Vox Media

2022-05-09 08:59:46 By : Ms. Jessie cui

A look into what it would take to bring the veteran center to Minnesota

The interior offensive line has been the biggest weakness for the Vikings offense for the past several years. The front office has tried to improve that area by spending a first- and second-round pick on Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury, and have tried to fill the other guard spot mostly with free agents and last year with Oli Udoh, but while there was some improvement last year, it still remains easily the biggest weakness for the Vikings offense.

The new regime, while paying some lip-service to Garrett Bradbury by saying perhaps they can get more out of him, also declined his 5th year option, making this a contract year for him. At the same time, they’ve also loaded up on guards in the off-season, acquiring Jesse Davis and Chris Reed in free agency, and also spending a second-round pick on Ed Ingram.

All that suggests the new regime is focused on improving the Vikings’ interior offensive line, and is prioritizing that area with their available resources.

But so far most of those resources have gone toward guards, and guard-only players that don’t seem likely to be moved to center. And yet the weakest link along the offensive line has been Garrett Bradbury at center, who after three seasons has been unable to do better as a pass blocker than the 43.7 PFF grade he earned last season. He’s done okay as a run blocker, earning high 60s grades, but this doesn’t mitigate his struggles in pass protection much.

And so with Bradbury’s known struggles and lack of improvement, fans and analysts begin casting their eyes around the free agent market for a potential replacement. Lo and behold, JC Tretter, a top center and president of the NFLPA, was released by the Browns in mid-March, making him the top free agent center on the market.

Tretter has been a consistent low-to-mid 80s graded pass protector, and 70-75 graded run blocker throughout his career. And as an accomplished veteran, now 31, acquiring Tretter could go a long way toward improving the Vikings interior line performance, and provide some leadership for the younger interior linemen as well. What’s not to like about that fit?

Moreover, Tretter has a connection to Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who just came from Cleveland- where Tretter has played for the past several years. Beyond that, there has been some exchanges on Twitter with Tretter’s father Joe and some Vikings-related Twitter accounts, suggesting there is some interest on Tretter’s side to playing for the Vikings- his father said the Vikings were among his top 5 preferred teams- but the ball was in the Vikings court to make an offer.

There are several issues that would need to be resolved for the Vikings to make Tretter a successful offer. The first is that the new regime needs to be ready to move on from Bradbury by bringing in Tretter, the second is finding the salary cap space to acquire him, and the third is Tretter’s injury status and ability to pass a physical.

It came as no surprise that the Vikings declined Bradbury’s fifth-year option, which would’ve paid him $13+ million- well over his market value. And when a team declines a first-round pick’s 5th year option, that doesn’t bode well for his continued employment with the team. Bradbury is currently a $4.1 million cap hit. Trading him with a post-June 1st designation would save the Vikings $2.251 million in cap space, but simply releasing him would not save any cap space. And so the Vikings would need to find a trade partner to acquire Bradbury. Given his performance, he likely has a limited market. One potential destination where Bradbury could be an upgrade is Carolina, who currently employs Pat Elflein as their starting center. Elflein hasn’t gotten any better since he left the Vikings, so Bradbury could be an upgrade for them. The Vikings could trade him for a 7th round pick and move on.

However, the Vikings only have a little under $5 million in cap space currently, after accounting for the signing of their draft class, and that is typically their emergency fund- which they reserve for acquiring a free agent in-season to replace an injured player- and so their effective cap space is basically zero.

Trading Bradbury would create $2.251 million in available cap space, but securing Tretter’s services will likely require much more cap space, even if the contract is backloaded. Estimates of Tretter’s market value are roughly $6 million/year - Ted Karras’ recent deal is a rough comparable and was for that amount.

In order to raise more cap space, the Vikings could look to make cuts elsewhere. One possibility is to cut (or trade) fullback CJ Ham. Doing so would free up an additional $2.75 million in cap space, and between trading Bradbury and cutting Ham would give the Vikings $5 million in additional cap space, and provide enough to make Tretter an offer in-line with his market value. Ham is a decent fullback and a popular player, so this isn’t an easy decision, but his $3..45 million cap hit this year, and $3.8 million next year, is something of a luxury for the Vikings at this point, particularly with O’Connell’s scheme that uses 11 personnel (3WR) sets more often. Ham played less than half the offensive snaps last year, and that is likely to decrease this year. The Vikings just signed Jake Bargas- presumably for $1 million or less- and can make do with him at fullback. Another option is releasing Greg Joseph in favor of the new kicker just signed- Gabe Brkic- which would free up about $1.7 million in cap space, but presumably they’ll want to have a camp competition first. Ultimately there is an opportunity cost for acquiring Tretter, and it isn’t far-fetched to say that the Vikings would be better off using their cap space on Tretter at center rather than Ham at fullback.

The other issue here though is Tretter himself. He has been hobbled by knee and ankle injuries this past year which resulted in him not practicing all of last year. He didn’t miss a snap during games, and still played at a high level despite his injuries, but this creates a high-level concern about how long he can continue doing so. It may also be an obstacle to his passing the physical needed for him to be acquired. Not being able to practice may also be problematic in coming to a new team, learning a new system, etc. And there is no assurance he will continue to be able to play every snap with his knee and ankle issues.

This is likely a concern in acquiring Tretter and making him an offer. But presuming Tretter can continue to play as he has in the past, and can practice well enough to learn the Vikings’ playbook and develop rapport with his linemates- still a big if at this point- his leadership, experience, and performance on the field would be a big lift to the Vikings offensive line.

Still another issue is competition for Tretter’s services from other teams. Carolina could use a better center and has a lot more cap space than the Vikings. They could make Tretter an offer the Vikings would not be able to match. The 49ers may also need a center if Alex Mack retires, which he is contemplating. The Bears do too, but it’s unlikely they’d waste salary cap space on Tretter amid a multi-year rebuild. Miami is another potential suitor with more cap space than the Vikings, but they may not be ready to move on from Michael Deiter yet. There may be a couple other teams interested too, but none with much more cap space than the Vikings.

Lastly, there is the possibility that the Vikings may replace Bradbury with someone already on the roster. Chris Reed may be an option, and also Ezra Cleveland. It seems likely that the Vikings acquired Jesse Davis to start at right guard. His contract is not that given to a backup, and Davis has been a starter for several years. Ed Ingram, who’s played left guard with LSU for the past three years, and who the Vikings acquired with a second-round pick, strongly suggests he’ll be in the mix to start at left guard. Second-round picks are typically reserved for players that can start as a rookie- particularly offensive linemen.

Ezra Cleveland was drafted at #58 overall, one spot ahead of Ingram, and started as a rookie. But Cleveland has made limited progress so far in pass protection, topping out last year with a 55.5 PFF grade. Cleveland has the skill set to play center (his RAS at center is a perfect 10.0), and his run blocking grade is relatively high at 71.9 last season. Moving to center could help mitigate his liability in pass protection- centers aren’t always covered on pass plays and can more easily get double-team help - while his run blocking would be an asset. Given that, it wouldn’t be that surprising if the Vikings decided to try Cleveland at center (provided they’re sufficiently confident in his snapping ability and ability to make protection calls). The alternative is having a second-round pick as a backup, which isn’t ideal.

There is little doubt that JC Tretter, if healthy enough, can be a significant upgrade for the Vikings’ interior offensive line, and could also provide needed experience and leadership up front. Coming up with the salary cap space necessary to make the acquisition is doable, although not without sacrifice. It would also require a trading partner for Garrett Bradbury.

But the Vikings also have committed significant resources to the guard position, having acquired Jesse Davis, Chris Reed, and Austin Schlottmann in free agency, and spending a second-round pick on Ed Ingram. Not to mention spending a 6th round pick on Vederian Lowe, a tackle who could be moved inside to play guard. All that in addition to Wyatt Davis, who they spent a 3rd round pick on last season, and Oli Udoh, who started at RG last season. They also have Kyle Hinton, who played left guard in pre-season last year, and Blake Brandel, who turned out to be the backup right guard last season.

Add starting left guard Ezra Cleveland and that’s ten guys who can play guard currently on the Vikings roster.

It would seem that the plan is to move Oli Udoh to swing tackle, although he could still compete at right guard. Lowe and Brandel could compete at swing tackle as well as guard. But it’s hard to believe that the Vikings aren’t looking at one or more of the other guards to compete at center. Whether that’s Cleveland, Davis, Davis, Reed, Schlottmann, Ingram, Hinton, or some or all of the above, it seems likely there will be more competition at center besides recent UDFA signing Josh Sokol. I doubt it’s Jesse Davis or Ed Ingram based on their traits, but I could see Cleveland, Reed and Hinton compete at center.

None of the above rules out the Vikings pursuing JC Tretter in free agency, but it does seemingly make it less likely.