MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings are 10 days away from hosting the Green Bay Packers to open the 2020 season, and it appears their starting offensive line from last season will be largely intact.
Earlier this week, that couldn’t be guaranteed after the Vikings made a trade for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, and reportedly went to left tackle Riley Reiff seeing a restructured contract. The plot thickened last Sunday, when several veterans got the day off practice, and Brian O’Neill played left tackle in his spot. Reiff did not practice Monday as he pondered his future with the team.
Reiff was due nearly $11 million this season, and reports emerged on Tuesday that he had agreed to take a pay cut. According to Ian Rapoport with the NFL Network, he’ll make around $6 million this season, and can earn up to $2 million more with playing time incentives.
That’s after Reiff reportedly said goodbye to teammates on Monday, thinking he would be released the next day.
“It was a difficult day when we went through that 24 hours with Riley, you’re reminded how it’s a business and not only a game,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said Wednesday. “So grateful that he’s back, he’s obviously a great player but he’s also a key piece of just the dynamic in the locker room and the dynamic in the offensive line room and being a leader on our football team. Thrilled that he’s back.”
Wide receiver Adam Thielen said earlier this week Reiff changed the culture of the offensive line room when he came to the Vikings in free agency in 2017. He was a first round draft pick of the Detroit Lions.
“They’re such great leaders and hard workers and it really started with him. I’ve got so much respect for that guy, love him as a teammate, as a man. I obviously want what’s best for him,” Thielen said.
So the Vikings will take the field at U.S. Bank Stadium Sept. 13, and their starting offensive line will likely look like Reiff, Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury, Pat Elflein and O’Neill. The back-ups likely to get playing time include Ezra Cleveland, Dru Samia, Rashod Hill and Aviante Collins.
The Vikings avoided a potential major shakeup on the offensive line with less than two weeks before the regular season, and without preseason games to work out any kinks.
“I feel good. I think through competition we have gotten deeper. I think we’ve gotten deeper as a group and I think that will show throughout the course of the year,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said.
Kubiak is in his first season in charge of the Vikings’ offense after serving as a special assistant in an advisory role. They want to play physical, and they want to run the ball in a zone scheme to create holes for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison.
Under Kubiak’s eye last year, they improved from No. 30 to No. 6 in the NFL in rushing. They don’t have the luxury of a preseason this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s Mike Zimmer’s job to put Kubiak and the offense in as many game-like situations in practice as possible.
Kubiak says he often goes to practice not knowing what to expect, not knowing when Zimmer pivot in practice and have the first-team offense and defense work on a game-situation.
“Zim has done a good job of putting me in situational football on the practice field. I go out there on the field many days where I have no idea what we’re going to do at the end of practice, he’ll walk over and give me a situation. All those things help you get ready to go. We’ve had a lot of it this camp,” Kubiak said.
So are they ready to face the Packers?
“I wish I had a definitive answer when we haven’t played any preseason games, we’ve only been going against our defense. It’s hard to really know, this year especially. We’ll find out here early in the season as we get going,” Kubiak said.
One switch Kubiak will make this season is calling plays from the offensive coach’s booth, not the sidelines. Last year, Kevin Stefanski was on the field close to the action. Now, Stefanski is the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
With Kubiak in charge, the Vikings return their starting offensive line from last year with a veteran quarterback in Cousins. They’ve got veteran running backs in Cook and Mattison, veteran receivers in Adam Thielen, Bisi Johnson, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr. and promising potential in rookies Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn.
Cousins threw for more than 3,600 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. The Vikings ran for 4.5 yards per carry, so what will it look like this year? We’ll get that first look Sept. 13.
“It’s not going to be perfect, there will be mistakes made. We’ve worked really hard, I know our coaches feel good about our team and players feel good about the team and now we’ve got to go out and put that into action,” Kubiak said.