Vikings appear to opt for familiar with offensive line early in camp

MINNEAPOLIS -- After April's NFL draft, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman suggested a "wide open competition" would take place on the interior of the offensive line.

Following the departure of Josh Kline in free agency and Pat Elflein's struggles moving from center to left guard last season (32 pressures allowed), Minnesota aimed to retool its guard play at both spots.

That was the plan four months ago. One week into walk-through practices, it appears time may have altered the Vikings' approach.

When camp opened last week, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak noted that the line's four returning starters -- Elflein, left tackle Riley Reiff, center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O'Neill -- were remaining in the spots they played in 2019.

"We have four of our five back and somebody will end up playing the other guard position," Kubiak said. "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."

Kubiak seemed to suggest the Vikings for now are only looking to fill the vacancy created at right guard. In a way, it makes sense.

Few positions are as affected by time constraints as an offensive line. Every training camp in Minnesota in recent years has featured multiple position battles, new starters and scheme changes. In 2017, the Vikings debuted in Week 1 with a starting five that hadn't taken snaps together during the preseason.

Without the luxury of time to tinker with various combinations, the Vikings may choose to rely on familiarity to get the offensive line ready to play on Sept. 13.

"I think we're one of the groups on a football field that really needs to get those live reps," Reiff said. "Everybody's working with the same platform. We've just got to take advantage of the time that we do get and make sure that we're putting in good work."

That includes keeping Reiff at left tackle instead of shifting him inside to guard, a move that has been debated by the coaching staff over the past two offseasons but was never brought up to him.

The reason for the questions about moving Reiff, 31, is due to the Vikings using a second-round pick to draft Boise State's Ezra Cleveland, who could be their next franchise left tackle.

But for now the Vikings are experimenting with Cleveland at right guard.

"The nice thing is we think [Cleveland] has flexibility," Kubiak said. "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. 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.

"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."

While Cleveland works through reps with the second-team offensive line, the likes of Dru Samia, Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins are expected to compete at right guard with the veteran group.

Samia, a fourth-round pick in 2019, was effectively given last season as a redshirt year to transition from the zone scheme he played at Oklahoma. His experience at guard and in the Vikings' offense may give him a leg up on the competition at right guard.

"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. He's talking a lot more to the guys. He's opening up, which is good, because he feels comfortable and he should."