft position previews

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