In the NFL, they have a recurring phrase that is spoken in all 32 locker rooms when a player gets injured: “next man up.” The Vikings wore out that phrase last year, as three of their starting five offensive linemen missed time and the two that played the entire season – left tackle Matt Kalil and center John Sullivan – were playing through nagging injuries.
That is important because offensive line is perhaps the most important position in terms of maintaining continuity. Different packages on offense and defense lead to different personnel groupings. A four-receiver set can result in having no running back on the field. A two-tight end formation can leave just one wide receiver on the field for a play. A nickel situation on defense takes out a linebacker for a play or more. Most teams rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh. But along the offensive line, ideally the same five guys are on the field for every snap.
It is that monopolization of playing time that makes getting a starting five and sticking with them a priority for almost every head coach and offensive coordinator. In the last two Vikings playoff seasons, they had a healthy offensive line playing the same five guys throughout the season. They had it in 2009 when Brett Favre electrified the fan base by joining up with the Vikings. They had it in 2012 when Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards and came a whisker away from setting the single-season rushing record in the NFL.
Over the past two seasons, the line has been a mess, as injuries have scuttled the initial plans that the coaching staff had for who would be starting at what position. The Vikings seemed set at the O-line last season, with Kalil and Loadholt at the tackle spots, Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco at the guards and Sullivan at center. By the time the season ended, the “next man up” mantra was used so often, coaches and players were getting hoarse.
Now we’re not even out of August yet.
The first change came when the team decided not to bring Johnson back and flipped Fusco from the right side to the left. In organized team activities, rookie T.J. Clemmings was going to get a shot at the starting job, but, as training camp began, that plan got shelved and Mike Harris, who had replaced Loadholt last season when he went down, was shifted from tackle to right guard. The plan was for players like Clemmings and Bykowski to be the backup plan at the tackle spots. Bykowski is gone and Clemmings has been pushed to the forefront as Loadholt’s presumptive replacement for 2015.
With the loss of Loadholt and Bykowski, the rotation has been shuffled dramatically. Kalil remains the left-side starter, but Clemmings is now the starter on the right side. What remains behind them is a collection of unproven players that have checker-jumped their way to being a heartbeat away from the “next man up.”
Third-string left tackle Babatunde Aiyegbusi has elevated to the No. 2 spot, which could mean that he ends up on the final roster instead of the widely accepted plan that he would be among the final cuts and then signed to the practice squad to see if he could pick up Norv Turner’s blocking schemes and potentially be a massive tackle that could be a killer in run blocking situations.
On the right side, seventh-round rookie Austin Shepherd vaults into the No. 2 spot, followed by undrafted rookie Stephen Goodin tucked in behind him. There is the possibility sixth-round rookie Tyrus Thompson, currently No. 2 on the right guard depth chart, may be asked to move over or perhaps even have veteran swingman Joe Berger move to right guard and slide Harris back to the tackle position he played last year.
The Vikings didn’t have a lot of depth behind the starting five even before the Loadholt injury. With Big Phil and Bykowski both lost for the season, that depth has been cut razor thin.
The team is likely going to use the next couple of games to determine their game plan for moving forward. Will they stick with the guys they have? Will they look to sign a veteran still out on the free agent market? Will they look to trade a late-round draft pick for a player that likely will be cut by another team? Will they scour the waiver wire after the final roster cuts?
The answer to those questions may well be all of the above. With all the planning and preparation that has gone on as the 2015 Vikings have been assembled, one thing that couldn’t be counted on was that two of the top four offensive tackles on the depth chart would be lost for the season in mid-August, making the performances of the remaining tackles under the spotlight by the coaching staff and General Manager Rick Spielman.