Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Sunday slant: Minnesota Vikings showing real signs of offensive line improvement

The offensive line was Mike Zimmer’s top priority to fix in the offseason and it might be the most important position for the success of the 2016 Vikings season. So far, Zimmer’s assessment and the promise have been surprisingly positive.

As the offensive line goes, so goes the Minnesota Vikings offense in 2016. At least that’s a storyline often advanced in the media and it should ring true.

Heck, even some within the walls at Winter Park subscribe to that theory and, if that thinking holds true, there are encouraging for Vikings fans.

“I think (Friday), that’s as good as I’ve seen the offensive line here in a while,” head coach Mike Zimmer said after Saturday’s practice.

His evaluation of Saturday’s practice wasn’t done yet, as he consumes the film each evening, likely with the anticipation many Americans hold for Monday Night Football or their favorite TV show.

Film, it seems, is Zimmer’s life, and he’s happy to watch it any time of year. During the season it’s for strategic purposes. During the offseason, it’s for evaluation with a glass of wine. During training camp, it’s for corrective purposes.

Few dissect film like Zimmer. Even before he came to the Vikings, former players of his raved about his defensive acumen and his ability to dissect opponents’ weaknesses. So when Zimmer, the master of finding flaws, is throwing bouquets at the big guys after this early in training camp, something is on the right track.

In fact, someone – or several someones – are on the right track. The key suspects: new line coach Tony Sparano, left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Alex Boone, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Andre Smith. In other words, the expected starting offensive line in these circles.

“I saw a big difference (Friday) in the way that they practiced, the things that they were doing, the techniques they were doing. I thought (Friday) they had a really good day,” Zimmer said. “… Kalil did really good, maybe the best I’ve seen him since I’ve been here. Now, it’s one day, but he did some really good things. Fusco looked better to me (on Friday). With Boone and Kalil, they did some nice things together. And Andre Smith is a really good athlete.”

Sparano is the new fuel behind the fire. He isn’t going to let a generally laid-back Kalil sit back, as one source pointed out. Fusco may not need that kind of a push, or kick, as he can bring the nasty on occasion, but he clearly wasn’t happy with his performance last year – his only season at left guard – and has stated as much. Boone certainly needs doesn’t need any cajoling. In fact, he might be the cajoler, as he said he looks forward to Sparano brushing aside any sugarcoating that may have been handed out in the past.

The feeling by some is that some players may try to get away with whatever a coach lets them. Sparano isn’t going to let that happen, and he won’t send his assessments to Zimmer through a filter. Hit them with the truth, even if it hurts.

“I don’t believe a lot in excuses. I don’t believe in making them one way or another,” Sparano said this spring. “I demand a lot from them. I think my experiences have been in this league when you demand a lot from them, they’ll give it to you.”

So far, so good.

And Boone wouldn’t have it any other way. He said this spring he wants an earful if he’s not getting the job done.

“Your coach should always be the general. He’s the guy that sets the tempo for you and laid it out: ‘Listen, there’s no nonsense. We’re going to raise the bar this year.’ I think it was great,” Boone said. “It’s one of those things where I’ve never played under Tony directly (before this year), but I’ve played with him and I loved the way he coaches and I agreed with it, and so now to have him as a coach I’m excited.”

Sparano brings head coaching experience and so does offensive coordinator Norv Turner. With that, their ideas can come at/from a macro level.

Despite being in the NFL for 30-plus years, Turner appears open to different ideas, and those long in the NFL say his offense has always evolved. Sparano has brought a different style to the running game, Turner said.

“He is very detailed and very specific in how he wants to do things, which I think is good for our guys,” Turner said. “We are keeping the things that Adrian (Peterson) does best, but we’re certainly expanding the running game. Same thing in the passing game. I think Pat (Shurmur) has been exposed to some different things. We try to sit down and talk about the things we’ve done, a lot of the things we’ve done that haven’t shown up in games and then incorporate some of the things he’s done well in his past.”

Despite losing Phil Loadholt to retirement and Mike Harris (at least for a while) to illness, the Vikings have options behind their expected starters. Joe Berger performed very well at center last year with Sullivan out. T.J. Clemmings got thrown into the fire at right tackle for Loadholt and should be a solid backup for Smith at right tackle, and possibly for Kalil at left tackle. The rest are likely fighting for two more roster spots among the remaining eight players.

“We’re trying to evaluate them every single day. I sat in there (Friday) night and watched the offensive line over and over again. And we’re still looking at combinations, as you saw (Saturday),” Zimmer said. “I’ve got an idea how it’s going to go, but I want everybody to feel like they’ve got a good opportunity and I’ve got to see them in pads, too.”

The key to success likely lies in the performance of the tackles. Kalil needs to return to his rookie form … or better. Smith needs to live up to his first-round draft status from seven years ago as well.

“I know Tony is going to push him. He’s going to drive him and keep on him and keep working him,” Zimmer said of Smith. “And I don’t know if that’s what he needs, but he’s a really good athlete. His career started out kind of – he had a broken bone in his foot and he was overweight and all that. I think he’s matured quite a bit. I still think he’s got a lot of good football in him.”

The pads go on for the first time Sunday afternoon. It will be the first big indication for the level of success the team might have on the offensive line, the position that Zimmer said was his highest priority to improve in the offseason.

If Zimmer’s assessment next week at this time remains where it was this weekend, good things could be in store. Really good things.



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