An NFL season muddied by the world of COVID-19 has forced some pragmatic clarity along the Vikings’ offensive line.
That’s what jumped out Wednesday afternoon as offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak served up this tray of newsy nuggets during a Zoom video call with reporters:
• Riley Reiff will stay put at left tackle. No experimentation at guard.
• Reiff’s heir apparent, rookie second-round draft pick Ezra Cleveland, is competing for the starting right guard position vacated by the release of Josh Kline. Cleveland is behind Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins for now.
• The line’s three other incumbents — right tackle Brian O’Neill, center Garrett Bradbury and even embattled left guard Pat Elflein — will start.
Yes, things have changed since April, when Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said there would be a “wide-open competition” at both guard positions.
The offseason was wiped out except for virtual meetings. The first padded practice is Aug. 17. There’s no preseason. And the Sept. 13 season opener is fast approaching.
Asked if he already has tabbed four of the five starters up front, Kubiak said, “We got four of those guys back, so we go right back with them. And right now, Dakota and AC and Ezra are kind of working at the other spot. … What do we got, about six weeks to play a game? So we got a lot to get done.”
Reiff struggled last season. Hence the Vikings’ choice to target Cleveland as a possible first-round pick. He fell to them in the second round.
What say you, Gary?
“No, I think Riley played really well for us last year,” Kubiak said. “And I think we can do some things offensively, me as a play-caller, to help out our players and even help Riley more.
“I’m a big Riley Reiff fan. I love him as a person. I love him as a player and leader on our team. Nobody comes here more ready to work than Riley. And it showed. … I’m expecting Riley to have a great year.”
Evaluating young players with no live offseason and no preseason games will be a challenge. In Cleveland’s case, he is trying to learn right guard after starting at left tackle in all 40 of his games at Boise State.
Kubiak, however, believes he and coach Mike Zimmer still can determine whether Cleveland has what it takes to beat out two veterans at an unfamiliar position.
“Zim and I have talked through that, how we go about getting those answers as quick as we can,” Kubiak said. “Though we don’t have preseason game, I think any coach would tell you that the practices are going to ramp up.”
Overall, the offense returns every starter but Kline and receiver Stefon Diggs. It lost offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to the Browns’ head coaching job, but it was Kubiak who mentored Stefanski in the Kubiak system last year.
“For the first time in five years, we have some carry-over and continuity,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “The biggest thing for us has been the carry-over in terminology, the carry-over in scheme. We implemented Gary’s scheme last year and got pretty good at it.”
Familiarity is important in such unfamiliar waters. But will the Vikings actually be ready to play a full-speed game 5½ weeks from now?
“Yes, absolutely,” O’Neill said. “I believe in our guys and how they prepare us. Our coaches and our strength and conditioning staff do a great job. There’s no doubt in my mind guys will be ready.”