The right tackle position wasn't quite so stable, making it a position of focus for the Vikings as they prepare for free agency, which starts at 11 p.m. Central Thursday. The position was manned mostly by Ryan Cook, with Artis Hicks serving as an occasional replacement.
"I think we've got to play better there. I don't think that's any secret," Vikings coach Brad Childress said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "I think Ryan would tell you he has to play better there. I thought he came back and played better, even though that sitting down was only for a week because Artis got hurt. I thought he did play better in the last games that he played."
Cook entered the season as the starter and remained there for the first 10 games of 2008 before being replaced by the versatile Hicks, who started the first four games of the season at left tackle for McKinnie. However, Hicks was only able to start two of the final five regular-season games because of a triceps injury that he admitted would need surgery during the offseason.
Rick Spielman, Vikings vice president of player personnel, talked around specifically addressing the right tackle position when asked about it, but that is generally considered a position of strength in the draft.
"In the first round, whatever we end up taking there, we're going to take the best player regardless of that position. Because you can't predict the unpredictable that happens during a season," Spielman said. "Then say, ‘Well, why would you take someone like that, if that doesn't look like it's a major need for you?' But, in essence, it could be a major need a year from now."
Several general managers and draft analysts conceded that the tackle position in this year's draft could be similar to last year's crop, when seven tackles were selected in the first round. That's especially good news since the Vikings were expected to target Carolina's Jordan Gross before he was signed to an extension last week and Miami's Vernon Carey, who also got a big-money extension to keep him from hitting the free-agent market.
Even if the Vikings wouldn't come away from free agency and the draft with a new starting right tackle, Childress said he would be comfortable with entering the season with Cook and Hicks back in play.
"Yeah, I'd expect (Cook) to take that next step. You're always trying to get better at every position. But I'd expect him to take the next step," Childress said.
The Vikings could still target one of the remaining unrestricted free-agent tackles, but the quality of that position was thinned considerably when Gross and Carey were re-signed by their 2008 teams. There are also some options among the restricted free agents, but the team will have to weigh their value against the tenders those players receive, which will determine what the Vikings would have to give up in draft-pick compensation (at minimum, a second-rounder for anyone of quality) if they signed a restricted free agent to an offer sheet and that player's original team declined to match the offer.
Childress said he hadn't given much thought to how he would approach right tackle if Cook and Hicks were his top options at training camp.
"I haven't talked about that as much as the quarterback (competition). Artis is coming back - had his triceps fixed - and I think you'd want to put all that into the equation before you declared where it was at," Childress said.
Asked if that would fall into the never-say-never category, he replied, "Yeah. But right now I would be honest with you and tell you I wouldn't know who that person would be," he said.
A few days later, the Vikings were working to secure a trade for Houston's Sage Rosenfels.
"I don't know about radical changes, but I think you have to innovate and adjust. You have to step away, like you do every year at the end of the season to see what you can do better and how you fit," he said. "I don't think you ever step away from the values you have and what you believe it takes to put together a good football team.
"There's a lot of different ways to do it over the course of time and I have an idea of the personality that I share with our football team, that I'd like to see it be value-wise. From being smart, from being physical enough, from being tough, not beating themselves – those are all things that you have to instill. These days, you have to be able to find ways to get with them and communicate with them, just like guys learn different ways. You have to be able to not stick a round peg in a square hole. If a guy doesn't learn that way, what's the other way we're going to get the guy to learn it?
"Have I changed a little bit? Yeah, I've changed a little bit."