The day before Phil Loadholt surprised everyone by announcing his retirement before training camp began, the offensive line of the Minnesota Vikings was one that looked, at least on paper, like a group deep in experience and depth. The five starters from last year--Matt Kalil, Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger, Mike Harris, and T.J. Clemmings, were all returning. Long time starters and fixtures Loadholt and John Sullivan, players that had missed 2015 due to injury, were coming back. And in the offseason, the Vikings had signed Alex Boone and Andre Smith, former starters from the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively.
That's nine players with NFL experience starting on the offensive line. And other than Alex Boone, Mike Zimmer had stated none of them were guaranteed a starting job. For an offensive line that woefully under-performed in 2015, it was a shot across the bow meant to make everyone better. May the best man win, as it were.
Except Boone, because Alex Boone is awesome, and went to Ohio State. (You might as well accept the fact that every story I write that mentions Boone will also mention that Boone went to Ohio State. I'm not sorry, and all your hate emails won't stop me muahahahahahaha).
Fast forward two weeks into training camp, and things are a lot different than we envisioned. As we already mentioned, Big Phil retired on the eve of camp. So what was supposed to be a pitched battle for the starting right tackle job between Loadholt, Smith, and Clemmings narrowed to 2 before camp began. And it became apparent fairly early on that Smith was going to beat out Clemmings, so that battle has all but been decided.
At right guard Mike Harris was going to compete with Brandon Fusco for the starting spot. Fusco, who moved to LG last year, struggled all season over there, and most people felt that a move back to the right side would benefit him immensely. With as well as Harris played last year and Fusco played in 2013, this was the main event on the offensive line, as it were. And it was the one that I was going to be watching closest of all.
But Harris has been sidelined with a head injury since day one of camp, an injury that first occurred in June. And according to Harris himself, he might not play this year, which came as a surprise to almost everyone. That pretty much meant Fusco won the RG spot by default, but a few days ago, Fusco also suffered an injury. Although it doesn't appear to be serious, it has sidelined him for the last few practices. So while Fusco sits, the Vikings have moved Joe Berger into the right guard slot for the time being.
Speaking of Joe Berger, he had been competing with John Sullivan for the starting center job, but with Berger being the jack of all trades guy on the line, moving him over to RG makes sense while Fusco and Harris work through their injuries. Based on stories and tweets coming from camp, Berger and Sullivan were neck and neck to start, but with injuries to the right guard position, Berger can't be given a hard look there if he has to play right guard. Don't get me wrong, putting Berger at RG is the best move considering everything that's happened, but it further limits competition, and is seemingly making the Vikings decisions easier by attrition, more so than by competition. And the longer Berger has to fill in elsewhere, the easier the decision is to make Sullivan the starting center.
But let's face it, choosing between Sullivan or Berger at center would be like choosing between a ribeye steak and a T-bone steak. You can't go wrong no matter what you choose, kids.
On the left side, things are stable from a competition standpoint. By all accounts, Alex Boone is mauling people, both in individual drills and 11 on 11. Matt Kalil has received mixed reviews, though. Some days he holds up very well, some days he seems to struggle. But that said, there is a general consensus that he looks better this year than he did last year, so that is encouraging, if nothing else.
Still, what was supposed to be fierce competition to decide the starting offensive line as become rather anti-climatic. Barring any more injuries, the line that starts against Cincinnati will probably be, from left to right, Kalil, Boone, Sullivan, Fusco with Berger subbing until Fusco is healthy, and Smith.
And all of these injuries aside, this starting five seems a lot more stable than last year, and it goes to show that if nothing else, the depth between this year and last year is like night and day. Depth was so bad that the Vikings had to assemble a patchwork line not seen since the days of Mike Tice, Corbin Lacina, and Chris Liewinski. Last year, the Vikings starting five consisted of:
-The former RG who was now the starting LG, who was coming off a season ending pec injury in 2014
-a career substitute/journeyman at center
-a former offensive tackle that had started 17 games in his career...all at tackle, none at guard....as the starting RG
-a rookie 4th round pick at right tackle who was basically thrown to the wolves
This year, even with injuries, things look juuuuuuust a bit better:
-Boone, who has started 59 games as a guard in the NFL, all at either left or right guard
-Sullivan, who has started 93 games and is a former All Pro
-Fusco, back at his natural position of RG
-Smith, a former first round pick that has started 73 games and is also a former All Pro.
The injuries aren't ideal and they short circuited what was supposed to be some pretty serious battles for starting jobs. But still, it speaks volumes that the 2015 Vikings have been able to absorb these injuries and still put together a respectable offensive line, at least on paper.
They'll still need to go out and perform, but the group that will be charged with protecting Teddy Bridgewater and opening holes for Adrian Peterson is a group that is still long on experience, even if it has been determined through attrition.