EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have taken many measures toward improving their lagging offensive line in recent years.
The biggest investment yet came Wednesday, with right tackle Brian O'Neill.
O'Neill signed a five-year contract extension, a deal to lock in Minnesota's most reliable blocker for the long term that's worth as much as $92.6 million, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
That includes $49.1 million in guaranteed money, including $22.6 million up front, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team was not announcing the financial details. Based on annual average contract value, O'Neill will be the second-highest paid right tackle in the NFL behind Ryan Ramczyk of New Orleans.
“I want to be here, no matter what. I’ve known that for a long time. The people we have in this building, everybody around here, I just want to be a part of it, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” O'Neill said, a permanent smile on his face as he discussed the deal with reporters. “There was never really a doubt as to whether or not something was going to work or not, in my mind, because this is where I want to be.”
O'Neill was drafted in the second round out of Pittsburgh in 2018 and would have been eligible for free agency next year. He cracked the lineup as a rookie and has started 42 games in his first three seasons. During his span as a starter, the Vikings have the third-most rushing yards in the NFL.
The Vikings have drafted an offensive lineman in the first or second round for four straight years. O'Neill is the oldest and most accomplished from that group, followed by center Garrett Bradbury (first round, 2019), left guard Ezra Cleveland (second round, 2020) and left tackle Christian Darrisaw (first round, 2021).
Darrisaw fell behind during the uneven recovery from offseason groin surgery, and sixth-year veteran Rashod Hill has held that spot since the beginning of training camp. Darrisaw took part in individual drills during practice Wednesday, but he's unlikely to be in the lineup for awhile. Oli Udoh, a sixth round pick in 2019, is the new right guard.
Despite the loss of leader Riley Reiff, the veteran left tackle who was let go for salary cap savings, O'Neill said he's more excited about this offensive line than any of the others he's played with. Udoh practiced at right tackle the last two seasons, forming a bond between him and O'Neill they didn't realize would pay off until this year.
“I understand how he thinks about blocks, and he understands what I think about certain angles and placement of linebackers and things like that,” the Delaware native O'Neill said. “That rapport kind of has been built for a while, and we’ve just got to continue to build on it.”
The Vikings open the season Sunday at Cincinnati.
Their biggest concern, as coach Mike Zimmer openly acknowledged Wednesday, is a lack of established backups.
The roster is stocked with legitimate stars and experienced players, but most of them are paid like it, too, leaving little room for the quality reserves that can go a long way toward keeping a team in contention. Zimmer has repeatedly lamented this summer the salary cap crunch.
“I feel really good about the top guys, and then some of these young guys have got to come on. But when you’re kind of top-heavy with finances, that’s what you’ve got to do. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and try to get these younger guys better,” Zimmer said.
Hill is a prime example of this, a trusty player who can easily play both tackle spots. With Darrisaw still working his way into form and picking up the playbook, Hill is the starter, leaving the Vikings thin in case he or O'Neill were to get hurt. Reiff is with the Bengals now, another reminder of how big contracts for priority players can have future consequences.
That's a matter for the next offseason, though, when O'Neill's status will give the Vikings one fewer position to worry about.
“They believe in me just like they did three years ago, but it’s time to go prove them right again,” O'Neill said. "The chip just gets bigger.”
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