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Zulgad: Dalton Risner’s exit (so far) leaves questions for the Vikings at guard

The Minnesota Vikings appeared to have found a solution at left guard last season when veteran Dalton Risner took over for Ezra Cleveland after Cleveland was dealt to the Jacksonville Jaguars at the trade deadline. Cleveland was set to become a free agent, and the Vikings’ plan to let him walk landed Risner a one-year, $4 million contract in September.

Risner, a second-round pick of Denver in 2019 who spent his first four seasons with the Broncos, started the final 11 games of the season. His performance was often solid but never spectacular.

He finished with a 57.1 ranking from Pro Football Focus, placing him 47th among 83 qualified guards. Risner always has been better as a pass protector than a run blocker and that was the case again. He was 22nd in pass pro and 66th in run blocking.

A day after the NFL’s negotiating window, Dalton posted this message on X:

Nearly a month later, the 28-year-old Dalton remains unsigned. If he isn’t going to return to the Vikings, what does the team plan to do to replace him?

There are four guards currently on the roster, including starting right guard Ed Ingram as well as first-year players Tyrese Robinson and Henry Byrd. Robinson and Byrd signed futures contracts with Minnesota in January. The starting left guard right now would be Blake Brandel, a sixth-round pick by the Vikings in 2020 out of Oregon. Brandel, who is 6-foot-7, 315 pounds, has played in 39 games over three seasons and made five starts.

He was primarily a left tackle at Oregon and started three games at that spot for the injured Christian Darrisaw in 2022. The Vikings are set at the tackle spots with Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill, but the guard positions are a different story. That’s why it was notable that Brandel got two late-season starts in 2023 on the right side in place of the injured Ingram.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell has spoken highly of Brandel and praised his ability to play multiple spots.

That praise was backed up in March when Brandel, a restricted free agent, was signed to a three-year, $9.5 million contract that reportedly includes $4.75 million in guarantees. This is far from breaking the bank but it also serves as an indication of how the Vikings feel about him and his potential.

As they did with Ingram in the 2022 draft, the Vikings could look to this month’s draft to try to find their left guard, or they could wait until Risner’s price tag falls, as it did a year ago.

Those moves both carry plenty of risk, considering Ingram’s struggles served as a reminder of just how difficult it can be to step into a starting job, and Risner could decide to sign with another team. Brandel also isn’t a sure thing, but it’s become pretty clear that general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell don’t have much desire to spend at a position where the top players are now getting “a bag,” as Risner stated.

Considering the importance of protecting the investment the Vikings might be making at quarterback, this logic either seems to be flawed or serves as an indication that Brandel is ready to become a starter. Either way, it looks like a risk the Vikings’ brass is willing to take.

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire