MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Zimmer gave the Minnesota Vikings' scouting department a directive for the NFL draft.
When looking for offensive linemen, the Vikings coach didn’t just want players whose athletic traits fit a zone blocking scheme. Knowing the brute force exerted by the defensive linemen they routinely encounter, Zimmer wanted to match size for size -- especially on the interior -- and emphasized getting bigger up front.
By the end of the second night of the draft, the Vikings had begun to solve a major piece of their offseason puzzle. Minnesota spent two of its top four picks on offensive linemen, drafting Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw at No. 23 and Ohio State right guard Wyatt Davis 86th overall.
It was just the third time in the Common Draft Era the Vikings drafted multiple offensive linemen within the first three rounds (also 1974, 1985).
Darrisaw, touted as a “pure left tackle” by Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, and Davis, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound mauler who was a unanimous All-American and first-team Big Ten selection, project as immediate contributors. Minnesota went after players it believes can improve a unit that graded out as the 28th-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Most importantly, adding Darrisaw and Davis to a line that consists of Ezra Cleveland, a tackle-turned-guard, center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O'Neill, gives the Vikings stability ahead of OTAs. That’s a rarity in Minnesota, especially at this point of the offseason.
For once, the offensive line isn’t the Vikings’ biggest question headed into training camp. This breakthrough is the result of increased efforts to fix the line through the draft over the past four years. Since 2018, the Vikings have used five draft picks in the first two days of the draft to find their starters, beginning with O’Neill (picked 62nd in 2018), Bradbury (18th in 2019), Cleveland (58th in 2020), Darrisaw and Davis.
Riley Reiff's departure in free agency as a cap casualty necessitated the Vikings use their top draft pick to find his replacement.
From a size, length and mobility standpoint, the 6-foot-5, 322-pound Darrisaw checked all the boxes for Minnesota. He’s a scheme fit who is younger, cheaper and has a higher athletic ceiling than Reiff. And given some of the struggles their tackles had in pass protection last season -- O’Neill ranked 26th (89.5%) and Reiff ranked 37th (86.9%) in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate using NFL Next Gen Stats (the league average among OTs is 87.7%) -- Darrisaw’s skill set is an upgrade.
“He’s a hard worker and really athletic and can get out in space and do the things that we like to do,” Zimmer said. “I think the addition of not just run blocking but being able to pass protect is big as well.”
The Vikings approached things from the inside out after 20 of the 39 sacks they allowed in 2020 came through the interior of the offensive line. According to PFF, none of Minnesota’s starters on the interior ranked inside the top 32 at their respective positions in 2020. Cleveland’s 6.9% pressure rate ranked 37th out of 40 qualifying right guards, Bradbury’s 5.1% pressure rate ranked 34th of 36 and Dakota Dozier, Minnesota’s starting left guard last season, ranked 36th of 39 (8.0% pressure rate).
“To get some size around Bradberry is going to be a benefit to him,” Spielman said. “And now you got some guys who wherever they line up we’re going to have a lot of size. But all these guys have some athleticism to go with that size as well.”
Davis helped Ohio State to the national championship game after three years starting at right guard. That’s where he lined up to begin his NFL career during last week’s rookie minicamp, which suggests another position could soon be sorted out. Cleveland, who started nine games at right guard out of necessity in 2020, was the Vikings’ second-team left guard last training camp and could move back to that spot.
Wyatt Davis' NFL draft profile
Check out the best highlights from Ohio State OG Wyatt Davis' college career.
Darrisaw will begin his NFL career without battling to supplant a veteran for a starting job, but he won’t worry about the pressure that comes with filling a critical void on offense.
“If I come out here and I do my job and get better every day, that chance is there for me to step up into that role,” Darrisaw said. “But if I don’t come out there and do what I’ve got to do, I know that it’s going to digress me and I’m not going to be in that role. I try to just block all that out and focus on every day, not try to look too far ahead and don’t look backwards at all.
“Even if I have a bad day I feel like tomorrow we’re going to wake up and have a better one. I really try not to look at (expectations) too much, but I know there’s a chance, for sure, and I’m working my tail off to hopefully be in that starting role Week 1.”
It’s unusual for the Vikings to have their offensive line set up four months ahead of the season, but the past four years spent slowly acquiring homegrown talent is the result of a strategy they hope will finally solve their biggest problem.