Future of the Offensive Trench

Before the Vikings drafted Bryant McKinnie and named him their 'instant starter' at left tackle, Lewis Kelly was being listed as a top candidate. Now Kelly returns from NFL Europe and could be the key to a reliable long-term offensive line.

One of the biggest keys to the Vikings' magical 1998 season was an offensive line that featured numerous Pro Bowl talents and a lineup that had played together for years. Only one of 1998's starting offensive linemen remains — David Dixon — but the Vikings could be in the beginning stages of forming a line that lasts for years.

In 1998, it was Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, David Dixon and Korey Stringer that composed the starting lineup. All but Stringer started every game, and he started 14 of the 16 regular-season games. It was a cast that helped Robert Smith gain 1,187 yards on a 4.8-yard average, and Leroy Hoard averaged 4.2 yards while gaining 479 yards. Cris Carter and Randy Moss each had more than 1,000 yards receiving, Randall Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards and Brad Johnson had 747.

That was only four years ago. All but Dixon and Moss have left as starters in the offense, but there is reason for optimism this year.

The current starting manpower on the offensive line, from left to right, features rookie No. 1 pick Bryant McKinnie, Corbin Lacina and Everett Lindsay splitting time at left guard, Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, Dixon and right tackle Chris Liwienski. While that formation should serve the Vikings offense better than last year — with McKinnie much more of a natural left tackle than Brad Badger — by the start of 2003 the line could have a new look — by choice, not by force.

Before the drafting of McKinnie, tackle Lewis Kelly was getting consistent praise from head coach and former offensive line coach Mike Tice. Kelly was sent to NFL Europe this spring, where he continued to show improvement. Current offensive line coach Steve Loney took notice.

"I've graded him [Kelly] each game that he's played," Loney said of Lewis' NFL Europe experience. "I'm glad he's part of the team as well. I think he's a guy that is going to give us some snaps. This experience has been a great one for him.

"There are some games better than others, but he's done well."

Although Kelly missed some time in Europe because of injuries, none was significant and nothing is expected to hinder his continued progression as an NFL offensive lineman when he reports to Mankato's training camp on July 26.

Kelly's return to the Vikings gives the future of the offensive line some options in years to come. Liwienski is still expected to hold down the right tackle spot this year, but he was moved from starting left guard to right tackle only after the death of Korey Stringer last August. Currently, opinions on Liwienski's natural position vary, but if Kelly can prove himself as a reliable backup this year who is only an opportunity away from being a full-time starter, then Liwienski could move back to guard.

Either way, Kelly is likely to stay at tackle, Loney said. "He's going to be a tackle, and you've got to see where he's going to play."

With Kelly staying at tackle, the long-term future of the line is up for debate, but it seems that the aforementioned changes could take place before 2003.

"It's tough to speculate, but you'd say if all three [McKinnie, Liwienski and Kelly] are prepared to be starters, just given body type and everything, that Chris Liwienski, until the tragedy last year, that he was going to be a guard," Loney said. "He's had training as a guard, so I guess initially you'd say that would be the thing. Without really knowing hands-on how Lewis fits in, that's all speculation."

The starting center position is probably locked up until at least 2008 with the long-term contract of Birk. Cory Withrow is the primary backup there, with Lindsay also getting some snaps as an emergency backup. Loney said he wants three centers ready to go at all times because it is a position that requires extra experience with snapping the ball and making line calls.

That leaves guard — both the current situation and the future — up for debate.

The present is Lacina and Lindsay rotating on left side.

"I consider both to be starters, because, number one, I don't think you can play [Lacina] every snap of every game for 16 straight games. He's a guy that is going to need to get a break every now and then," Loney said. "The thing about Everett Lindsay is that you hate to just set him in one spot because he has prepared at these minicamps and developmental camps at all five positions. That unbelievable versatility makes him very valuable to us."

Another rookie draft choice, Ed Ta'amu, taken in the fourth round, looked strong during the Vikings' camps last month and could be a factor — potentially a starter — in the near future.

"He's good," Loney said. "I think he'll have a long career in the NFL. He played with good base. You don't see him get knocked off his feet much. He has excellent hands. He's a strong, brute force and he is a better pass protector than I really thought he was going to be coming in. So he's exceeded my expectations. I'm really happy that we drafted him."

Ta'amu could back up at either of the guards, but it will depend on his progress between now and the end of preseason. "He's going to fill that role at some point and time. How quick, whether it is by midseason, the start of the season, all that depends on the preseason and how quickly he competes," Loney said.

Much of the future of the offensive line is dependant on a number of unknowns, but certainly the Vikings have the potential to rebuild their offensive line into a formidable group that, if they can stay together a few years, has the potential to return to the consistency of 1998.

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