Hutch Helps Raise McKinnie's Expectations

The signing of Steve Hutchinson could put more pressure on left tackle Bryant McKinnie to perform at a Pro Bowl level as well, but McKinnie, while impressed with Hutchinson's athleticism, says that he expects that level of play from himself.

Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie has played alongside a number of left guards during his young and developing career. This year, McKinnie will get a first – playing next to an All-Pro guard.

When the Vikings signed Seattle guard Steve Hutchinson to a seven-year, $49 million contract just days into the 2006 free agent period, the left side of the offensive line immediately became the talk of the offense. The Vikings have a new unchallenged starter at quarterback, at running back, and their wide receiver corps is expected to develop throughout the year. But for McKinnie, the signing of Hutchinson gives him a brighter outlook.

"You have more confidence because you know the guy next to you is a real good player," McKinnie said. "It enables you to play more free and just be relaxed. I think we'll be one of the best left-side tandems in the league."

That's been the buzz around the league when analysts see Matt Birk returning to practice with the Vikings after essentially two years off while recovering from multiple hip and sports hernia surgeries. A Pro Bowl center next to an All-Pro guard next to a tackle that many feel deserves Pro Bowl consideration has people talking about the Vikings' offensive line for very different reasons than when that unit became the talk last year.

Last year, the offensive line went through numerous changes as starters shuffled in and out of the lineup, not allowing for much consistency. McKinnie was the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games in 2005, and he played next to Chris Liwienski, Tonui Fonoti and Anthony Hererra at different times throughout the year. This year, there are much higher expectations on the offensive line.

But don't expectations create pressure for McKinnie to become a Pro Bowl player himself?

"No, because that's what I want to be. That's a goal that you aim for," McKinnie said.

When Hutchinson was in Seattle, he was playing next to another highly regarded left tackle, Walter Jones. In fact, Jones is considered one of the best left tackles in the league, and that's where McKinnie wants to be regarded, which is why he had been watching tape of Jones.

And, of course, when McKinnie views film of Jones, he only has to turn his concentrated stare a few degrees to the right to see his new teammate, Hutchinson, who has qualities that impress McKinnie.

"Steve is just so athletic. He's able to recover and do a lot of different things and he's still young, so that's a good thing," said McKinnie, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2006 season unless the Vikings strike an extension before free agency in March 2007. "We're starting to get a feel for each other and rely on each other. (We) don't get nervous, we have each other's back. I'm starting to sense that with him, like I don't have to worry that he's going to be there."

And, of course, barring injury, Hutchinson will be there all season, just to McKinnie's right, and offering some top-level consistency at left guard.

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