Backup Battles: The Only Thing Not Set on OL

The Vikings' starting five on the offensive line has remained constant throughout minicamp weekend, which leaves a lot of linemen battling for a few backup positions between now and the beginning of September. Here is the way it's been looking so far and what offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had to say about it.

While the Vikings talk about position flexibility among their offensive linemen, the starting front five appears to be set. In a lot of years, that wouldn't be terribly newsworthy, but after last year's debacle on the offensive line, with players being pulled, publicly embarrassed and switching sides and positions, that opening line might be one of the best boring newsbits around.

The Vikings never had more than a five-game stretch in 2005 where the starting offensive line stayed the same, but this year the line looks as stable as it has been in a couple years.

Bryant McKinnie is the unquestioned starter at left tackle, Steve Hutchinson is the three-time All-Pro left guard, Matt Birk is the former Pro Bowl center, Artis Hicks is the new acquisition that has plenty of experience with Brad Childress's offense as a starting right guard, and Marcus Johnson is the talented and developing right tackle. And all of that hasn't changed throughout minicamp this weekend.

"We are real happy with where we are right now," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "Obviously the acquisition of (Steve) Hutchinson and getting (Matt) Birk back and bringing Artis in, that helps solidify the line. We still have a lot of depth with some of the old vets that have been here, and we're trying to find where they fit. Guys on the offensive line that can play multiple positions end up being guys that are real valuable for your offense."

Therein lies the only real unsolved questions about the offensive line at this point in the offseason.

Anthony Herrera, a man who says he won't be satisfied until he makes the Pro Bowl, has been asked to take a back seat to Hicks after Herrera was the starter at the end of last season and in April's minicamp before Hicks' arrival.

In April, Herrera was trying to learn from the big-buck free agent addition and apply his lessons to the less-heralded right side of the offensive line.

"I think that's a good thing that the left side is so good because the right side is going to try hard to catch up to them. Nobody wants to hear you talking about the other side," Herrera said in April's camp. "That's a strong side and there's a lot we can learn from them. … I'm looking at Hutch to see what he's doing because that's going to make me better."

With eight or nine roster spots allotted for offensive linemen and the starting five and presumably second-round draft pick Ryan Cook guaranteed roster spots, that leaves more than a handful of players fighting for two or three roster spots.

Tackle Mike Rosenthal and guard Chris Liwienski are the most experienced of that lot, but with experience comes a higher salary cap number, which can be career-threatening for a backup.

Adam Goldberg has been moved from guard last year to tackle in these minicamps, and the more flexibility the backup linemen can have, the better their chances of retaining a roster spot.

"After you get to the 6th, 7th or 8th lineman, you can't carry 10 linemen on your roster, so the ability to be able to play more than one position is definitely helpful," Bevell said.

Then there is the issue of the players having to start over with a whole new coaching staff and a new offense, which brings about a few changes in the blocking schemes as well.

"There are certain things that they're changing, but they're trying to make it easier for us and put in a little bit of last year's system and having some new stuff this year," Herrera said. "They're just a little bit more aggressive this year. The coaches are just a little bit more aggressive – that's always a good thing for a lineman. Our tendency is to be aggressive."

But before the Vikings can become aggressive in the regular season, they will have to figure out their backup rotation.

Herrera is primarily a guard, but he did get some practice time at center last year. Offseason acquisition Jason Whittle can play both center and guard. Cook is primarily a center, at least at this early stage in his career.

And then there are the rookie longshots looking to latch on, guys like tackles Donald Penn and Albert Stinson, along with practice squad holdovers Mark Wilson and Sean Bubin, the latter who is playing in NFL Europe.

The numbers don't add up – the Vikings have 15 offensive linemen vying for eight or nine roster spots.

But at least the starting five appears settled.


  • Koren Robinson is expected to return kicks and Mewelde Moore is expected to be the main punt returner, but special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro will also have a secondary returner on kickoffs. For now, the favorite there is Ciatrick Fason, but Ferraro said "we'll have four or five or six different returners back there getting some repetitions and give us a chance to evaluate all of them."

  • Punter Chris Kluwe has been in attendance at the all the minicamp practices and continues to be the primary holder on field goals, but because of surgery to a torn ACL he isn't punting yet.

    "He's on schedule, which basically from what I have been told, that means some time just prior to training camp," Ferraro said.

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