Wednesday's NFL: Vikings sign RT Brian O'Neill to contract extension
Eagan, Minn. — 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.”
Wentz remains hopeful of making Colts debut as starter
It's game week and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz is eager to get started.
The injured left foot that kept him out for three weeks feels strong enough that he can practice without limitations. He's off the COVID-19 list, which cost him several more practices. And if Wentz gets his way, he'll be starting Sunday against Seattle.
He can't wait.
“You’ve got the game plan in, got a lot of things going on, super busy day, early alarm clock today when I woke up,” he said before Wednesday's practice. “It officially registered in my mind it’s game week. It’s go time.”
Wentz certainly looks and sounds like the starter — even if there are hurdles still to be cleared.
First, he needs to make it through full, consecutive practices and demonstrate he's in sync with his new teammates. Then he must be cleared for action by team doctors.
If he does play, Wentz will be Indy's fifth Week 1 starter in five years. If he doesn't Jacob Eason will earn that distinction against his home-state team.
There's little doubt Wentz is eager to begin a new chapter in his career after enduring the worst season of his five-year career. He was benched for the final four games of his Philadelphia career as he dealt with critiques about his leadership style, his locker room presence and the allegedly irreparable rift between him and former coach Doug Pederson.
Philadelphia dealt its one-time franchise quarterback to the Colts in March, reuniting Wentz with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
Here, Wentz took on a persona that appears very different from the one publicly portrayed.
He learned about his new teammates and their lives. He organized workouts at his home. He spoke of team goals, re-established the bond with Reich and was warmly welcomed by teammates and fans alike.
“I’ve always appreciated this about Carson from the first time I was on the field with him, he’s a team-first guy," Reich said. “He doesn’t care about his stats, he doesn’t care about any of that stuff. What he cares about is winning, being a good teammate, being the leader he’s supposed to be. That's a good thing for all of us.”
But the plan changed quickly in training camp when Wentz started feeling pain in his left foot. Three days later, Reich announced Wentz would miss five to 12 weeks after having a bone fragment removed.
He returned to practice three weeks later on a limited basis only to be forced out again when he was deemed a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Unvaccinated players, like Wentz, are required to sit out five days, costing him more time to get ready for the opener.
Wentz came back last Thursday, again limited, and now he's scrambling to prepare for an old nemesis. Wentz is 0-5 all-time against the Seahawks, having thrown for 1,040 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 60.3% of his passes.
His playing status isn't the only complication for Reich.
Three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson sat out Wednesday with a back injury and top cornerback Xavier Rhodes missed practice with a calf injury. Nelson has started all 51 games, including playoffs, during his career, and has been determined to keep the streak intact since having foot surgery one day after Wentz's procedure.
“We know we’re playing a very good opponent," Reich said. “This is a very good team we’re playing. We know what we’re up against and we know what we have to do.”
What they don't know yet is whether Wentz will play.
But if he does, Indy's new quarterback promises the missed time won't affect his play.
“I think it definitely comes down to trusting your guys to make plays when you go off script and those sorts of things but also to trust that the next play we’re going to get it done,” he said. “I feel very optimistic, very confident in (the foot), so we’ll see.”
Seeking RB help, Ravens sign Le'Veon Bell to practice squad
Less than six months shy of his 30th birthday, Le'Veon Bell is trying again to rejuvenate his career with a new team.
Now it's the Baltimore Ravens — reeling a bit after J.K. Dobbins' season-ending injury — who have acquired Bell.
Baltimore signed Bell to the practice squad, adding another backfield option in the aftermath of Dobbins’ knee injury. Bell was cut early last season by the New York Jets, then rushed for 328 yards in 11 games with Kansas City. He did not play in the Super Bowl for the Chiefs.
Bell rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times in five seasons for Pittsburgh. He then sat out the whole 2018 season in a contract dispute. He signed with the Jets and rushed for 789 yards in 2019.
On Wednesday, Bell was on the practice field for the Ravens wearing No. 17. Shortly before the start of practice — and before the team announced the move — offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman was asked about bringing Bell in.
“Excited about the opportunity. We'll see what happens,” Bozeman said. “We're going to block for whoever's back there. We're going to try to make the biggest holes, the biggest opportunities, the biggest gains in our offense that we possibly can, regardless of who's back there running the ball.”
The Ravens lost Dobbins in their final preseason game. That left Gus Edwards as their top remaining running back, although quarterback Lamar Jackson is a big rushing threat as well. Edwards ran for 723 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Now running back Justice Hill is also on injured reserve, and the Ravens signed running back Trenton Cannon. They also released safety Jordan Richards and signed defensive tackle Reginald McKenzie to the practice squad.
Cannon had 48 carries in three seasons with the Jets and Carolina Panthers.
The Ravens open the season Monday night at Las Vegas. It's not clear how quickly Bell might be ready to join the active roster. Coach John Harbaugh wasn't available to reporters Wednesday.
Bell was a two-time All-Pro with the Steelers, but he's now with his third team in the past 12 months. The former Michigan State star didn't rush for more than 62 yards in a game with the Chiefs last year. He had only two carries the whole postseason for Kansas City.
Bell hasn't surpassed 100 yards in a game since Dec. 17, 2017.