Vikings OL depends on Kalil's NFL transition
This is the fifth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 27 start of camp.
July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans' guide to camp
TODAY'S POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Matt Kalil (rookie), Charlie Johnson (seventh year), John Sullivan (fifth year), Brandon Fusco (second year), Phil Loadholt (fourth year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Joe Berger, *Patrick Brown, Chris DeGeare, Tyler Holmes, Levi Horn, *DeMarcus Love, Austin Pasztor, Quentin Saulsberry, *Geoff Schwartz, Darrion Weems
The breakdown: The pieces are changing for Minnesota along the offensive line. While several positions needed upgrades after last year's 3-13 record, the Vikings' focus was apparent at the beginning of free agency and then in the draft. Run-blocking has been the line's forte for years and while it held up well last season, the line also allowed 49 sacks.
The transformations started early when Minnesota released both of its starting guards three days before free agency started, letting go longtime starters Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera. The moves were an effort to get younger and cheaper, but improving could be a by-product.
Demonstrating that the offensive line was the Vikings' top priority, they drafted Kalil, the top left tackle in the draft, with the fourth-overall pick. In the process, the Vikings bypassed cornerback Morris Claiborne and receiver Justin Blackmon. Kalil, is considered a prototypical left tackle, with good size and athleticism. Kalil should be the type of left tackle Minnesota can start and leave alone for the next decade. He was named a starter immediately and could be the left-side anchor for a revamped line that could make dramatic improvements in just one year. Kalil could be the key to the entire line. If he performs as billed, he upgrades the Vikings' pass blocking and gives second-year quarterback Christian Ponder a trusted protector on his blind side.
To make room for Kalil, Johnson moved to left guard, a spot offensive line coach Jeff Davidson believes will better suit the big, strong Johnson. Johnson had been a left tackle in the NFL while in Indianapolis, but he came to Minnesota last year and struggled at the position. He soon became the scapegoat for a struggling line, though the problems were deeper than just Johnson. Davidson had talked with Johnson about moving to guard and the veteran didn't fight the switch and has embraced his new spot. He can become a road-grading run blocker and has the strength and enough athleticism to hold up in the passing game.
Sullivan has developed into one of the better centers in the entire league and his importance along the Vikings' line can't be understated. He's a leader among the group, is responsible for a group that will have three new starters and has a rapport with Ponder. Minnesota rewarded Sullivan with a contract extension near the end of last season. Another holdover, right tackle Phil Loadholt, can be a dominating force, especially in the run game, but he has to work through inconsistencies.
The new right guard is still to be determined, but the Vikings like the options they have, including Fusco, Schwartz and DeGeare. Once all the pieces are in place, Minnesota should have a younger, more athletic line, but chemistry is very important along the line. The Vikings would likely prefer to have their starters set early in training camp to allow the group to develop some cohesiveness. Three-fifths of the line has changed and Minnesota believes for the better.
Best position battle: One of the only starting assignments on the entire team still technically up for grabs heading into training camp, the right guard spot will likely come down to 2011 sixth-round pick Brandon Fusco or free-agent signee Geoff Schwartz to replace Anthony Herrera, who was released prior to free agency. Fusco, originally drafted as a center, has committed himself during the offseason with the sole plan on winning the right guard spot. Schwartz, who missed all of last season with hip surgery, has slowly worked into the mix. Coaches have said the competition is open, but Fusco would, at the very least, appear to have the upper-hand after working with the starters throughout organized team activities and minicamp. The best-case scenario for the Vikings might be Fusco proving he is a starting-caliber guard because he's one of the team's draft picks, just 24, and signed for several more years. Schwartz can play guard and tackle and would still be a valuable reserve.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Lions; 4 Bears. Hard to believe after being one of the most-maligned areas, but Minnesota's revamped group stacks up favorably with the rest of the division. The Vikings already had the best run-blocking unit in the North last season. The rest of the division has its inconsistencies along the line, though Green Bay and Detroit can't be considered too far behind the Vikings, if at all. Green Bay lost center Scott Wells and tackle Chad Clifton, but did bring in Jeff Saturday from Indianapolis. Marshall Newhouse is an unknown at left tackle. Detroit added tackle Riley Rieff in the draft and re-signed Jeff Backus to compliment a solid interior. Chicago has struggled along the offensive line for years, but former line coach Mike Tice is now the offensive coordinator and could compensate to help the line, something former coordinator Mike Martz wasn't willing to do.
Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson says: "The biggest thing we're getting right now is we're working a lot of the fundamentals. We're still making mistakes. The way I like to determine them is aggressive mistakes, things that we're learning from. The film is still our worst critic at this point because we get a chance to throw that on and learn some of the things that we're making mistakes on. We've got scheme things we're still teaching right now and that's kind of where we are. But it's shaping up."
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