The Vikings don’t play their regular-season opener until Sept. 12, but it’s looking more and more as if first-round pick Christian Darrisaw won’t be starting at left tackle. Darrisaw took part in his first practice of training camp on Wednesday after sitting out Organized Team Activities, the two-day minicamp and the first portion of training camp as he recovered from January surgery to repair a core muscle and groin injury he suffered late in the 2020 season with Virginia Tech.
Although Darrisaw said Thursday that “physically, I feel great,” he still isn’t full go in practice and coach Mike Zimmer seemed less than enthusiastic about the situation on Friday. “That’s a tough one,” Zimmer said when asked about Darrisaw’s progress. “I don’t know. He’s one step forward, two steps back. … (It’s hard) to get (things) done when you’re not out there doing stuff.”
Zimmer said Darrisaw’s groin injury is “just nagging all the time.”
The Vikings were very pleased when they made a trade with the Jets to move back in the first round and still ended up getting Darrisaw with the 23rd pick. The assumption was that the rookie would replace Riley Reiff as the guy protecting Kirk Cousins’ blindside. But it looks as if that job will go to veteran backup Rashod Hill, who has been getting the majority of snaps with the first team at left tackle. Hill did miss a couple of practices this week and was primarily replaced on Wednesday by Blake Brandel.
Hill, 29, is beginning his sixth season with Minnesota. He entered 2018 as the starting right tackle but shifted to left tackle from weeks six through eight after Reiff was injured. That’s when Brian O’Neill took over at right tackle. In the past two seasons, Hill has made only two starts. “Rashod’s played a lot of football and he’s a really good pass protector,” Zimmer said. “He needs to always continue to work on the run game but it’s been good so far.”
The Vikings are looking for a big step forward from the line in terms of pass protection, but so far there have to be some concerns about who is available. Reiff had a solid season in 2020 but is now in Cincinnati. Hill has been a backup for most of his career for a reason. While left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury and Neill seem set, there remain questions at right guard.
Dakota Dozier, who had a poor season at left guard last year, is now competing for the spot on the right side with Oli Udoh, who was moved from tackle to guard. This seems less than ideal, when it was expected third-round pick Wyatt Davis would have a chance to win the starting spot. Davis, however, hasn’t gotten reps with the first team and also is now working at center. He also sat out three practices in the past week but has returned.
“Wyatt is a physical kid,” Zimmer said. “He’s got to continue to work on some of the bending that they have to do there. But the one thing I’ve noticed about him the most is his physicality. And he missed a few days last week, so we’re just working him in now and see where he comes out at. But he’s got a chance.”
Zimmer doesn’t seem concerned about the fluid nature of things. “Right now, it’s probably more of a challenge for finding the correct backups, the swing guys on game day,” he said. “I feel pretty good with Rashod there and Darrisaw, if you can’t practice you can’t play, and I like Cleveland and Bradbury and I like Udoh at guard. He’s a big body guy. If he’s going to be the guard, we have to keep getting him reps so he gets comfortable with all the things that happen in there.”
Zimmer also said this situation has nothing to do with a concern about giving rookies a chance.
“The plan is always when they get here they are going in but sometimes they’re not quite ready,” he said. “Offensive line, coming from college to the NFL, is a big jump. They don’t have all the protections and all the different things. It’s usually they all slide one way, or they all slide the other way. It’s much more complicated (in the NFL) and they are seeing much better rushers all the time. Then you start throwing in the run game with the movements and the motions, it’s much more complicated. … When we get them, we want to get them in there and go, but we do have some pedigree in the offensive line now with some of the high picks that we’ve had.”