Players coming back from injury, those that could face another position switch and the additions through free agency all throw the exact lineup into question. Shuffling and experimentation will likely be staples of the organized team activities in May and June, just like they were last year.
In 2015, the Vikings shuttled Brandon Fusco from right guard to left guard, the thinking being one of their better interior linemen over the last several years would benefit Matt Kalil if they played next to each other. While Kalil was better last year than he had been the previous two, Fusco struggled at left guard and essentially admitted he would prefer to play right guard.
Enter Alex Boone, a lunch-pail linemen through and through, as the next left guard.
“We were looking for that type of person. Someone who would be — outgoing is the best way to say it — in that room,” Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings last week, according to the Pioneer Press. “… I feel like every other position group on our football team has a tough-minded personality. I don’t know that our offensive line did.”
Judging by Boone’s conference call with reporters after signing with the Vikings, he brings a more intense attitude than many of the other starters on the line. John Sullivan is a cerebral player, Kalil and Phil Loadholt have laid-back personalities, while Fusco and Boone sound like they are cut from the same intense cloth. But with the additions, including Boone, some of the starters on the offensive line are far from determined.
You can pencil in Kalil at left tackle and Boone at left guard. After that, recovery from injury and stiff competition will determine the starters.
Many figure Andre Smith will be the starting right tackle, but Loadholt is returning from injury, although with a non-guaranteed salary that was reduced to $2.5 million.
“Andre’s a really good athlete and I think he’s got more time to develop. He doesn’t have weight issues,” Zimmer said. “He’s a good guy. He’s started (73) games. He’s got some experience. I like having first-round draft picks that leave other places, because they have pedigrees.”
Zimmer should know Smith as well as anyone after spending five years with him in Cincinnati, even if they were working on the opposite side of the ball – Zimmer as the defensive coordinator and Smith as the starting right tackle.
Mike Harris filled in admirably for Loadholt at the end of the 2014 season before earning the starting right guard spot in 2015. And the long-shot of the group is the man who started all 17 games at right tackle last year, T.J. Clemmings.
Harris proved he can play guard and tackle. Clemmings was getting a look at guard before Loadholt’s injury last preseason. And Zimmer said it’s also possible that Smith could get a look at guard.
So while the left side of the offensive line appears set, the right side should be an offseason- and preseason-long battle.
How about in the middle?
Just like Loadholt, Sullivan is recovery from injury. In his case, however, Sullivan had two back surgeries and being able to maintain leverage when contact starts will be key in determining how effective he can be.
“We’ve seen him in the weight room the last week or so. He’s moving a lot better. He looks a lot better,” Zimmer said last week. “His body mass is changing. He’s getting stronger. But who knows? Until you start pushing on 350-pound men, you really don’t know because it’s different than being in the weight room.”
In Sullivan’s stead last year, veteran Joe Berger played well at center, so the Vikings have options, and potential competition, there as well.
There is little doubt where the Vikings’ concentration was in free agency. They now have the highest percentage of their cap in the NFL dedicated to the offensive line at 25.55 percent, and $34.98 million, dedicated to the position in 2016.
“I think that if we fix this one area (offensive line) I think it’s going to help (Teddy Bridgewater) a lot more than getting a wide receiver in here,” Zimmer said.
Their money, and their actions, backed that theory.