One of the primary points of emphasis during the offseason for the Minnesota Vikings was to make changes on the offensive line. Free agents Alex Boone and Andre Smith were brought in. Center John Sullivan was coming back. There were a lot of eyes expected to be on the O-line when the team hit Mankato.
There have been, among them being those of head coach Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings returned to practice after a day off and Zimmer had his attention set toward the offensive line and fielded questions about that experience at his post-practice press conference.
One of the primary topics was his impressions of left tackle Matt Kalil, who is facing a watershed season playing on the fifth-year rookie option of his contract. Zimmer said he’s been impressed with many of the things Kalil is doing, adding that he likes the rapport with Boone and is facing a daily challenge lining up opposite Everson Griffen – one of the biggest challenges any left tackle faces.
“This morning I was just up there watching the offensive line and I’ve been much impressed with a lot of the things that Matt is doing,” Zimmer said. “He’s trying to get to the second level. He’s coming off on the double teams with Boone really well. When he sets right, he’s very good in pass protection. Right now, about 75 percent of the time, he’s right in his sets, so we’re just looking for that one quarter more. If he just continues to do that, he’s going to be good. When he gets in trouble, he takes bad angles on his sets and Everson will take advantage of it. That’s a good battle every day. I think it’s making them both get better. They’ve got to compete every day.”
The addition of Boone has made its own immediate impact on the makeup of the offensive line room. His infectious personality has been a boon to a room that was full of violent, very large young men, but guys that were primarily soft-spoken.
He has brought a spark of life to the O-line room much in the same way the mood in the D-line room took a dramatic turn when Jared Allen and his infectious personality showed up.
Has Boone been able to change things in a short period of time?
“Yeah, quite a bit,” Zimmer said. “I think he has been good for our offensive line room. He has been vocal in a good way. I was just talking to Chad Greenway about how Boone was in the locker room, and he said, ‘He’s great. People respect him.’ He has kind of changed the mentality of the offensive line room – him and Coach (Tony) Sparano, and that’s a good thing. That’s part of the reason why we did what we did this offseason.”
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While there have been a lot of questions answered about Zimmer’s preseason satisfaction, one key battle remains to be fully waged.
The center battle is between veterans Sullivan, one of the most vested Vikings players on the roster, and Joe Berger, who replaced Sullivan last season and graded out about as well as any center in the league and head and shoulders the best on the Vikings last season.
While a lot of the picture for the rest of the team is essentially settling in to the starting group, the backup group, the special teams guys and the bubble guys looking to keep a job in the NFL, the center position remains an open competition with no winner yet declared – and it doesn’t appear as though change will be coming immediately.
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“It’s a good battle,” Zimmer said. “Both of them have different strengths and we’re just trying to figure out what’s the best combination for the other four guys in there. Whether it’s the physicality or the intelligence or how we can work that out. We’re going to keep rotating them this week, and I’ll try to figure it out after the next break we have.”
It would appear as though the changes the Vikings have made from the end of last season to this season are working for Zimmer and his staff as it pertains to the offensive line. If those changes result in a marked improvement to the unit deemed most questionable a year ago, the Vikings may be heading into something very good in 2016.