Brian O’Neill is only entering his third NFL season, but the Vikings right tackle is already being asked about advising younger teammates.
That marks the trust O’Neill has earned in only 28 starts (including two in the postseason), during which the 2018 second-round pick has developed into a cornerstone and budding leader on offense, according to coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak, a former NFL head coach, said this week he sees accolades such as Pro Bowls coming for O’Neill, who has given the Vikings’ play-caller one less concern in a season full of questions.
“When guys are going to become Pro Bowlers and great players, you see them take huge steps from year one to two, two to three,” Kubiak said. “You’re watching that progression go with Brian.”
It remains to be seen if the coronavirus pandemic affected player development across the league after canceling offseason programs and the preseason, but O’Neill said his workouts were hardly interrupted. He had “everything I needed” for personal and team virtual sessions before reporting to TCO Performance Center with a to-do list.
The top item, according to O’Neill, is cut down on penalties. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars were called for more holding penalties than the Vikings last season, with five of O’Neill’s nine flags thrown for that infraction. The other four were false starts.
“I can clean up some penalties,” said O’Neill, who has allowed two sacks in his career. “A lot of it is having a better understanding of the system and what you’re asked to do in certain formations and where the ball wants to hit — those kinds of things. That comes with time, and hopefully I can dial in a little bit more mentally and clean up some penalties.”
O’Neill also wants to refine some run-game techniques and improve against defensive line twists, but the public comments reflect why Vikings coaches trust him. Behind the scenes, Kubiak said, he saw “extreme confidence” from the 6-7, 305-pound right tackle upon reporting for training camp.
“The first thing I saw with him when I walked in the building this year, I see confidence,” Kubiak said. “I see extreme confidence, knows exactly what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and has great ideas as a player. He’s a very bright player.”
Confidence for this Vikings offense also comes from Kubiak’s return, this time as coordinator after Kevin Stefanski was hired as the Cleveland Browns coach. Kubiak has kept a similar playbook and, just as important, kept the same language communicating play calls and adjustments.
That level of familiarity is novel for mainstays of the Vikings offense, including O’Neill, who has been rotating play callers since he starred as a tight end at a Catholic high school in Delaware. Kubiak is technically O’Neill’s seventh coordinator in as many years, but the system is already in place, which is particularly helpful during a truncated offseason.
“The same verbiage, some of the same formations, some of that stuff. That helps a lot,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of continuity with our offensive line coach [Rick Dennison], some of the calls we’re going to have to make. I know things will be different as they are every year, but the base stuff will be similar and that helps.”
O’Neill has also started next to three different right guards — Mike Remmers, Josh Kline and Dakota Dozier — in two years in Minnesota. One of those guards, Dozier, is competing for the starting job during practices this month with Aviante Collins and second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland.
Asked this week about advising Cleveland, O’Neill said he told Cleveland “take it one day at a time,” even as they get fewer days to prepare for the season.
“These are the cards you’re dealt, and who’s going to make the most of them?” O’Neill said. “People don’t really care who you’re playing next to, or what the situation was in the offseason.”