One of the more disappointing units the Minnesota Vikings fielded in 2014 was the offensive line. Between injuries and underachievement, the front five on offense was a mess from the very start of the season. If the 2015 Vikings are going to reach their full potential, this is going to have to be the most improved unit on the team.
How They Started Last Year: Matt Kalil (starter), Charles Johnson (starter), John Sullivan (starter), Brandon Fusco (starter), Phil Loadholt (starter), Joe Berger, Mike Harris, Vladimir Ducasse, David Yankey
How They Finished Last Year: Kalil (starter), Johnson (starter), Sullivan (starter), Berger (starter), Harris (starter), Yankey, Ducasse, Austin Wentworth, Carter Bykowski, Fusco (injured reserve), Loadholt (injured reserve)
How They Head Into Camp: Kalil (starter), Fusco (starter), Sullivan (starter), Berger (starter?), Loadholt (starter), Yankey, Harris, Bykowski, T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson, Austin Shepherd, Bobby Vardaro, Babatunde Aiyegbusi, Zac Kerin, Tom Farniok
Kalil's race with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to win the award for "Most Disappointing Viking of 2014" pretty much ended up in a draw. Though he upgraded his level of play to "not terrible" over the final four or five weeks of the season, he spent too much of the season getting run around, run through, and run over last season. Kalil was apparently battling knee issues last season. . .again. . .and now says that after some offseason procedures that he feels good again. We can talk about the other four spots on the offensive line until we turn blue, but if this offensive line is going to get better, it's going to start with Kalil looking more like his Pro Bowl rookie season and less like the slowly regressing disaster we've seen over the past couple of seasons.
After a couple of seasons of Charlie Johnson at left guard, the team finally solved their problem at the position. . .by moving Brandon Fusco from the right guard spot to the left guard spot. Fusco got a big contract extension last season, and was lost for the season within 48 hours of putting pen to paper. However, the team has faith in him to protect Teddy Bridgewater's blind side, and perhaps his transition can help Kalil out a bit, too.
John Sullivan might be to the point where he's about to enter the "crafty veteran" stage of his NFL career, but he's still one of the league's better centers. He dropped a bit against the pass last season, but is still as solid as ever as a run blocker. Really, there isn't a lot to be said about Sullivan's play. . .just that he's probably still the team's best offensive lineman at this point, though I expect Fusco to pass him for that title sooner rather than later.
The same can be said for right tackle Phil Loadholt, who suffered a torn pectoral towards the end of last season but is expected to be ready for camp. Everyone knows what Loadholt's game is all about. . .he's a road grader in the run game and has his issues with speed rushers on passing downs. Hopefully he's fully recovered from his injury and can return to his past form.
While those four spots appear to be all sewn up, the right guard spot is totally up for grabs, and might be the most important and intriguing battle of this year's preseason. I've got Berger penciled in there at the present time, but that's more due to his veteran status than anything else. Berger may actually be one of those players that's more valuable as a backup than as a starter, due to his ability to back up all three interior line positions (he saw time at center in the game against Buffalo that Sullivan left with a concussion).
I also think that the Vikings would love to see fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings win the job, and he started the offseason camps as the #1 right guard before seeing some time at tackle and ceding the guard snaps to Tyrus Thompson. Clemmings is widely thought to have been one of the steals of this year's draft, a potential first-round pick that the Vikings managed to get early on day three. If he's over his foot injury, it would absolutely not be surprising to see him break camp as the #1 right guard. Don't count out Thompson, though.
One name that we, unfortunately, didn't hear a lot of in the offseason camps was David Yankey. The Vikings took him in the fifth round of the 2014 Draft, and he just couldn't get on the field. . .more accurately, he couldn't get off of the inactive list. He essentially "redshirted" his rookie season, and it was thought that he would really be part of the mix for a spot at right guard. He still might be, but as I said, we sure didn't hear anything about him during the OTAs and other practices.
Mike Harris is an interesting case as well. He saw his first real action of 2014 in the Buffalo game. . .at guard, a position he said he hadn't played since Pop Warner. That came about because of injuries, and injuries also allowed him to finish the season as the starter at right tackle. He wasn't great, by any stretch, but I don't think he was a complete disaster, either. He may have a spot on the team as a swing tackle, but he's going to see plenty of competition for that spot from Carter Bykowski. The Vikings signed Bykowski off of the San Francisco 49ers practice squad in 2014, and though he didn't get on the field, the Vikings apparently think he has the ability to contribute.
We know about the story of Babatunde Aiyegbusi, and it's a good story, don't get me wrong. But there's really no chance that he makes the squad this year. The Vikings will likely seek an exception for a foreign player to let him hang out on the practice squad for a year and take a real run at making the team in 2016. Hopefully the NFL can see their way clear to letting that happen.
If I had to make a guess as to how things are going to shake out, I think that Clemmings does end up winning the right guard spot. That would make your starters Kalil, Fusco, Sullivan, Clemmings, and Loadholt. The backups would likely be Berger, Thompson, and the winner of the Harris/Bykowski battle. I'm not sure how many of the other guys on the list have a shot at a spot on the roster, but maybe someone will surprise during camp. I'm also not sure how many offensive linemen the team will end up keeping. . .they rolled with nine last season, and with a couple of guys showing a tendency to get banged up, it wouldn't surprise me to see them go that route again.
But that's a look at the offensive line going into camp. What are your thoughts, folks?