As expected, the Vikings have addressed their offensive line early and often in this offseason by signing OG Alex Boone from the San Francisco 49ers and OT Andre Smith from the Cincinnati Bengals. They also re-signed last year’s starting right guard Mike Harris and restructured veteran right tackle Phil Loadholt to compete for the job he once held.
The Vikings also hold – for the time being – eight draft picks in the late April draft, and there’s a good likelihood that Minnesota will take an offensive lineman relatively early to start grooming him for the future. While on the surface it seems like adding a draft pick creates too much traffic at one position, consider that the Vikings have seven OLs in contract years: Matt Kalil, Joe Berger, Mike Harris, Phil Loadholt, Andre Smith, Carter Bykowski and Jeremiah Sirles.
The Vikings are setting up a free-for-all competition in training camp with 10 players realistically competing for five spots, and the main theme will be veterans attempting to reclaim jobs they used to possess. Coming off two back surgeries, 30-year-old John Sullivan will be looking to pry the center job back from Berger, who might have been Minnesota’s best lineman last year. Brandon Fusco will try to repossess his post at right guard – the place he played from 2011 to 2014 that earned him a long term extension, but circumstance forced him to the left side last year, where he struggled as Harris played well at right guard. At right tackle, Loadholt will try to bounce back from Achilles’ surgery to beat out youngster T.J. Clemmings and veteran signee Andre Smith.
Clearly, creating competition and depth is the name of the game for the Vikings, who relied on a rookie seventh-round pick as their chief backup last season. That being said, they are now in a position to make some difficult cuts in order to finagle the numbers on the 53-man roster – and perhaps have some big salaries sitting on the bench. Minnesota has kept nine offensive linemen on the roster each of Mike Zimmer’s first two years as coach, and there are currently nine incumbent/expectant starters on the roster: Kalil, Boone, Sullivan, Berger, Fusco, Harris, Loadholt, Clemmings and Smith. All will have hopes of starting Week 1. In that nine-man scenario, the Vikings exclude Sirles, reserve center Zac Kerin, Minnesota’s own Carter Bykowski, trade acquisition Nick Easton and second-year man Austin Shepherd, who was useful as a rookie in unbalance sets.
There’s also a potential draft pick (or two) to add to the mix, which means that a couple veterans could also be on the chopping block. Loadholt, for one, has a non-guaranteed deal and could be cut at no cost. Smith reportedly has just $1 million guaranteed on his one-year deal and could be released fairly cheaply. Sullivan has less than $700K guaranteed remaining on his deal, so the team could save over $10 million by cutting ties. Berger has no guaranteed money left.
The Vikings are in a unique spot in that, while they’ll have a fierce competition for playing time in 2016, they’ll also be evaluating the top candidates for 2017 to see which players are worth attempting to re-sign.
That creates a slight conflict of interest. For instance, while Smith may be the team’s best option at right tackle this year, his development is certainly not as beneficial as Clemmings’ or even Harris’s – two players with more prime years remaining. That being said, the Vikings seem more intent at plugging holes in the short-term to give Adrian Peterson running lanes in perhaps his final year in Minnesota; not to mention kicking off the new stadium with a bang. Development may take a backseat.
With all this considered, here are a handful of conceivable scenarios for the Vikings’ Week 1 line.
Scenario #1: LT Matt Kalil, LG Alex Boone, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt
This permutation assumes that veterans who’ve spent many years wearing purple come to camp with a chip on their shoulder and put to bed any talk of their decline. Sullivan, Fusco and Loadholt have all performed well for this team in the past, primarily in 2012 when Adrian Peterson rushed for over 2,000 yards. With new offensive line coach Tony Sparano calling the shots, it could be the usual suspects — those most familiar with the team’s schemes — that emerge as starters.
Scenario #2: LT Matt Kalil, LG Alex Boone, C John Sullivan, RG Mike Harris, RT Andre Smith
On the other hand, Mike Zimmer has never been one to rest on past laurels. Despite his equity with the team, Fusco may be deemed problematic after his shoddy 2015 on the left side of the line. The team was clearly pleased with Harris last season, hence his new contract, and may prefer him sticking in the right guard spot. Moving over to the right tackle spot, Smith may be in better shape than Loadholt, who is coming back from months of inactivity after surgery. The Vikings gave Smith the Manny’s Steakhouse treatment for a reason and may be more interested in having him start than make millions on the sideline.
Scenario #3: LT Matt Kalil, LG Alex Boone, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Andre Smith
This scenario is called: We Wanted to Get As Far Away From Last Year’s Line as Possible. After a brutal year of protecting Teddy Bridgewater, and at times struggling to run block, Zimmer and Co. may want an entirely new look with fresh faces in four of the five positions. Boone at left guard, Sullivan returns at center, Fusco back at right guard, Smith the newcomer at right guard – certainly in play.
Scenario #4: LT Matt Kalil, LG Alex Boone, C Joe Berger, RG Mike Harris, RT Phil Loadholt
It would be irresponsible to not have a scenario in which Sullivan doesn’t return healthily from two back surgeries. Sullivan suffered a setback last season when he seemed close to returning from his first microdiscectomy, and there’s no guaranteeing he’ll be 100 percent when the pads go on in Mankato this August. Minnesota’s two strongest cogs on last year’s line were Berger and Harris, and the Vikings may want to keep that duo paired together.
Of course, there are half a dozen other permutations in play here, and we’ve yet to consider another preseason injury that could throw the left side of the line out of whack and force the Vikings to move people out of position. We’ve also omitted any scenario in which the Vikings take a lineman in the first round who turns out to be a stud.
At this point, correctly selecting the Vikings’ starting offensive line is like running the table in the first round of your NCAA tournament bracket. It will be a chaotic offseason as a dozen guys jockey for jobs, and we’re still five and a half months from gaining clarity.
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