The word from Vikings coaches and the front office after the NFL draft was that General Manager Rick Spielman had made Brian O’Neill, a tackle from Pittsburgh, a high priority on his draft list.
Spielman got his man when O’Neill was selected No. 62 overall, the fifth tackle taken in the draft.
And now that offensive linemen Pat Elflein, Nick Easton and Mike Remmers are battling through injuries, the second-round pick is getting a fast introduction to the pro game. There’s no question that if those guys aren’t healed by the season opener, O’Neill, 22, will be starting as a rookie, just like Elflein did last season.
“That’s one thing I’ve tried to take advantage of, is just getting more reps, just when guys need a blow here and there is only going to help me in the long run,” O’Neill said of training camp.
He was asked about going against defensive ends such as Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen at this early stage in his pro career.
“Over the past two weeks or 10 days, however long it has been, I have gotten a chance to go against both of them,” O’Neill said. “It has been good just because they get you better. Being able to go against the best guys, it’s going to help when these preseason games start here.”
Has he performed well?
“At points, yes, at other times they have gotten me. That’s probably how it’s going to be at first against those guys,” O’Neill said. “But being able to work through those things and trying to stay consistent is the goal every day.”
Offense, defense help
So far, O’Neill has been slotted mostly at right tackle, with a few snaps on the left side. He said he continues to try and carry on the early lessons he got from the late Tony Sparano.
“We all miss him a lot,” he said. “I know personally being able to get to know him for a short time, he had a big impact on me, and I’ll carry a lot of the things he taught me with me, hopefully throughout my career.”
The 6-6, 297-pound O’Neill added that even though there’s a lot of competition in camp, his teammates are working closely with him.
“Just having Pat Elflein, who was a rookie last year — he went through the same thing. He has kind of been there just to talk about the big picture and how camp is going and things like that,” O’Neill said. “Then even though I’ve filled in for Rashod [Hill] a little bit, he has been there every step of the way telling me what I did wrong, telling me what I did right, and he has been really trying to help me improve. So those two guys, and then Riley [Reiff] has helped me out a lot, too.
“I think just working with the O-line has been great. We’re a tight-knit group and guys have been willing to help. And there has been no drop-off in the coaching. Coach Clancy [Barone] and coach [Andrew] Janocko have done a really good job of keeping that standard at the same level and holding us to the same expectation that coach Sparano did.”
But it isn’t just the offensive side helping the rookie.
“I would say the No. 1 guy who has helped me is Danielle Hunter, so far,” O’Neill said. “He has been able to kind of just give me his viewpoint on what he looks for from me and kind of what things he tries to take advantage of based off of what I give him.
“Any time you’re going against one of the top defenses in the NFL, it’s going to be pretty intense. That’s one thing — we try to make practice harder than the game, give ourselves tough looks and put ourselves in hard situations, so when we go out into the game it’s going to be easier.”
Tight end to tackle
O’Neill finished his Pitt career on the coaches’ first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference squad. He started 13 games at right tackle in 2016 and 12 games at left tackle in 2017. But his college career actually started at tight end — where he was coached by Tim Salem, the son of former Gophers coach Joe Salem.
“I have a really close relationship with Tim Salem. He was my tight ends coach in the spring of 2015, when I played tight end at Pitt. He has been a close mentor of mine,” said O’Neill, a native of Wilmington, Del. “His brother [Brad] lives in Minnesota, so he reached out after the Vikings picked me. I’ve stayed in touch with his family. He has been a great mentor to me and a role model and hopefully he has great success at Pittsburgh this year.”
O’Neill played tight end until 2015, when he made the switch to tackle, a move he does not regret.
“I love offensive line way better,” he said. “It’s much more fun.”
And how is he handling the move from college to the pros?
“The biggest difference I would say is the level of competition and just how good this defense is compared to what I’m used to seeing,” O’Neill said, adding that he couldn’t be more happy than to be with the Vikings.
“Absolutely, it has been the best couple months of my life so far.”
• Kirk Cousins talked about the difficulty of Elflein’s absence, saying: “It’s tough. It’s not ideal. Pat will be back, but it’s good practice for when something inevitably happens during the season and we have to shuffle people around.”
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked how important it was that newly signed backup quarterback Trevor Siemian had started 24 games in the past two seasons. “That was part of it, part of it was the relationship with Kirk,” Zimmer said. “It is important to have a good combination of that in the quarterback room.”
• When the Vikings face the Jaguars in their second preseason game Aug. 18, NFL.com wrote that fans will see the league’s two best defensive backfields.
• Vikings first-round draft pick Mike Hughes is making himself known at camp, according to defensive coordinator George Edwards: “We’ve moved him around, so he’s played inside at the nickel and outside at the corner. He’s really embraced all the things that we’re teaching him right now. He pays attention to the fine points, coaching points and those kind of things for what we do schematically.”
• CBSSports.com quoted wide receiver Adam Thielen on what he has seen from Cousins: “He’s been doing a phenomenal job. I think me, personally, I need to do a better job for him. ... We talk a lot about it in the receiver room, just making sure that we’re making plays so he feels comfortable throwing anything to us.”
• One name to keep on eye on during the Vikings’ first preseason game on Saturday is Reshard Cliett, the third-year linebacker out of South Florida who was drafted by the Texans in the sixth round in 2015 and has been with five other teams before joining the Vikings this offseason.