Free-agent exam: Vikings vs. the tackles

The free-agent market for experienced yet young offensive tackles is pretty thin. A couple have massive starting experience but are on the tail end of their careers while only a couple fit the bill of quality starter with only a handful of years of experience. We examine the top options for the Vikings and list the other possibilities.

PURPLE REVIEW

The Vikings made the decision to release Bryant McKinnie two days into training camp last year after he showed up overweight and seemingly uninspired. While it was a move that benefitted them in their effort to get below the salary cap, head coach Leslie Frazier insisted it wasn't a power play or a move made to set an example.

The merits and wisdom of McKinnie's release can be debated, but there is little arguing it set back the stability and effectiveness of the offensive line for at least 2011. Charlie Johnson, a free agent from Indianapolis, was acquired and quickly took over McKinnie's left tackle position. Some believe Johnson would be more effective as a guard, and there isn't much doubt the Vikings will try to address left tackle, either in free agency of through the draft.

The most likely option? Hoping USC left tackle Matt Kalil is still available when the Vikings select third overall in April's draft. However, waiting to see if that happens wouldn't come without risk. By the time the first round of the draft rolls around on April 26, free agency will have been more than five weeks old and the top free-agent tackles will be long since plucked from the open market.

Still, there is one compelling reason to wait.

FREE-AGENT PREVIEW

Waiting until the draft makes sense because no position (in our estimation) on offense is as thin with the right mix of talent, experience and youth as offensive tackle. There are experienced starters who have too much tread on the tire at a position where organizations prefer stability for a decade, and after that there are only a couple of players who might be considered upgrades but also have some injury history.

In other words, it could be difficult for the Vikings to find what they are looking for at offensive tackle in free agency. The top options:

Kareem McKenzie – Since becoming a starter for the New York Jets in 2002 and moving over to the Giants three years later, McKenzie has become a mainstay of the New York protection program. He has started every game in which he has been active for the last decade, but the Giants aren't expected to re-sign him. However, the Vikings will be inclined to look for younger prospects and likely wait until the draft to make their move at this position.

Jeff Backus – Backus has been a model of consistency, starting every single game since he entered the league in 2001, a Lions franchise-record 176 straight games. But therein lays the reason the Vikings will not go after Backus in the early stages of free agency. They seek younger talent and 176 games of wear and tear isn't what they are looking are, and neither is a guy who will turn 35 during the 2012 season and had surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon after the 2011 season. At this point, being a former Michigan Wolverines teammate of Steve Hutchinson doesn't have much pull either.

Jared Gaither – Gaither has gone from starting 15 and 11 games in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with the Baltimore Ravens to returning to a starting role with the San Diego Chargers for the final five games last year. He has the talent to be a starting tackle, but injuries have defined his last few seasons. He didn't play at all in 2010 because of a back injury and last year split time between being a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs for the first 10 games to becoming a starter for the Chargers in the final five. He will turn only 26 five days after the start of free agency.

Demetrius Bell – He fits one of the profiles for the Vikings in free agency, coming off his rookie contract and ready for unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He's actually older than Gaither, as Bell will turn 28 in May, but he has been a consistent starter – when healthy – since 2009 with the Buffalo Bills, starting 30 of the 31 games he has been active for in the last three years.

OTHER FREE-AGENT TACKLES

Other free-agent tackle possibilities: Sean Locklear, Marc Colombo, Max Starts, Ryan Diem, Barry Richardson, Stacy Andrews, Khalif Barners, King Dunlap, Guy Whimper, Brandon Keith, James Lee, Geoff Schwartz, Paul McQuistan, Stephon Heyer, Ryan O'Callaghan, Trai Essex, Oniel Cousins, Brandyn Dombrowski, Breno Giacomini, Tony Moll, Mark LeVoir, Tony Ugoh, Anthony Collins, Pat McQuistan, Kirk Chambers, Quinn Ojinnaka, William Robinson, Michael Otto, D'Anthony Batiste, Lydon Murtha, Corey Hilliard, Dennis Roland, Demar Dotson.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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However, waiting to see if that happens wouldn't come without risk. By the time the first round of the draft rolls around on April 26, free agency will have been more than five weeks old and the top free-agent tackles will be long since plucked from the open market. Still, there is one compelling reason to wait. Waiting until the draft makes sense because no position (in our estimation) on offense is as thin with the right mix of talent, experience and youth as offensive tackle. There are experienced starters who have too much tread on the tire at a position where organizations prefer stability for a decade, and after that there are only a couple of players who might be considered upgrades but also have some injury history. In other words, it could be difficult for the Vikings to find what they are looking for at offensive tackle in free agency. The top options: Kareem McKenzie – Since becoming a starter for the New York Jets in 2002 and moving over to the Giants three years later, McKenzie has become a mainstay of the New York protection program. He has started every game in which he has been active for the last decade, but the Giants aren't expected to re-sign him. However, the Vikings will be inclined to look for younger prospects and likely wait until the draft to make their move at this position. Jeff Backus – Backus has been a model of consistency, starting every single game since he entered the league in 2001, a Lions franchise-record 176 straight games. But therein lays the reason the Vikings will not go after Backus in the early stages of free agency. They seek younger talent and 176 games of wear and tear isn't what they are looking are, and neither is a guy who will turn 35 during the 2012 season and had surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon after the 2011 season. At this point, being a former Michigan Wolverines teammate of Steve Hutchinson doesn't have much pull either. Jared Gaither – Gaither has gone from starting 15 and 11 games in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with the Baltimore Ravens to returning to a starting role with the San Diego Chargers for the final five games last year. He has the talent to be a starting tackle, but injuries have defined his last few seasons. He didn't play at all in 2010 because of a back injury and last year split time between being a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs for the first 10 games to becoming a starter for the Chargers in the final five. He will turn only 26 five days after the start of free agency. Demetrius Bell – He fits one of the profiles for the Vikings in free agency, coming off his rookie contract and ready for unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He's actually older than Gaither, as Bell will turn 28 in May, but he has been a consistent starter – when healthy – since 2009 with the Buffalo Bills, starting 30 of the 31 games he has been active for in the last three years. Other free-agent tackle possibilities: Sean Locklear, Marc Colombo, Max Starts, Ryan Diem, Barry Richardson, Stacy Andrews, Khalif Barners, King Dunlap, Guy Whimper, Brandon Keith, James Lee, Geoff Schwartz, Paul McQuistan, Stephon Heyer, Ryan O'Callaghan, Trai Essex, Oniel Cousins, Brandyn Dombrowski, Breno Giacomini, Tony Moll, Mark LeVoir, Tony Ugoh, Anthony Collins, Pat McQuistan, Kirk Chambers, Quinn Ojinnaka, William Robinson, Michael Otto, D'Anthony Batiste, Lydon Murtha, Corey Hilliard, Dennis Roland, Demar Dotson. 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