Vikings vs. NFC North: Offensive lines

Consistency is a big factor in offensive line performance and the Vikings didn’t have much of that in 2014.

1. Green Bay Packers
Offensive line: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga
The biggest thing that the Packers offensive line has going is consistency. This group of guys has been together since the start of the 2014 season when the Packers drafted Linsley in the fifth round and they played 17 of 18 games together last season. Bulaga also chose to re-sign with the Packers in free agency when he likely could have gotten more money if he chose to go elsewhere.

It is always important for an offensive line to stay intact because they have to work with one another and know what the person next to them is going to be doing on every play. If there is a lot of changing pieces along an offensive line on a consistent basis, communication problems can start to creep in.

Another thing the Packers offensive line has going for it is having Aaron Rodgers as a quarterback. He has the ability to hit the long ball, pick apart a defense with underneath routes and diagnose a defense before the ball is even snapped. When an offensive line is blocking for a quarterback that good and one who can get rid of the ball quickly, a lot of flaws can be covered up.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers offensive line gave up 18 sacks during the course of the season, which was middle of the road. But they only gave up 18 hits and 76 hurries, which were both some of the best numbers in the league, so unless the defense was sacking the quarterback they were not often getting to him.

The Packers offensive line also has done a good job blocking for Eddie Lacy the past two seasons. The running back has been able to put up over 1,000 yards in his first two years in the NFL. While he is responsible for some of that, you also have to give credit to the offensive line.

Barring injuries, the unit should return intact for the 2015 season and should once again be one of the better units in the NFL.

2. Detroit Lions
Offensive line: LT Riley Reiff, LG Laken Tomlinson, C Travis Swanson, RG Larry Warford, RT LaAdrian Waddle
The Lions offensive line is not yet set in stone, so do not take this lineup to heart. It is possible Manny Ramirez beats out Tomlinson for the starting left guard spot, but at this point in time Tomlinson should be considered the favorite after being drafted in the first round of the draft. But other than that, the other positions should be who starts at the beginning of the season.

The offensive line has gone through a complete overhaul in Detroit the past couple years. Just three seasons ago Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus made up the offensive line and now none of them are left in the Motor City.

The Lions have seemingly made it a point to draft talented linemen early in the draft in order to bolster up their offensive line. They took Reiff in the first round in 2012, Warford in the third round in 2013, Swanson in the third round in 2014 and Tomlinson, as mentioned earlier, in the first round in 2015. The only player not taken with a high draft pick was Waddle, who went undrafted in 2013 but earned a starting spot.

By focusing so many early draft picks to the offensive line over the past couple of years the Lions should have set themselves a solid foundation to build their team around for years to come. They were an average line last season, according to PFF, but as this young group continues to develop and play with one another they should continue to improve.

There is a lot of potential here but they will have to improve on their 27 sacks allowed a year ago if they want to be considered one of the better lines in the NFL. But where is stands right now there is a lot of optimism in the city of Detroit about their front five.

3. Chicago Bears
Offensive line: LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Will Montgomery, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills
The Bears have seemed to address their offensive line not just through the draft but in free agency as well. In 2013 they drafted Long in the first round and Mills in the fifth round. Then they also added Bushrod and Slauson as free agents in 2013 and Montgomery as a free agent in 2015.

The Bears lost Roberto Garza, their longtime center, this offseason, but are hoping that the addition of Montgomery will keep the line in check. Another thing that should help them in 2015 is the return of Slauson, who tore his pectoral muscle in Week 8 of the 2014 season against the New England Patriots.

One of the biggest question marks for the team entering the 2015 season will be the right tackle position. Mills had a great rookie season in 2013 but seemingly took a big step backwards last season when he tried to play through a nagging foot injury. There does not appear to be any lasting effects of that injury so far in offseason workouts, according to media reports, and the Bears are hoping he can return to form this season.

The Bears’ offensive line gave up 20 sacks a year ago, according to PFF, which was very average throughout the NFL. But they also gave up 127 quarterback hurries, which placed them towards the bottom of the league. So the lack of sacks could speak more towards quarterback Jay Cutler’s escape ability than it does to the line’s ability to block. On the other hand, it could also say that Cutler often held onto the ball too long, which then allowed defenders to get to him.

Running back Matt Forte once again rushed for over 1,000 yards, which means that the line must have been doing a decent job run blocking. So their biggest improvement for 2015 will need to come in pass protection.

4. Minnesota Vikings
Offensive line: LT Matt Kalil, LG Brandon Fusco, C John Sullivan, RG T.J. Clemmings, RT Phil Loadholt
The Vikings offensive line seemed to be in a constant state of disarray during the course of the 2014 season. First Fusco tore a pectoral muscle and was out for the remainder of the season and then the same thing happened to Loaholt later in the season. Sullivan and former starting left guard Charlie Johnson also missed time during the season with injuries but they were both able to eventually return.

Kalil was the only offensive lineman to be on the field for the entirety of the season and he was trying to play through an injured knee throughout the year, so the Vikings were forced to throw together different lineups to try and get one that worked well together and that could protect rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

They did not necessarily do a good job with that because they allowed a league-high 36 sacks in 2014 (as a team, the Vikings gave up 51 sacks but the offensive line was credited with 36 of those by PFF). But Bridgewater did come out and take credit for holding on to the ball too long from time to time, so not all of the blame can be placed on the offensive line.

At this point in time, it will be hard to tell if things will get better in 2015. Kalil had offseason knee surgery and is expected to be 100 percent and back to where he was his rookie season when he made the Pro Bowl, but it’s hard to believe that until you see it. Fusco and Loadholt are expected to be 100 percent by the time the season starts, but Fusco also has to learn a new position since he is moving from right guard to left guard. And the right guard position is still up for grabs, but where things stand right now fourth-round draft pick Clemmings seems to be the front-runner but has never even played guard before. He played right tackle for two years in college and before that he was a defensive lineman.

One thing that the Vikings offensive line does have going in its favor is the return of running back Adrian Peterson. When Peterson is on the field, defenses always try to watch out for him so they are not just rushing the passer. Just having him on the field should cover some holes along the offensive line and help them improve from their 2014 performance.

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