The second week of the preseason is a critical time in the evolution of a roster heading into a season. The starters play a little longer – usually a quarter or a little more – but this week’s key matchups are going to be along the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings.
Typically, even if a training camp/preseason battle is rather heated, the decision on who wins the starting job comes before the third preseason game, when teams are putting their best foot forward in terms of giving their starters the most playing time together to get their timing down and incorporate new wrinkles being implemented into their schemes without trying to show too much.
Nowhere on the field is this continuity more important than on the offensive line. In years that the Vikings have been successful – most recently 2009, 2012 and 2015 – one of the hallmarks of those teams was having the same offensive line working as a cohesive unit week after week after week.
As the Vikings prepare to meet a strong Seattle defense, making the key decisions that will determine who starts and who sits won’t be easy, but they are decisions that need to be made soon so the players can prepare themselves for the long grind of a season.
At center, John Sullivan is looking to reclaim his starting spot after missing all of the 2015 season due to injury. There is a time-honored mantra in the NFL that starters don’t lose their jobs as the result of an injury. The reality is far different. When someone replaces an injured starter and plays extremely well, they often keep the job. That is the situation Joe Berger finds himself in. A swingman at guard and center prior to Sullivan’s injury, Berger took over at center when Sullivan went down and consistently graded out as the best offensive lineman on the team from one week to the next.
For Sullivan to reclaim his spot, it isn’t going to merely be handed to him. He’s going to have to earn it.
Berger may also be involved in another developing situation at right guard. Brandon Fusco is battling an injury of his own and was replaced in the preseason opener by Berger and hasn’t practiced since. Another 2015 starter, Mike Harris, has been on the non-football illness list throughout training camp and hasn’t been able to compete for a position, whether at guard or tackle – where he has found himself starting each of the last two seasons (2014 at right tackle in place of Phil Loadholt and last year at right guard in place of Fusco).
It would appear that Fusco has the inside track to locking down the starting job, but now not only does he have one player contending for his job, he potentially has two if/when Harris returns.
The same is true at right tackle. When Loadholt went down with an Achilles injury in the preseason, rookie T.J. Clemmings took over the spot and started all 17 games the Vikings played. While he was clearly Plan B in the Vikings original plan, he had to earn while he learned as a starter. He struggled at the time, which isn’t unusual for rookie offensive linemen, but Adrian Peterson did lead the league in rushing and Clemmings tried to do his part to make that happen.
In free agency, the Vikings brought in Andre Smith, a former Bengal who was there during Mike Zimmer’s tenure as defensive coordinator. He became quite knowledgeable about Smith’s strengths and weaknesses as a right tackle going up against his defense every day for years in practice, so it seems obvious that Zimmer signed off on the signing and is going to give Smith every opportunity to win the job.
A year ago at this time, there was a growing sense of unease with the Vikings’ offensive line situation. There were a lot more questions than there were answers as the only returning starter who was at the same position was Kalil.
A year later, the questions aren’t who is going to patch up the injury-riddled line in flux, it centers on who is going to win the job openings that are available. The competition is fierce and nobody is going to be handed a job due to the projected starter being out. There are going to be previous starters on the bench, so whoever takes the step forward will win the spot and likely hold it for the entire season or until a player gets injured, making Thursday’s game with Seattle a critical matchup to watch along the offensive line.