Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio tested out among the best offensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine.
Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the fourth day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.
TODAY’S POSITION: OFFENSIVE TACKLES
Importance (1-to-10 scale): 2
On the roster
The Vikings set themselves for the foreseeable future last offseason by re-signing Phil Loadholt to solidify the ends of the offensive line with Matt Kalil. Kalil and Loadholt gives Minnesota one of the best sets of bookend tackles in the entire league. Kalil on the left side is halfway through his four-year rookie contract, but there’s no reason to believe the Vikings won’t eventually exercise the fifth-year option on the 2012 first-round pick, keeping Kalil with Minnesota through the 2016 season. Loadholt signed a four-year, $25 million contract last year and is set to anchor through 2016.
Kalil slipped a bit last season after a standout, Pro Bowl rookie season, but the Vikings can expect him to return to form in his third season in the NFL. He has all the tools to be a dominant left tackle. Loadholt’s strong suit is in the running game, where he delivers punishing blocks to open holes for running back Adrian Peterson. Minnesota is at its best in the run game with Peterson following Loadholt, right guard Brandon Fusco and fullback Jerome Felton to the right side.
The Vikings’ starters are set but there is some unknown when it comes to Kalil and Loadholt’s backups. J’Marcus Webb was signed right before the season last year to be an experienced backup and filled in when Loadholt missed one game. He hasn’t been re-signed as a free agent, however. Currently, the backup tackles would be Kevin Murphy, who hasn’t played a game in parts of two seasons with Minnesota, and Mike Remmers, who was claimed off waivers from the San Diego Chargers in November.
Minnesota is banking on familiarity along the offensive line. Kalil and Loadholt return to a line that could see the same five starters for the third straight season. The Vikings clearly believe in the need to have strong tackle play, having invested high picks, and big money to secure Kalil and Loadholt for several years. Minnesota has its strong pass protector in Kalil on quarterback Matt Cassel’s blind side and a left tackle to give protection to the quarterback of the future who is likely to be drafted in May. Loadholt is the devastating run-blocker on the right side to lead Adrian Peterson and the run-first offense.
If the past is any indication, the Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman would like to have a veteran backup behind Kalil and Loadholt. Two years ago, Geoff Schwartz was a backup who could play guard and tackle. Last year it was Webb. The Vikings could look to bring in another swing-type player in the draft, go with Murphy or Remmers if they are confident in the ability to step into key spots or maybe the team is still looking at free agency.
Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)
Jake Matthews, senior, Texas A&M (6-foot-5, 308 pounds): The competition to be the top tackle taken is another big one and another Texas A&M product is right in the middle. Matthews is following a lot of footsteps to the NFL. Last year, Luke Joeckel was the Aggies tackle who ended up as the second-overall pick and second tackle behind Eric Fisher. Of course, the biggest footprints Matthews has to follow are those of his own family. He is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. Former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews is his uncle and he has two cousins in the NFL, Green Bay linebacker Clay and Eagles linebacker Casey.
Matthews spent two seasons at right tackle with Joeckel on the left side before moving back to left tackle as a senior. Matthews was a two-time All-American and is considered stronger and a better run blocker than Joeckel. Matthews should be one of the top picks in May’s draft and is in the running along with Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan to be the top tackle taken. Matthews is the type of experienced, talented technician who could step in and start for an NFL team from Day 1 on either the left or right side.
But as a high pick, his future is likely at left tackle where he can use his long arms, strength and quickness to slow opposing pass rushers. He’s a top-notch run blocker, as well. He’s considered more polished than Robinson, but perhaps without Robinson’s ceiling because of Robinson’s physical gifts.
Said Matthews: "I’d like to think I wasn’t grandfathered in. I hope I earned my way here. It is special the family I came from and the relationships I have with my dad and cousins and brothers and all the people who have gone through this process. So that’s really special and something I can look to them to ask what it was like, what their experience with it was. So far it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed it."
Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)
Joel Bitonio, senior, Nevada (6-4, 302): Bitonio is the type of versatile prospect that could intrigue NFL teams on Day 2. Bitonio has played left and right tackle in making 38 straight starts for Nevada, but teams have also discussed whether Bitonio might fit best inside in the NFL. He’s considered a physical drive blocker with a bit of a mean streak and he stood out at the NFL Scouting Combine in March.
Bitonio’s nastiness is on display in film, and he tested out among the best offensive linemen at the scouting combine, ranking high in the 40-yard dash (4.97 seconds), vertical jump (32 inches), broad jump (114 inches), 3-cone drill (7.37 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.44 seconds).
Bitonio was a team captain at Nevada and helped block for Colin Kaepernick, among others, at Nevada. In his final two seasons with the Wolfpack — after Kaepernick was gone — Bitonio allowed just two sacks and one quarterback pressure.
Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)
Billy Turner, senior, North Dakota State (6-5, 315): Growing up in Minnesota and playing collegiately in North Dakota, the Vikings are well aware of this small-school product. Turner was one of Minnesota’s pre-draft visitors recently. He’s well on the radar of other NFL teams, though. After all, he was one of only 11 non-Division 1 players invited to the Senior Bowl and he was also at the combine. Curiously enough, his father Maurice, a running back, was a 12th round draft pick by the Vikings in 1983.
Turner was only lightly recruited coming out of Mounds View High School in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota was more interested in Seantrel Henderson — another local tackle who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation that year and later spurned the Gophers — and Turner turned the Gophers down when they came back to him.
He would go on to start 44 straight games and play in three FCS national championships with North Dakota State and was a two-time All-American as a left tackle. He has the prototypical size, length and athleticism for an NFL tackle. But team’s also believe he has the versatility to slide inside, if needed.
There are questions about his level of competition and he could thrive purely on his physical talent in the FCS. But he’s big, strong, athletic and has the demeanor to match.
Said Turner: "I kind of play like I have a chip on my shoulder. I’ve carried that with me from high school to college and now to here. I’ve always kind of been that guy that for some reason had something to prove. Coming out of high school, I got under-recruited. Making this next step and coming from a smaller school, guys want to see me against bigger opponents. I have that question mark above my head. I’ve had that chip on my shoulder and I played that way, and I think that’s going to continue to propel me throughout my career."