Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus recently wrote about the biggest draft mistake made by each of the 32 NFL teams in the past five years. For many teams, it was a trend that spanned multiple years. But for the Vikings and plenty of others, one specific pick stands out. And even though the time span here includes 2016, Renner didn’t go with Laquon Treadwell as Minnesota’s biggest gaffe. Instead, he chose the selection of NC State center Garrett Bradbury with the No. 18 pick in 2019.
The Vikings’ selection of Bradbury has layers of mistakes packed into it. It torpedoed the career of Pat Elflein, whom they drafted the year prior as he was far more suited for the center position. Bradbury also is more than likely going to continue to put them in that no man’s land for years to come. That’s because he’s good enough in the run game to not be replaced, but a liability in pass protection. He has earned pass protection grades of 41.4 and 38.8 in his first two seasons. The icing on the cake is that the next two centers drafted — Elgton Jenkins and Erik McCoy — are two of the best interior linemen in the NFL.
I’m not sure the Elflein point means much here. He was actually drafted two years before Bradbury and ranked 39th out of 39 qualified centers in 2018, per PFF. Yes, Elflein was slowed by multiple offseason surgeries that year, but it was well within reason for the Vikings to feel they needed to replace him in 2019.
With that said, I agree with the premise that picking Bradbury was a mistake. It was a selection that was aimed at filling an immediate need and finding a player to fit a specific scheme. The need-based approach resulted in the Vikings reaching on a player at a position of minimal value. The scheme-based approach resulted in the Vikings overvaluing athleticism and selecting a player who has been unable to pass protect at even a mediocre level through two seasons.
In 2019, Bradbury finished dead last in PFF’s pass blocking grades, out of 36 qualified centers. His solid run blocking pushed him up to 29th overall, which still isn’t great. In 2020, Bradbury once again finished dead last in pass blocking grade, with his run blocking pushing him up to 26th overall out of 38 centers. That’s not what the Vikings were hoping for when they selected him in the first round.
The story has been the same in both years for Bradbury. His athleticism makes him a weapon in run blocking and on screen passes, and he’s shown the ability to make nice reach blocks in the run game. But he simply hasn’t shown the ability to effectively anchor against defensive tackles, who are often able to overpower him on their way to the backfield. His technique needs work in pass protection, but more importantly he just needs to become stronger. If it doesn’t happen in 2021, it probably never will.
In Bradbury’s defense, he has had a revolving door of guards to his left and right. In 2019, it was Josh Kline and Pat Elflein. Last season, it was Dakota Dozier and a combination of Elflein, Dru Samia, and Ezra Cleveland. Out of all of those players, only Kline put up even decent numbers in pass protection. Elflein finished eighth among guards in pressures allowed in 2019, while Dozier easily led all guards in pressure allowed this past season. Perhaps some improvements at guard in 2021 could lead to better results for Bradbury. Cleveland remaining at guard would be good for continuity, although a move to left tackle is possible, and the Vikings should look to free agency or the draft to find a replacement for Dozier.
You can make the argument that Treadwell in 2016 was a bigger mistake than Bradbury, but at least the Vikings drafted a valuable position. Yes, Michael Thomas was taken 24 picks later, but he wasn’t seen as a first-round prospect at the time. With Bradbury, it hurts that Jenkins and McCoy have turned out so well, but both would’ve been major reaches in the first round. The smart pick would’ve been DT Jeffery Simmons, who was selected one spot later and has shined for the Titans.
The difference between Treadwell and Bradbury is that Bradbury still has time to change the narrative surrounding his career. He turns 26 this summer and desperately needs to show major improvement as a pass blocker in year three if he wants to continue to hold down the Vikings’ center position for years to come. If the results are more of the same, Minnesota may need to begin looking for a replacement as soon as next offseason.
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