The new alpha on the Vikings' offensive line is Brian O'Neill, the first player selected as part of a four-year rebuilding project and perhaps the sturdiest component of a group that's still going through change.
With Riley Reiff now in Cincinnati, O'Neill has been in Minnesota longer than all of the offensive lineman but tackle Rashod Hill, and has started more games (42) in the past three years than anyone else on the line.
Following Rick Dennison's role change after declining the COVID-19 vaccine, offensive line coach Phil Rauscher has the final word — and during practices, his voice is usually the loudest. Among players, O'Neill's is the one that perhaps carries the most weight.
"He's becoming more of what Riley was in the past," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I remember when he first came out here as a rookie, he's kind of feeling his way around and then about Week 4, you kind of saw him, man, he's got some toughness and physicality about him, he won't back down from — we had some pretty good edge rushers at that time. So I think that part, the intensity he has inside himself, and now being more of a leader, I think that's helping quite a bit."
O'Neill's growth over the past three years has positioned him for a new contract at a time when the right tackle market is seemingly becoming more lucrative by the week.
Before June, the Eagles' Lane Johnson and the Browns' Jack Conklin were the only right tackles playing on deals worth more than $10 million a season. Then, Saints tackle Ryan Ramczyk altered the market with a five-year, $96 million deal on June 30; the Panthers gave Taylor Moton $72 million over four years before the deadline to sign franchise-tagged players on July 16 and the Colts gave Braden Smith a deal on Tuesday that's reportedly worth $70 million in new money over four years.
Compared to Ramczyk, Moton and Smith, O'Neill ranked fourth, third and fourth in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades the past three years, though he improved from fourth in run-blocking grades in 2018 to second in 2019 and first last year while playing all but 13 snaps. His durability, and his importance in the running game for a team that relies on it, could help agent Ryan Tollner make a case for O'Neill to join the increasingly large club of handsomely paid right tackles.
The 25-year-old admitted, somewhat sheepishly, he's noticed the market surge.
"I mean ... yeah," O'Neill said with a smile after a long pause. "But once again, you can't worry about that. There's people that handle that. But I'm not gonna lie to you. I've got to have a good practice [Thursday]. Danielle [Hunter]'s back, and that gives me plenty of trouble already. I've got my hands full, for sure."
The recent surge in the right-tackle market is good news for O'Neill, but it does create another set of challenges for a team that's had plenty of cap maneuvering to do the past several years. The Vikings had to push costs into future years to field a competitive team in 2021, when lost revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic triggered an 8% drop in the salary cap.
By releasing Kyle Rudolph with a June 1 designation and adding void years to the deals of Anthony Barr and Sheldon Richardson, the Vikings ensured they'll carry around $14 million of cap charges for players who either aren't on the roster or would need new deals to stay. They also pushed money into the future with a signing bonus conversion on Adam Thielen's deal, and while a new contract for Hunter would inevitably lower his 2022 cap number from $26.12 million, the Vikings would have to budget for an average annual value that puts Hunter in line with the league's top pass rushers should they opt to keep him.
At present, their top 51 contracts for 2022 count for $198.3 million of cap space, according to sources with access to NFL Players Association data. With the cap ceiling set at $208.2 million for 2022 (not counting unused space the Vikings can roll over from 2021), a deal for O'Neill could hinge on whether the right tackle wants to be paid exactly the same as Moton and Smith, and how far the Vikings feel they can go.
"Yeah, we'd love to get Brian done. I think they've had conversations," Zimmer said. "I don't know where it's at. It's always, one side thinks one thing and one side thinks the other, right?"
Cap complications aside, the Vikings' history of paying their draft picks and O'Neill's value to an ever-changing group suggests the sides will reach a deal before the start of the regular season. Should it happen, the tackle who said he learned from Reiff how to worry less about his career arc, and more about how to maximize each practice, can impart those same lessons on a young group as an example of what can happen if they mimic him.
"It'll play itself out," O'Neill said. "I want to be here, I love it here, and we've got to finish what we started."