Battle of the North: Offensive line

The Vikings aren't the only team in the division experiencing turnover in the starting ranks of their offensive line. In fact, every team is expected to have at least one new starter. See the changes taking place in the trenches of the NFC North.


Starters — LT Orlando Pace, LG Frank Omiyale, C Olin Kreutz, RG Roberto Garza, RT Chris Williams. Backups — Josh Beekman, Kevin Shaffer, Dan Buenning.

The addition of free agents Pace and Omiyale, plus a healthy Williams should provide an improved unit this season. Pace, a future Hall of Famer, enters his 13th season but is still an above average player. Omiyale has started just one game in the NFL, but the Bears believe he's ready for prime time. Kreutz, who will be playing his 12th NFL season, is no longer a Pro Bowl player, but he's still an excellent line leader who plays with smarts and an attitude. Williams got off to a slow start last season after being drafted 14th overall. He suffered a back injury on the second day of training camp, which required surgery, and he wasn't back on the field until the second half of the season, when he played very sparingly. He should be a fixture at one of the tackle spots for years to come. Garza is a limited athlete, but he works well with Kreutz. Beekman started 16 games at LG last season, and if he plays well enough to keep his job from Omiyale, it will still give the line an upgrade and help with depth. Beekman can play any of the three interior positions, and Omiyale has played both tackle positions in addition to guard. Shaffer and Buenning also provide quality depth, which the Bears haven't had in at least a couple years.


Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Daniel Loper, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups — T Jon Jansen, T Ephraim Salaam, C Dylan Gandy, C Dan Gerberry, G Toniu Fonoti, G Manny Ramirez, T Kirk Barton, T Damion Cook, T Lydon Murtha.

Four of the five positions on the offensive line seem secure: Backus at left tackle, Raiola at center, Peterman at right guard and Cherilus at right tackle. All four players are signed beyond this season, with Raiola and Peterman landing extensions in the offseason. Cherilus, a first-round pick last year, sometimes loses focus and could use some competition from Jansen, a veteran trying to prove he's still got it. Loper is a leap of faith at left guard, never having started a regular-season game in four NFL seasons, but he fits the Lions' new profile: big and strong. The Lions are going from a very simple zone running scheme to a more varied attack featuring power running. The hope is that will help a line that has looked bad in recent years look better.


Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG Daryn Colledge, C Jason Spitz, RG Josh Sitton, RT Allen Barbre. Backups — C Scott Wells, T/G T.J. Lang, T/G Tony Moll, T Jamon Meredith, C/G Duke Preston, T Breno Giacomini, G Andrew Hartline, T Dane Randolph, G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Head coach Mike McCarthy doesn't want to mess around in camp trying to identify a starting five. Consequently, the No. 1 line likely won't look any different than it did in the offseason, with the exception of having Clifton back in there after the 32-year-old was given extended time off to rest his chronically ailing knees. The biggest camp battle will be at center. Spitz, the primary starter at right guard the last three years, has the nod because Wells was sidelined the entire offseason after undergoing shoulder surgery. Although Wells has manned the starting spot for four seasons, his durability is a concern. The shifting of Spitz and the unlikely re-signing of veteran free agent Mark Tauscher, who is recovering from major knee surgery done in January, give the Packers a new look on the right side. Sitton and Barbre are unrelenting linemen who play with an edge. Barbre, though, isn't a shoo-in to take over for Tauscher at right tackle. Lang, a fourth-round pick this year, impressed the coaches in offseason work with his athleticism. Giacomini also will be in contention but has a big hill to climb after recuperating the whole offseason from ankle surgery. Meredith, a fifth-round pick, figures to be a keeper as insurance for Clifton.


Starters — LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups — T Chris Clark, T Ryan Cook, C Jon Cooper, G Brian Daniels, C Juan Garcia, G/T Artis Hicks, G Andy Kemp, T Drew Radovich, G Nick Urban.

Hutchinson, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, anchors a unit that is expected to have two new starters this season. Sullivan takes over for Matt Birk, who signed as a free agent with Baltimore after being the Vikings' starting center since 2000. (Birk missed 2005 because of injury). A sixth-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2008, Sullivan spent last season learning behind Birk and the coaching staff has enough confidence in him that there isn't expected to be a battle for the starting job. Sullivan took the majority of the reps with the first-team during minicamp and there isn't any concern about him being able to handle the line calls. The one issue is that although Sullivan is listed at 6-4, 301 pounds, he appears to be smaller than that, meaning his biggest challenge is going to be handling NFL-sized nose tackles. Loadholt, a second-round selection from Oklahoma, is expected to win a job that was handled by Ryan Cook for the majority of last season. Loadholt is a massive man at 6-8, 343 pounds and his presence on the line would give the Vikings two of the biggest tackles in the NFL. McKinnie also is 6-8 but is listed at eight pounds lighter than Loadholt. McKinnie was suspended for the first four games of last season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy and was replaced by the extremely versatile Hicks. Hicks, in fact, is most valuable as a backup who can play both tackle and guard positions. Cook also likely will battle for a backup spot and should be helped by the fact that he has experience at center, the position he played at New Mexico. Herrera has been the starting right guard since early in the 2007 season and continues to improve. He is coming off shoulder surgery that limited him during the offseason program.

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