Offensive line is one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Minnesota Vikings. They brought in a position coach in Tony Sparano this offseason and also signed two key free agents to try and improve the play up front. They also have two players coming back from injury who missed all of last season and will now have to compete to earn back their starting roles.
On the roster: Willie Beavers, Joe Berger, Alex Boone, Carter Bykowski, T.J. Clemmings, Nick Easton, Isame Faciane, Brandon Fusco, Mike Harris, Matt Kalil, Zac Kerin, Phil Loadholt, Austin Shepherd, Jeremiah Sirles, Andre Smith, John Sullivan.
Projected starters: Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Andre Smith
Khalil probably has the most to prove out of all the offensive linemen on the Vikings roster. Left tackle is arguably the most important position on the offensive line and, while he has shown he can play it at a high level, a majority of his career has been met with criticism, partially due to injuries hampering his play.
The Vikings seem willing to give Kalil one more shot to prove himself, though, as they are utilizing the fifth-year option of his contract this season. He will be owed $11.096 million this season and is scheduled to be a free agent afterward. If he does not prove himself this season, the Vikings will likely move on to another player.
Boone was one of the top free agents at his position this offseason and the Vikings were able to entice him to come to Minnesota with a four-year, $26.8 million deal. He is a big-bodied player that has the versatility to play multiple positions along the offensive line.
His strength is as a pass blocker, which is shown by Pro Football Focus giving him a pass blocking grade of 82.1 and a run blocking grade of just 44.9. The Vikings are in need of a player that can help improve their pass blocking as Bridgewater was sacked 45 times last season, the eighth-most of any quarterback in the league.
Sullivan missed all of last season after he had to have surgery on a herniated disc in his spine. He was working to come back during the regular season but had a setback during his rehab, which made it so he had to miss the entire season. He has been working with the first-team offense so far through the team’s offseason workouts, but Berger filled in admirably for his last season and will provide him plenty of competition for the starting spot.
Last season, the Vikings tried to move Fusco over to left guard and he struggled throughout the season. The coaching staff then moved him back to the right side, his more natural side, this offseason and so far he has seemed more comfortable. He was working with the first-team offense in both organized team activities and minicamp, but Harris will surely give him a run for his money after playing well at the position last year.
Right tackle has the most intriguing competition, but so far it seems as though Smith may have the upper hand. The Vikings signed him this offseason and he began the offseason workouts with the second-team offense. However, as OTAs and minicamp progressed, his reps with the first team continued to increase, which seems to point to him being the Day 1 starter at the position.
Keep an eye on
Right tackle competition: As previously mentioned, right tackle is the most intriguing position battle along the offensive line this year. Loadholt is coming back after missing about a year and a half due to injury and Smith is trying to rebound his career after having a down year last season. Both of them have had successful careers up to this point, but only one of them can earn the starting role.
It is also possible only one will be on the roster come the regular season. Loadholt has a cap hit $3.75 million and would have only $1.75 million in dead money if he were to be cut. Smith has a cap hit of $3,468,750 and his contract has $500,000 in dead money.
At the start of offseason workouts, the starting job belonged to Loadholt as it was clear the coaching staff was giving him the first chance to win back his role. But he struggled during the first few weeks and that opened the door for Smith, who has looked good so far. This competition will likely go on all offseason and there probably won’t be a defined starter until close to the regular season.
How well the line plays together: The best offensive lines in the NFL are usually the ones that have played together for multiple years. They know the strengths and weaknesses of one another and know how each other handles different situations.
If the projected starters are correct, then Kalil is the only one who played in the same spot on the line a year ago. That means there could be some growing pains for everyone on the line as they all get used to playing together and it will be up to their new coach, Sparano, to get them all where they need to be.
With the way things have been playing out so far, Smith appears to be on the fast track to being named the team’s starting right tackle. A lot can still change in training camp and the preseason, though. Loadholt is going to have a lot of rust after missing as much time as he did and it’s possible he’ll be able to kick things into gear and beat out Smith.
There have been a lot of explanations given to protect Kalil and make him look like he has played better than he has been given credit for, but there will be no excuses after this season. The Vikings brought in a new offensive line coach and a big, talented left guard to play next to him. If Kalil’s numbers are still bad after this season, it’s because he played poorly and that will likely lead to the Vikings moving a different direction at left tackle.