O-line can go from weakness to strength

April 11, 2012

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings are widely linked to standout Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 3 overall pick in this month's draft, pairing an elite talent with a pressing need.

For Minnesota, selecting Kalil could be the final step in an overhaul of its once-vaunted offensive line.

Three-fifths of the Vikings' line has been turned over in the past nine months. Longtime left tackle Bryant McKinnie was released at the start of training camp last season after showing up out of weight. His replacement, Charlie Johnson struggled to fill the void at perhaps the most important spot on the line.

Guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera were released either due to age, cost, production, or combination of the three. Only center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt remain from a line that had spent most of the past three seasons together.
Simply by selecting Kalil, Minnesota could solidify an offensive line to protect second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

"I think Matt Kalil is by far the best offensive tackle in the draft," said Taylor Jones, an NFL draft analyst for FOXSports.com. "If you covet him as a player that much, especially with a young Christian Ponder and with the way the NFL's going right now, you win with offense, protecting the blindside is as important as ever.

"Kalil, I think he's, literally, you draft the guy, put him in your starting lineup and go from there."

It would be a sweeping improvement in just one offseason.

With Kalil at left tackle, Johnson could be moved to guard where he might be a better fit, upgrading two positions with just one pick. Add in the free-agent signing of Geoff Schwartz from the Carolina Panthers — if he's healthy — and the Vikings would have made significant steps to turning the page from the aged line from past years. Schwartz missed all of last season with a hip injury, but has said he's healthy and he started all 16 games in 2010 for the Carolina Panthers.

If nothing else, Schwartz adds competition with Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger to replace Herrera at right guard. All three also offer versatility as backups.

"I think what we're going to try and do is get as much competition as we can for those positions, maybe from within and some guys that aren't even here yet," said Minnesota offensive line coach Jeff Davidson last week.

Davidson had worked with Schwartz in Carolina and said the 25-year-old Schwartz could challenge for a starting spot. The Vikings also like Fusco, a sixth-round pick last year, and Berger will certainly be in the mix. With Schwartz and possibly Kalil, Minnesota expects progress.

"I would hope so," Davidson said. "That's always going to be our aim. No matter where we were, we're still going to try and improve. So, regardless of what our starting point was, we're hoping to make leaps and bounds. That's really our goal in the offseason."

Changes were needed.

Johnson was overmatched at times at left tackle. Steve Hutchinson ended the season on the disabled list for the second straight year, and Herrera also dealt with injuries again. Meanwhile, the Vikings allowed 49 sacks, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. Veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb was no longer was able to escape the pressure and the protection issues also hurt the development of Ponder, who started the final 10 games of the season.

Minnesota finished 28th in the league in passing and hasn't been able to keep up with the league's top offenses, which have been trending to a pass-first mentality.
Kalil is considered the type of left tackle that could be slotted in for a decade and be an anchor for the offensive line. Davidson sees the potential.

"Do I think he has a ceiling? No," Davidson said. "I think he's a pretty good player. I'll leave it just at that." Davidson then added: "There's a lot of good players in this draft. He's one of them that we would be interested in."

The Vikings set out upgrade their offensive line with dramatic changes in just one offseason. If Kalil is added to the current group, Minnesota might just accomplish the feat.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter