The moment stood out for its candor, near the end of a stretch in the NFL calendar not known for forthrightness: After the Vikings selected Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis with the 86th overall pick in the draft on Friday night, college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson said the third-rounder was the product of marching orders that had come from Mike Zimmer more than six months ago.
"There was pretty much a directive from Zim, going into scouting this fall and throughout the season, 'Let's get bigger up front,'" Stephenson said Friday night. "That was the directive, and we went out, and Wyatt Davis definitely fits that mold. He's a big man, he's long. He can play guard, potentially tackle.
"He comes from a great pedigree. His grandfather was the great Willie Davis, a former Packer — we won't hold that against him — and his dad played college football, as well. We're very happy to get him, too, where we got him."
The 6-4, 315-pound Davis joins the Vikings as the third-heaviest lineman on the roster. Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings' 6-5, 322-pound first-round pick, is the second-heaviest, behind 325-pound Oli Udoh. Nothing about the Vikings' outside zone scheme, and the mobility it requires from its linemen, has changed. The Vikings are simply trying to execute it with a type of player who delivers force as well as footwork.
"It's difficult. It really is," Stephenson said. "Because typically, the smaller lineman is the more athletic lineman. That's why we were so excited to land these two guys, because we feel like they have that combination of size and athleticism."
The development is noteworthy in part because of how many lighter linemen remain integral to the Vikings' plans. Right tackle Brian O'Neill, the team's second-round pick in 2018, was a former tight end before shifting to the line. Center Garrett Bradbury (the first-round pick in 2019) came to the league with concerns about middling size for his position (6-3, 305 pounds). Ezra Cleveland, last year's second-round pick, was initially advertised as the left tackle of the future before the Vikings installed him at guard; scouts had concerns about his strength at the NFL level, as well.
But as Zimmer surveyed the Vikings' offensive front, he saw a group that struggled to move large nose tackles or use length to keep pass rushers at bay.
"We feel like we're athletic, but you end up going against some really big defensive linemen, especially inside, you get so many of those big guys," Zimmer said Thursday as the Vikings discussed their first-round pick. "Darrisaw has real long arms, so that helps him in pass protection against some of those speed rushers. But yeah, that was one of the things we talked about."
The Vikings' offensive line has gone through similar shifts before, in a seven-year effort to fix a group that's felt Sisyphean at times. When the Vikings replaced Jeff Davidson as offensive line coach with Tony Sparano after the 2015 season, they talked about how the new coach wanted players with the "ability to dent people." They signed guard Alex Boone on the first day of free agency that year.
Zimmer said afterward: "I feel like every other position group on our football team has a tough-minded personality. I don't know that our offensive line did."
Norv Turner's 2016 resignation triggered a shift from an Air Coryell scheme to a West Coast offense, first under Pat Shurmur and then under John DeFilippo, that emphasized a zone blocking scheme where players like Boone no longer fit.
The zone scheme, and the types of linemen best suited for it, became an even bigger emphasis as Kevin Stefanski implemented Gary Kubiak's time-honored scheme and Kubiak took over play-calling duties in 2020. It figures to remain a staple of the Vikings' offense in 2021; with Klint Kubiak succeeding his father as offensive coordinator and Rick Dennison still in charge of the offensive line, not much has changed.
Only the Vikings now are trying to bring back some of the qualities Zimmer prized during an earlier iteration of their offense, while retaining the principles that have helped resurrect their run game in the past two seasons. It makes the search for the ideal player even more specific, and the effort to get out in front of Dalvin Cook while keeping the pocket clean for Kirk Cousins perhaps even more nuanced.
But the Vikings, ever since Zimmer and DeFilippo parted ways on either side of a philosophical chasm, have staked their identity to a run-heavy offense that's become almost countercultural in the NFL. They've done it while guaranteeing $150 million to a quarterback who is paid for his arm strength, durability and accuracy, not his mobility or his quick release.
Building a line that can accommodate both facets of the Vikings' offense is a tall order, which is perhaps why their latest efforts to remake the group seem to follow an even more precise set of standards.
"The two offensive linemen, Wyatt and Darrisaw, they're going to have to come in and compete," general manager Rick Spielman said Friday. "But we felt they fit the athletic mode we're looking for. So to get some size around Bradbury is going to be a benefit to him. And now you got some guys who, wherever they line up, we're going to have a lot of size. But all these guys have some athleticism to go with that size as well."