While Vikings general manager Rick Spielman’s 15-man draft class has yet to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it, the team’s second-round rookie offensive lineman could make some major contributions soon.
Spielman was on KFAN radio on Sept. 30 and said that Ezra Cleveland is “going to get his opportunity here shortly,” Vikings Territory writer Sean Borman reported.
Cleveland, an athletic left tackle who was drafted No. 58 overall, was thought originally hyped to become the starting left tackle this season, but a rookie protecting Kirk Cousins’ blindside is a liability the Vikings have yet to entertain after Reiff was willing to take a pay cut this offseason.
Instead, Cleveland has taken reps at both guard spots through training camp and Vikings practices while veteran Riley Reiff has maintained his spot at left tackle.
“We think (Cleveland) has flexibility. We’re working him at guard right now,” Kubiak said during the preseason. “He’s a very bright player and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps — we know he has the comfort zone of going back outside. We’ll settle him down after about a week and take a look where we think he should be and what gives him the best chance to help our team.”
The Vikings offensive line is currently ranked second in run blocking and 25th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. The team could look to Cleveland as a better option in pass protection.
Cleveland could become the fourth rookie to start this season after cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney had been thrust into the starting lineup on defense and wide receiver Justin Jefferson had a coming-out party last week. Jefferson had limited usage for the first two weeks but caught seven passes for 175 yards in a loss to the Titans.
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Struggles at Guard
The Vikings haven’t publically called out Dru Samia’s struggles at right guard this season — but it’s been bad.
Samia ranks as the worst guard out of 70 players Pro Football Focus has graded this season.
In two games, Samia has allowed 11 pressures on 65 passing attempts, a 16.9 percent rate that makes opposing defensive tackles look like future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Donald, who produces pressure on 14.9 percent of his pass rush plays.
Samia was thrown into the starting lineup after Pat Elflein required surgery on his thumb, which landed Elflein on the injured reserve. His return will likely be after the three required weeks, meaning Samia will continue to see playing time if the Vikings do not make adjustments.
Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak said on KFAN that Cleveland is next in line to replace either Samia or left guard Dakota Dozier, per Borman.
“We’re trying to get him in the same position we got Dru in — that he’s ready to go in there and play,” Kubiak said.
Cleveland has played just seven special teams snaps and appeared in two games this season. He’ll likely be thrown into a full body of work soon as the Vikings assess the best offensive line combinations moving forward.
Trevor Squire is a Heavy contributor covering the Minnesota Vikings and journalism graduate from the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. Connect with him on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.