When the Vikings couldn't come to an agreement on a new contract with Riley Reiff, the veteran left tackle who signed with the Bengals in free agency, 25-year-old right tackle Brian O'Neill suddenly became an elder statesman of a young offensive line.
O'Neill finds himself in a leadership role as the Vikings' most experienced blocker with 44 career starts in three seasons, which illustrates the line's latest overhaul that now features two rookie draft picks in left tackle Christian Darrisaw and right guard Wyatt Davis, and another young guard, Ezra Cleveland, switching sides of the line this spring.
"Probably the biggest change since I've been here, not having Riley around," O'Neill said Wednesday. "But in terms of my mentality, I don't think it changes that much. You might have a few more pointers for the young guys, but at the end of the day, it's all about trying to progress myself and have the best season I possibly can and try to help lead this group the best way I can."
O'Neill's additional pointers may come with a pay bump, as well. The 2018 second-round pick is due for a contract extension entering the final year of his rookie deal. He has developed into a franchise cornerstone as a reliable right tackle. The Vikings offensive line needs long-term solutions, and O'Neill said he wants to be in Minnesota for the long haul.
"I'm trying to be respectful of the process that goes on between my agent and the people here," O'Neill said. "I want to be here. I want to be here long-term; I love it here. Nothing would make me happier than to be here long-term. We'll see. We'll see how it goes. But I'm letting them handle that. Hopefully we can work together for a long time."
The Vikings offensive line is slowly coming together. Darrisaw has yet to take a snap with the first-team offense, working with the backups before aggravating a groin injury and watching Wednesday's practice from the sideline. Darrisaw had groin surgery in January after playing through the injury for Virginia Tech last season.
Darrisaw and Davis need to "earn their stripes," coordinator Klint Kubiak said last week, with Davis lining up as the second-team offense's right guard behind incumbent starter Dakota Dozier. It's a teamwide philosophy under coach Mike Zimmer as all rookies are working with backups at this point.
"If they're the best guys, they're going to play," Zimmer said. "It just depends on how soon that happens. It's always a big jump when you come into the NFL from college, whether it's terminology and getting to know teammates and footwork."
Vikings coaches have slowed the tempo of the lines this spring, removing helmets during 11-on-11 drills in favor of soft-shell, facemask-less caps to keep the focus on technique and prevent head-to-head collisions. NFL rules don't allow padded practices until training camp.
"I'm trying to take care of them a little bit," Zimmer said. "[The focus] is a lot of communication with the pass protection, different fronts that they're seeing, the footwork, pad level, all those things that they can kind of get through individually without really trying to finish blocks."
That means Cleveland, last year's second-round draft pick who started nine games at right guard, can't show off his physical progress until later this summer. Cleveland "looks stronger," according to O'Neill, and more confident as he has switched to left guard and the side of the line where the former Boise State left tackle is most comfortable.
Cleveland said it's his "natural" side of the line, adding he's also more confident in his grip on the playbook after COVID restrictions canceled all NFL spring practices last year.
"I was harping on that over the offseason, trying to learn the plays," Cleveland said. "That's helped my confidence tremendously. Getting out there, knowing what I'm doing, and I can just play football and not have to worry about situations and stuff like that."
But the biggest question facing the revamped Vikings offensive line will be Darrisaw, the 23rd overall pick who is expected to eventually usurp Rashod Hill as the starting left tackle in practices and be asked to fill Reiff's shoes.
"I have been talking to [Darrisaw] a bit and try to let him know that there are people here for him," O'Neill said. "There might be expectations here or there or from the outside, but letting him know we're here for him and here to help him any way we can. He's been really responsive and attentive in meetings. He knows what he's doing already. He's asking the right kind of questions. I'm excited. He's going to be good."