When the Minnesota Vikings used a second-round pick on Ezra Cleveland in the 2020 NFL Draft, there seemed to be a preconceived notion that he would sit out this season to get some experience under his belt, then enter next season as the team’s left tackle of the future.
That wasn’t the case as injuries and inconsistent play across the offensive line thrust Cleveland into a starting role midway through the season. It just happened at a different position.
The door swung open for Cleveland when starting right guard Pat Elflein went down with a thumb injury and backup right guard Dru Samia proved to be among the worst players in the league at the position.
To Cleveland’s credit, the 22-year-old out of Boise State has played well this season. While there were some growing pains here and there, he has provided some consistently at the position, as well as some continuity on the offensive line as a whole.
Now the Vikings have a decision to make. Do they keep Cleveland at right guard, where he has shown flashes of brilliance? Or do they move him to left tackle with Riley Reiff potentially on his way out?
Not even offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak knows the answer.
“I’ve been asked that a couple times, and I know that’ll be a question around the building,” Kubiak said. “He’s played really well for us. He’s very athletic. I think (general manager Rick Spielman) will sit down with (coach Mike Zimmer) and we’ll work through it and we’ll decide what’s best for the football team. You’ve got a really good player, and where he settles down, I think he’s got a chance to settle down for awhile.”
There’s a chance Reiff misses Sunday’s season finale against the Lions in Detroit after being placed on the COVID reserve list earlier this weekend. Maybe that’s a chance for Cleveland to get his feet wet at left tackle?
“Nah, I think we move on with what we’ve been doing” this season, Kubiak said. “I think Rashod Hill deserves a chance to come in and play. He’s battled his tail off all season, done everything we’ve asked him to do, so Rashod will step in for Riley (if he doesn’t play) and we’ll go from there.”
That could be a different story next season, and if Cleveland does indeed switch positions, he seems up to the challenge. He already has learned a lot this season going up against some of the best interior pass rushers in the league, including Chicago defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and Atlanta defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, among others.
What’s the biggest thing Cleveland has learned this season?
“Everything happens a lot faster,” he said. “I’m pretty sure everyone that’s ever answered this question has said that. The game happens a lot faster, and moving from tackle to guard, it happens even faster. I’ve just got to be dialed in on the stuff I need to know and be ready when the ball is snapped to hit a double team or take the man one on one.”
Now, if Cleveland moves back outside to left tackle, things would slow down a little for him.
“That’s definitely something that would help out on the edge if I were to move out there,” he said. “I feel like if I were to move out there, everything would slow down a little more because everything happens so fast inside.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean things would get easier for Cleveland as elite pass rushers off the edge offer their own problems. In that sense, Cleveland is excited for a full offseason to work on his game. That’s something he didn’t get heading into this season.
“Everything started to get locked down due to COVID,” he said. “I still had a garage I could lift in. It just wasn’t the same as going and getting professionally trained and getting that professional help lifting weights and getting a program suited to me that could help me with getting stronger.”
That added strength will help wherever Cleveland plays.