Sunday slant: Uncertainty remains on Minnesota Vikings O-line

The Vikings have undergone a lot of change in their offensive line over the last year and added possibilities in the offseason. Clarity hasn’t happened yet.

The behemoths are back, but there is little clarity between where the Minnesota Vikings offensive line stands now and who will be standing where on Sept. 11 or even at the start of training camp.

Injuries and players’ recovery from them are part of the equation.

John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt were both lost for the 2015 season with training camp and preseason injuries. Sullivan’s back issues started early in training camp and two ensuing surgeries put his entire season on ice. Loadholt tore his Achilles tendon in preseason and, likewise, was unavailable for any action last year.

Both were back practicing this week, seemingly without limitations, at the start of the Vikings’ organized team activities, although their roles were different. Loadholt was back working with the starters while Sullivan took second-team reps, despite believing he would be able to slide right back into a starting spot upon his return.

“I don’t want to give you the party answer, but if I come back healthy, my back is fully recovered, I expect to be back in my same role,” Sullivan said when the Vikings started their offseason conditioning.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/vikings/story/1672873-loadholt-it-s-been-extrem...  Eventually that could be the case. Starting lineups at the start of offseason practices are often far different from the view even at the start of training camp. Last year proved that, as the team searched for a right tackle/right guard combination at this time year with Brandon Fusco over at left guard and Loadholt recovering from his 2014 pectoral injury. Rookies and veterans alike were shuffled in and out in search of the best combination and what positions best suited some of the younger unknowns hoping to be an X-factor in the equation.

Injuries still seem to be a filter in developing a clearer picture. Last week, Matt Kalil sat out, although that doesn’t sound too serious or lingering.

Even so, Kalil’s absence from meaningful work provided one surprise. It wasn’t T.J. Clemmings or even Carter Bykowski taking his spot with the first-team offense. Instead, Jeremiah Sirles was teamed with free-agent acquisition Alex Boone on the left side of the line. Boone is expected to be the starting left guard, but it would be interesting to see if their new, expensive acquisition would eventually move to left tackle if Kalil has a down year and isn’t re-signed. For this year, it’s Kalil’s job, but he has to prove himself to stay with the team beyond 2016. Perhaps new offensive line coach Tony Sparano is able re-ignite Kalil’s promise (or least potential).

The right side of the line is more wide open. Last year, Clemmings filled in as the replacement starter at right tackle and had his growing pains for sure. While Loadholt took the first week with the first-team offense, he knows there will be a formidable challenge from Andre Smith, a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, the same year Minnesota selected Loadholt in the second round.

“He’s a good player,” Loadholt said of Smith. “He’s been around. I’ve been knowing him since we’ve been in the league together. That’s what the NFL is all about – you’ve got to compete every year for your job so it will be fun.”

In order to even stay in the competition for a starting spot, Loadholt had to take a $4 million pay cut.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/vikings/story/1673247-zimmer-getting-respect-na...  However, even with that cut, the Vikings are still spending more on their offensive line right now than any other team. With more than $39 million and 26.7 percent of their 2016 salary cap taken up by offensive linemen, according to Spotrac.com, the Vikings are spending more than $2 million more on their offensive line than any other team and are one of only five teams investing more than $30 million in the line.

No doubt, Mike Zimmer was one of the driving forces behind that commitment. He has indicated at several turns this offseason that fixing the line was his top priority. When he was hired, he called himself “a fixer,” likely referring to his ability to improve defenses, but this year we will find out if throwing money at the line works.

Certainly, it was worth a shot. Until they can adequately protect Teddy Bridgewater, it’s hard to make sound judgments on just how good their quarterback can be. Keep him upright and open holes for Adrian Peterson – who had more negative runs than other back in 2015, despite leading the NFL in rushing – would go a long way to catching the offense up to the progress the defense has made under Zimmer.

For now, it appears both guard spots and Kalil are set. In three more months, we will have a better indication of who wins the battles at center and right tackle.

From there, it’s up to the behemoths to prove themselves as a unit and turn the Vikings into a more well-rounded contender rather than one considered on the cusp almost solely because of their defense.

 


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