The Minnesota Vikings return the same five starters for the third straight year, a dependable group that has remained exactly the same for all but two games the past two seasons.
Guard Brandon Fusco and center John Sullivan are part of the Vikings' stalwart offensive line, which has had the same starters for three straight years.
Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports
By Brian HallFOX Sports North
This is the fifth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 25 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINE
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: LT Matt Kalil (third year), LG Charlie Johnson (eighth year), C John Sullivan (seventh year), RG Brandon Fusco (fourth year), RT Phil Loadholt (sixth year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Jeff Baca, *Joe Berger, Pierce Burton, Vladimir Ducasse, Matt Hall, Zac Kerin, Kevin Murphy, Mike Remmers, *Antonio Richardson, Josh Samuda (on injured reserve), Austin Wentworth, *David Yankey
The breakdown: For the third year in a row, Minnesota sticks with the status quo. Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco and Loadholt begin their third year together as a starting group. Since drafting Kalil No. 4 overall in 2012 and inserting Fusco into the starting right guard spot that offseason, the Vikings have had the same starting offensive line for all but two games the past two seasons. Kalil and Sullivan, the leader in the middle, have started every game. Johnson, Fusco and Loadholt each missed one game last season. Johnson and Loadholt were out for the same game.
Minnesota benefits from the continuity. But the individual talent also gives the Vikings potentially one of the best lines in the league. Kalil is the prototypical left tackle who can handle opposing pass rushers well with his length and footwork. He still has room for improvement as a run blocker. Kalil had a down season in 2013 after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he also said recently he was dealing with a knee injury most of the season. Kalil had offseason surgery and missed most of the summer workouts while rehabbing.
Loadholt and Fusco are a dominant right-side, run-blocking duo. ProFootballFocus.com graded Fusco as the eighth-best guard in the league last season, and the third-rated right guard. Loadholt was the 11th-ranked tackle in the site's grading, but second among right tackles. Both were pushed up the rankings because of their work as run blockers but had positive grades in pass blocking as well.
Loadholt is a rock on the right side and has developed more consistency over the past two seasons. Fusco is still developing as a right guard after making the move from center in college. He's a physical player, too, and the team will have to look at re-signing him as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract. Sullivan has continued his steady play and is perhaps the most underrated center in the game. Sullivan, still looking for his first Pro Bowl appearance, was ranked third among centers by Pro Football Focus last season, a year after leading the center rankings.
Johnson has received the most criticism of the starting five, but returns with a chance to start again. The team's left tackle before Kalil was drafted, Johnson was shifted to guard, where offensive line coach Jeff Davidson figured his strength would be better utilized. The rankings by Pro Football Focus haven't been kind to Johnson, and he might be fighting for his starting spot, though he's likely to keep it.
Perhaps Johnson's eventual replacement is Yankey, who the Vikings drafted out of Stanford in the fifth round. Yankey missed much of the offseason program with Stanford still being in session, but he was considered one of the better guard prospects in the draft and is big, strong and considered a technician. Another young player trying to make his mark is Baca, a sixth-round draft choice last year, who has spent most of his time at guard but also been cross-trained as a center.
The top backup, interior-wise, continues to be Berger. Entering his 10th season, Berger has been the team's top backup at center and guard the past three seasons and has started nine games in that time. He gives the team a reliable option in a pinch for Sullivan or either guard.
Best position battle: Johnson is expected to keep his starting job at left guard, though Yankey -- or Berger or Baca -- could eventually give him competition for the spot. Perhaps the most wide-open spot entering training camp is the backup tackle position and maybe the final one or two available roster spots on the line.
With Johnson in a starting job, Berger and Yankey are likely assured of backup spots. Baca's versatility could keep him with the team, which could leave one spot for a tackle. Or maybe the Vikings like the potential in the tackles and keep two on the active roster, though doubtful. Instead, it's likely Minnesota will keep one backup tackle on the active roster, especially considering Kalil and Loadholt's durability, and try to add another to the practice squad.
The last tackle spot for the active roster could come down to Richardson, Murphy and Remmers. Murphy and Remmers are the holdovers. Richardson is an intriguing prospect who went undrafted this year because of concern over his knees.
Murphy is 6-foot-7 and has spent the past two seasons with the Vikings alternating between the practice squad and active roster. He has yet to appear in a game. Remmers was claimed off waivers from the San Diego Chargers last November but didn't play in a game for Minnesota. In two seasons, he's played in one NFL game, last year for San Diego.
Richardson, nicknamed "Tiny," is a massive player (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) in the mold of Loadholt. He was an All-Southeastern Conference selection by the league's coaches and seen as a possible first day pick in this year's draft. His teammate with the Volunteers, Ju'Wuan James, went in the first round. But it was Richardson who anchored the left side of Tennessee's line, where he started 24 straight games his final two seasons, with James on the right side.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Richardson did 36 repetitions on the bench press, the second-highest total of any of the 335 players at the combine. He had 10-1/4 inch hands and 35-inch arms. But NFL teams took issue with Richardson's knees. He had arthroscopic surgery in 2012, but never missed a game. He signed with Minnesota shortly after going undrafted and said during the summer workouts that he's had no trouble with his knees.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Vikings; 3. Lions; 4. Packers. Each line in the division has its particular strengths, such as Minnesota with the run blocking. Chicago might have had the most complete performance, run and pass blocking, last year.
The Bears' performance might have been the most shocking of all, too. Chicago had four new starters along its offensive line last year. The team signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson in free agency to go with veteran center Roberto Garza. But the team started two rookies on the right side. Kyle Long was expected to start after being drafted in the first round. Tackle Jordan Mills, a fifth-round pick, also secured a starting spot.
The Bears had all five players start all 16 games and they allowed just 30 sacks â a year after giving up 44. Chicago's sack average of 4.9 percent (percentage of sacks in pass attempts) was the fourth-best in the NFL. The Bears' run blocking helped Matt Forte and company average 4.5 yards per carry. All five starters return this season.
Minnesota allowed 44 sacks last season, which was tied for the 10t most in the league. The team's sack percentage was 7.5 percent. But there were notable differences in quarterbacks. Christian Ponder was sacked on 10.2 percent of his pass attempts. Matt Cassel's sack percentage was 5.9 percent. The Vikings also had the league's second-best running game at 4.9 yards per attempt.
Detroit, with two new young starters of its own, actually finished ahead of Chicago in sack percentage. The Lions only gave up 23 sacks, accounting for a sack percentage of 3.5. But Detroit only averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which ranked 22nd in the NFL and was far behind the rest of the division's teams, which all ranked in the top-7 in yards per attempt. Was the success in pass blocking a result of improved line play or how quick quarterback Matthew Stafford got the ball out of his hands?
Riley Reiff, a 2012 first-round draft pick, started all 16 games at left tackle as a regular starter for the first time. He started eight games as a rookie, but most of those starts were as an extra tight end. Larry Warford, a 2013 third-round pick, was a revelation as a rookie at right guard. Dominic Raiola still anchors the line at center. Detroit is unsettled at right tackle, where two players split time last season. The spot is expected to go to LaAdrian Waddle, an undrafted player signed last year.
Green Bay's offensive line is still a work in progress, but there are signs of hope. David Bakhtiari was a pleasant surprise at left tackle, starting all 16 games as a rookie who was drafted in the fourth round. He was forced in after Bryan Bulaga missed the entire season with a knee injury. Bulaga returns and is moving back to right tackle, where Don Barclay started 14 games last year.
Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang return for another season starting together, though they switched sides last year. The Packers are breaking in a new starting center for the fourth straight year. JC Tretter, a 2013 fourth-round pick, appears to have the edge but will be tested by Corey Linsley, a fifth-round draft pick from Ohio State this year.
Green Bay ran the ball well with Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Jonathan Franklin last year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The Packers allowed 45 sacks, though, and had a sack percentage of 7.3 percent.