Well, with the start of free agency less than two weeks away, I should probably start getting these completed, eh?
For the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line was the source of much heartburn for fans of the team. From a left tackle that continued to fall from grace to a right side of the line that finished the season with matching pectoral injuries, what was thought to be a source of strength for the Vikings turned out to be one of the weakest units on the team.
We'll start with the biggest bone of contention, that being the play of left tackle Matt Kalil. Kalil, to put it bluntly, was a disaster for much of the 2014 season. I know that Pro Football Focus grades aren't the be-all and the end-all of player evaluation or anything, but they had Kalil near the bottom of their rankings all season at the tackle position, and he finished the season third from the bottom among left tackles and fourth from the bottom overall.
During the season, Kalil mentioned that he was still recovering from some injury issues during the season, and in the final five games of the season, he was. . .average. And I'm not afraid to tell you that "average" was a pretty huge step up from where he spent most of the season. So, he's got that going for him. Which is nice.
As much as many fans of the team want to see Kalil replaced, the reality is that he's going to go into 2015 as the unquestioned starter at left tackle, barring something strange happening between now and Training Camp. His salary is fully guaranteed for 2015 and, really, who else do the Vikings have at this point that's going to unseat him for that spot? The true tale of how the Vikings feel about him will probably come right around draft day. . .the team has until 3 May to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, one that is guaranteed only in case of injury. The team failed to do that for quarterback Christian Ponder (the first of their players they had that option with), and will undoubtedly pick up the option for safety Harrison Smith, who has the same deadline as Kalil. Will they do it for Kalil?
At left guard, Charlie Johnson was. . .well, he was Charlie Johnson. He was graded as the second-worst member of the offensive line by Pro Football Focus. . .third-worst if you count part-time starter Vladimir Ducasse. . .and left many Vikings' fans saying the same thing they said following the 2013 season: This team can't go into next year with Charlie Johnson starting at left guard. He's set to make $2.5 million next season, and it wouldn't surprise anyone to see him be cut before the start of free agency next week.
Next, at the center spot, there was John Sullivan, who continued to be solid at his position. He wasn't quite as good as he had been over the previous two seasons, but one has to wonder how much of that is owed to the chaos that was around him for most of the season. Sullivan was still a road-grader in the run game, but his pass blocking suffered a bit. Still, Sullivan appears to still be one of the best in the league at the pivot, and was as close to a consistent force on the front line as the Vikings had last season.
The right side of the offensive line, which was supposed to be a big strength for the Vikings, completely fell apart. Right guard Brandon Fusco went down in Week 3, the day after he signed a long-term contract extension with the team. He was followed to the injury list by right tackle Phil Loadholt, who went on injured reserve in Week 13. Loadholt, who had been bitten by the penalty bug in the past, was only flagged three times in the 11 games that he played last season. He, like the rest of the offensive line, had issues in pass blocking, but continued to excel in the run game. Fusco is clearly someone the team is looking to build around going forward, as evidenced by the contract extension he signed in September. Hopefully the two of them will both be back in full force in 2015.
With all the injuries the team had along the offensive line in 2014, the backups on the team got plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. We've already briefly touched on Vladimir Ducasse, who really wasn't very good at whichever spot the Vikings plugged him in at. He was on a one-year deal, and when you considered what the Vikings got out of him, the odds of him being back should be pretty small. On that front, I guess that Du. . .Ducasse. . .Ducasse missed.
The Vikings' other backups performed markedly better. Mike Harris, who the Vikings signed before the first week of the regular season, stepped in as the starting right tackle after Loadholt went down, and even saw some time at right guard in the Vikings' loss to the Buffalo Bills. He wasn't great or anything by any stretch, but he showed enough versatility where the Vikings might be inclined to keep him around. Speaking of versatility, guard Joe Berger stepped in quite ably at right guard after the team decided that Ducasse wasn't cutting it, and showed why he's the sort of guy you like to have around on the offensive line. He also stepped in for Sullivan at center during the Buffalo game when Sullivan went out with concussion issues.
Both Harris and Berger could prove to be versatile backups. The issue with Berger returning to the Vikings could come down to age, as he's one of the oldest players on the roster at 32 years old (the same age as Matt Cassel and Chad Greenway, with only Cullen Loeffler being older). But I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if the team brought him back.
The team could also be looking to a couple of young players as Training Camp gets closer. David Yankey, the team's fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, was thought by many. . .including yours truly. . .to have a shot at jumping in as a starter after an outstanding career at Stanford. Instead, he was inactive for all but one game, with the coaches saying that he needed to "get stronger." Will a full season and off-season be enough to get him the necessary strength?
Then there's the case of Antonio Richardson. . .you can call him "Tiny." Richardson was thought to be a dark horse to make the roster, but wound up having to have surgery on both knees and was placed on injured reserve. It's unknown. . .or unlikely, depending on who you believe. . .that he will make a meaningful contribution to an NFL roster, but he'll be one to keep an eye on during workouts and camps.
The team could look to make the offensive line a priority in free agency, and there are some intriguing names out there. The biggest name on the list is San Francisco 49ers guard Mike Iupati, who has developed into one of the league's best at the position. However, that's going to come with an awfully big price tag, and the Vikings might not be willing to spend that big on any free agent this off-season. Some other and (presumably) lower-priced names the Vikings could look at in free agency along the offensive line are Orlando Franklin of the Broncos (whose price tag probably won't be that much lower) and Cincinnati Bengals' guard Clint Boling.
Minnesota could. . .and likely will. . .look to the draft for some more offensive linemen, but I'm not sure how early it's going to be. The only offensive line prospect that appears to be worth the #11 overall pick the Vikings currently possess is Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff. Scherff could be a nice pick for the Vikings, as he would not only step in at left guard immediately, but could serve as insurance for Kalil if the Vikings choose not to pick up his option or if he continues to falter in 2015. Outside of the first round, the team could be interested in players like A.J. Cann of South Carolina, Laken Tomlinson from Duke, or small-school star Ali Marpet from tiny Hobart College.
The offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings can really only go up in 2015, and it appears that a lot of the players from this past season could be the same. It will be interesting to see what changes or upgrades the team makes at the position and how they can help the Minnesota offense make a jump to the next level.