EAGAN — In the second round of the 2018 draft, the Minnesota Vikings a player who wasn’t considered a Day 1 starter.
After all, Brian O’Neill was about 20 pounds under the average weight for a tackle and wasn’t far removed from playing tight end at Pitt. But now, less than two years removed from being viewed as a project, O’Neill has become a key weapon for the Vikings’ offense. And there’s a lot that went into how he got from Point A to Point B.
O’Neill said on Wednesday that everything starts with staying in the moment under the most tense of circumstances.
“Staying calm comes with experience,” he said. “It comes with practice. It comes with being there before and understanding in the past the things that have made you fail and trying not to do those. The things that you have done in the past that have been successful, you try to hone in on those.”
Last Sunday’s performance — which largely came against one of the NFL’s best defensive ends Cam Jordan — was the culmination of O’Neill’s growth. On 35 pass blocking snaps, he gave up just one QB hurry, zero QB hits and zero sacks. The highly-athletic lineman was also dominant in the run game, scoring the highest run blocking grade from PFF of his season (80.4 of 100).
Here are some of O’Neill’s best run blocking plays from Sunday:
Back in the day, right tackles like O’Neill might have had things a little easier than their counterparts on the left side but in today’s NFL the sheer number of dominant edge rushers in the league opens the door to O’Neill matching up with the likes of elite players off the right side, including Jordan and Chicago’s Khalil Mack.
Spending every day from OTAs to minicamp to training camp to practice over the last two years matching up with Danielle Hunter put him in a position to either grow quickly or get run over on the field at TCO Performance Center.
“I’ve had a lot of practice preparing for great pass rushers because I block Danielle every day,” O’Neill said. “That helps a lot. Any time you’re able to have more time on task on something — whether it’s more games or more practices or whatever and you’ve been through something before you’re going to have a little more comfort and familiarity with it.”
Earlier this year, Hunter told SKOR North that he could sense O’Neill turning a corner.
“It’s a tremendous difference. Last year he came in and was just trying to get used to the program and use the right technique,” Hunter said. “You could tell when the season came he got thrown in there and went up against top notch pass rushers that he did pretty good. He has really good feet, that helps him out a lot. He took his time to get down the technique aspect of it and as the season went on he did pretty good. You could tell in the offseason he trained and got better and better. When this year started I could tell he got better. There were things that I used to do to him and I would win and he would catch onto it now.”
This week O’Neill is set to match up with several of the best rushers in the NFL. Nick Bosa spends time on both sides with 566 snaps over the left tackle and 139 over the right tackle this season. Arik Armstead, who ranks in the top five in QB pressures is likely to be the D-end O’Neill faces the most this week. Former Chief Dee Ford is also expected to be in the mix on the right side.
Here are several of his top pass blocking snaps.
The best NFL players are often those who understand what’s coming before it happens. Each week O’Neill will look through tape of his likely opponent and watch what worked and didn’t for a similar right tackle.
“I wouldn’t say I have The Brian O’Neill System of Studying Defensive Linemen but I have a good idea going into games how guys are going to attack me,” he said.
“You look at everything. You look at the moves they have success with, you look at the moves they have success with against guys you think that you would play similarly to. So you find a common opponent that you think has a tackle that you play like. I’m not going to turn on the tape of a 340-pound tackle who doesn’t move very well and try to base my judgement off that. It’s just not my game. It’s just studying details.”
Those details, says Trench Warfare Podcast host Brandon Thorn, are most noticeable in the way the young tackle uses his hands.
“I think the biggest thing from last year to this year is the use of his hands as a pass protector,” Thorn said. “He’s able to keep them inside better than he did and I think that part of it comes from getting stronger. He’s a little bit more confident in himself to stand strong at the point of attack and not try to get over-aggressive with his hands. As a rookie I think he tried to wrap up too much and would allow them into his chest. Now he’s standing firm and striking guys from a powerful position.”
Of course, there are still things to work on. Despite only giving up one sack in two years, O’Neill is still susceptible to getting overpowered. He still only graded as a mid-pack tackle by PFF (28th out of 60) because of plays like this:
The ceiling hasn’t yet been hit with O’Neill and he knows it. Increased comfort does not equal mastery.
“I’m not saying I can be like, ‘Oh I’ve got it now,’ because these guys present a whole new set of challenges and obstacles and they’re very good but we’ve been there before and we’ll try to rely on those experiences,” O’Neill said.
On Saturday, however, he won’t need to be a master. He just needs to stay calm and do whatever it takes to hold down some of the league’s best for the second straight week.