2020 Minnesota Vikings Draft Review: Ezra Cleveland
Among the more surprising picks of the 2020 Minnesota Vikings draft was tackle/guard Ezra Cleveland whose emergence into the starting lineup stabilized a poor offensive line. The right guard position was a disaster. The once-promising Pat Elflein had fallen off so bad that part of the Vikings fanbase thought the team would be better off with backup Dru Samia filling his spot. On Sunday Night Football against the Seahawks, Samia got plenty of screentime, getting worked in pass protection and getting called for three holding penalties. Samia then suffered an injury, and Cleveland entered the starting lineup.
Drafted with the 58th overall pick in the second round as a tackle and being projected to move to left tackle in the not-so-distant future, Cleveland handled the right guard spot for nine of the final 11 games. In his first game starting, quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked only once, the first time all season he hadn’t suffered multiple sacks in a game. This trend carried on for the next three weeks, and coincidentally the Vikings won those three games. Despite standing 6-6 and 311 pounds, Cleveland showed off his athleticism in both the run and pass games. He also displayed power at times which is uncommon for a guard standing that tall.
With questions regarding Riley Reiff’s future, Cleveland may be asked to move to left tackle in 2021. There, his skillset would likely be maximized. Although the overall offensive line play improved when he was inserted into the lineup in 2020, his body-type and play style show that he is destined to be a tackle. And despite flashes of power, that will likely be negated more often than not against defensive tackles with lower centers of gravity.
Breakout Game: at Green Bay
Cleveland’s second start came at Green Bay when the 1-5 Vikings upset the 5-1 Packers. With strong winds, it was up to the Vikings offensive line to provide holes for star running back Dalvin Cook.
They didn’t disappoint. Cook ran 30 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns against a Packers defense that had no answer for him. But he did more than just run. With six minutes left in the third quarter and the Vikings leading 21-14, Cook took a screen pass 50 yards for a touchdown to give Minnesota a 28-14 lead. Cleveland provided the biggest block of the play at the first down marker. From there, Cook used his magic and waltzed into the endzone from there. It was a high-effort, athletic play from the rook in his first big game in the NFL.
The 2021 off-season will be crucial for Cleveland. With a full NFL off-season (however that looks), Cleveland should be able to add some more weight and strength to his frame. A raw prospect coming into the 2020 season, Cleveland not only filled in but was by far the best right guard the Vikings had during the season.
Where he goes from here is the question. While he looks like a tackle, he might be stuck at guard if he plays there in 2021. Even if Reiff were to leave in 2022, it may not be ideal to move Cleveland out of a position he had been getting comfortable at for two seasons.
We also need to see how he can hold up for a full season. He missed two of the final 11 games with an injury and did not start the season’s first five games. The offensive line may not be a position that we think of as one that can “wear down”, but the grind of a 16-game (or 17-game) schedule definitely plays a part for younger players once November and December roll around.
Regardless, Cleveland gave the Vikings all they could hope for as a second-round project. He fits the Kubiak offensive scheme that the team will bring back in 2021 as the reigns are passed on from father to son. If he can play a full-season and give the same type of production that he did as a rookie, Minnesota may have made one of their biggest value picks of the draft with the selection of Ezra Cleveland.