One of the more fascinating training camp battles for the Minnesota Vikings this year will be along the offensive line. Between guys returning from injury, free agent signings, and unexpectedly good performances (wait what??) from players we didn't see coming, who survives Mankato and the pre-season is anyone's guess.
Let's take a look at the players involved, and what their chances are of making the team.
Matt Kalil, LT: Throw out all the negatives about Kalil you want...and to be fair, his play has warranted it...but he's going to be the starting left tackle. Primarily because he's the best tackle on the team (not really saying a whole lot), and I don't see anyone supplanting him for any reason other than injury. Supposedly, Kalil's 100% healthy for the first time since his rookie year, so maybe we'll see a return to that All-Pro form. We'll see.
Alex Boone, G: Boone was Minnesota's top free agent signing, and is the only guy Mike Zimmer has said was guaranteed a starting job at the left guard spot. It was kind of a surprising announcement, as Boone's performance has been fairly pedestrian the last couple seasons, but he brings a nasty attitude to the line that has been lacking in recent years. Because he wants to punch Clay Matthews in the face. That's awesome, you guys. Go Bucks.
Joe Berger, OL: Berger is a super-sub guy that can play well at every position. He filled in admirably for C John Sullivan last year when Sully when down with a back injury in training camp, to the point of playing at an All-Pro level. Assuming everyone is healthy, I don't know that he will be a starter, but his value as a versatile backup makes me think he's a lock for the roster.
John Sullivan, C: This is based on the assumption that Sullivan is 100% healthy. As good as Berger played in his place last year, the line is just better overall with Sully snapping the ball. If he's healthy and 'back' to his old form (what I did there...DID YOU SEE IT?), he's going to be the starter.
Stunned If They Don't Make It:
Brandon Fusco, G: Fusco is one guy I could list as 'I have no idea' and be comfortable with it. He had a really good 2013, missed most of 2014 with an injury after a strong showing in the first three games, and was horribad last year after he was moved to the left side. I think playing out of position and still recovering from injury were significant factors in his decline in performance last year, though. So with him moving back to his natural position of RG, and one year removed from his injury, I'm going to go with my gut feeling that he bounces back to his 2013 form.
Mike Harris, G: Harris was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise patchwork and mediocre offensive line last year. He was the best offensive lineman for the Vikings not named Joe Berger last year, and unlike Fusco, performed very well with his position switch, moving from tackle to guard. I think the right guard battle between him, Fusco, and quite possibly Joe Berger will be a steel cage match. The cool thing about that is if all these guys are healthy, it's going to be an incredibly entertaining battle, like any steel cage match should be. The bad news is that if one of these guys gets hurt, it's going to sort itself out rather quickly.
Andre Smith, T: In looking at Smith's PFF grades, you don't come away all that impressed. But then again, when you look at the numbers Kalil and T.J. Clemmings put up, and combine it with Smith's free agency signing and past association with ZImmer in Cincinnati, Smith almost becomes a mortal lock. As a matter of fact, because of his familiarity with Zimmer, I have him as the starting RT right now, based on how Phil Loadholt does.
I Have No Idea:
Phil Loadholt, T: Big Phil going down was the biggest blow the line had to absorb last season when you take into consideration how well Berger played in place of Sullivan. T.J. Clemmings, for all his grit, just didn't measure up, and it was noticeable for much of the season. The main obstacle to Loadholt regaining his starting spot isn't the added competition; when healthy he's miles better than Smith or Clemmings. But the 'when healthy' and age are going to be big factors for him this year as the Vikings evaluate him. He's north of 30 and returning from a torn Achilles, and how he can navigate that will be key. And even if he performs at a level equal or even marginally better then the other guys competing on the right side, cutting him is still a possibility, especially if the Vikings think that in the long term they'll be better off. Look, I never said the NFL was fair, kids.
Willie Beavers, T: Beavers was a surprise pick in the most recent draft, and because the word beaver is in his last name, I snickered like the immature 12 year old I really am sometimes. So for that reason alone, Beavers making the team would be a gold mine of jokes that would sustain me and give me life for years
Ward, Peppers was really hard on the Beavers last night.
Say, nice Beavers! Thanks, I just had it stuffed this morning. (Look, I could go on, but it's endless, trust me)
That said, I didn't think he was all that great of a college player, and his selection was a bit of a head scratcher to me. Still, the Vikings drafted him fairly early (121 overall) for a reason, and that's to see if he can be a potential starter at tackle down the road, so I include him here. If he flashes some skill, even a bit, I can see him getting a roster spot, based on the fact he's a draft pick, young, and inexpensive compared to other guys on the roster..
T.J. Clemmings, T: I felt bad for Clemmings last year, I really did. He was thrown into the deep end of the pool with an anchor and told to swim, and he struggled to stay afloat. I felt towards the end of the season he was playing better football, and heading into training camp, that year starting will only help him as he competes for a roster spot.
Austin Shepherd, OL: So where does this leave a guy like Shepherd, who stepped into Joe Berger's backup role last year when Berger was forced into the starting center job? I honestly don't know. He didn't start last year, but was the primary backup offensive lineman. Granted, once Clemmings and Berger assumed starting gigs the Vikings line was very stable, and Shepherd only saw 26 snaps spread out over 14 games. He's not a training camp body as a returning player, but barring a rash of injuries I think he has an uphill climb to make the final 53.
As to the other players, they're guys that I think are either training camp bodies or playing for a spot on the practice squad.
To wrap this up, there's a lot to like. A potential starting line of Kalil, Boone, Sullivan, Fusco or Harris, and Loadholt or Smith, with Berger, Fusco or Harris, and Loadholt, Smith, or Beavers as your backups looks a lot better than what the Vikings started in the Wild Card game against Seattle.
Assuming everyone is 100% healthy, that feels like the makings of a really, really good line, with solid depth all around. You have to make a couple assumptions, though, like Matt Kalil bouncing back to something better than just below league average, and Sully and Big Phil being 100% healthy. They're not pie in the sky assumptions, like we've had to do in recent seasons past, but until they actually get out on the field and perform, they'll remain assumptions, though.