In 2011, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line was a below-average group by most measures, but there is new hope for the unit in 2012, thanks to the addition of the man that the Vikings hope will hold down the left tackle spot for the next decade and beyond.
Players in camp: Matt Kalil (starter), Charlie Johnson (starter), John Sullivan (starter), Brandon Fusco (starter), Phil Loadholt (starter), Joe Berger, Patrick Brown, Chris DeGeare, Tyler Holmes, Levi Horn, DeMarcus Love, Austin Pasztor, Quentin Saulsberry, Geoff Schwartz, Darrion Weems
The selection of Matt Kalil with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was a no-brainer for the Vikings. Charlie Johnson just wasn't a good fit at the position in 2011, and it's really hard for a young quarterback like Christian Ponder to develop if he's constantly looking up at the Metrodome ceiling. So, they took the man who didn't allow a sack at left tackle in his two years as a starter at Southern Cal. To tell you how talented Kalil is, as a sophomore he competed with current Dallas Cowboys' tackle Tyron Smith for the left tackle spot for the Trojans. Kalil won the job and, despite playing right tackle, the Cowboys took Smith with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 Draft. So, Smith was good enough to be top ten NFL draft choice, but he wasn't good enough to play left tackle at USC, because he couldn't beat Matt Kalil out for the spot. Kalil will, hopefully, be the Vikings' answer at left tackle for a long time.
Johnson will now kick inside to left guard, replacing the departed Steve Hutchinson. Johnson has a lot of talent, but his skill set is much better suited to a guard position than to being put out on an island at left tackle. While Hutchinson was still performing at an admirable level near the end of his Vikings' tenure, the drop-off to Johnson shouldn't be that large.
Center John Sullivan has become the leader of the offensive line in Minnesota. Sullivan was one of the league's better centers last year, and the lone bright spot on the offensive line. The Vikings recognized this, and rewarded Sullivan with a long-term contract extension. With Hutchinson gone, a young offensive line will look to Sullivan for leadership and guidance, and if he can remain healthy, Sullivan will continue to get better.
At right tackle, we have the man that might be the most frustrating offensive lineman in the league in Phil Loadholt. Loadholt is a 6'8", 345-pound monster that, for some reason, has a tendency to forget that he's 6'8" and 345 pounds. He has always been very good in the run blocking department, but speed rushers have their way with him far too frequently. If he can become more consistent and keep his technique sharp, he has the potential to be one of the league's better right tackles.
Right guard will provide the one real competition for a starting spot along the offensive line, as the other four positions are basically set. The main combatants for the spot will be Brandon Fusco, one of the Vikings' sixth-round choices in the 2011 draft, and Geoff Schwartz, who was signed in the off-season after missing the entire 2011 season. Fusco was getting the first-team snaps in camp, as Schwartz was still sort of getting into the swing of things after missing an entire season. The team like Fusco's tenacity as well as his versatility (he was drafted as a center coming out of college). Schwartz was named the Carolina Panthers' "secret superstar" by Pro Football Focus after an outstanding 2010 season. If he can regain his 2011 form, there's a very good chance that he could unseat Fusco for the starting job. Whoever loses the Fusco/Schwartz battle will be the primary backup along the interior.
One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on in camp will be second-year tackle DeMarcus Love. Love, another of the Vikings' sixth-round picks in 2011, found himself in an awkward position in 2011. The Vikings thought enough of him to keep him on the 53-man roster all season, but he was not activated for a single game last season. Love has a lot of talent, which is why the Vikings kept him on the 53-man roster (since there was no chance of him getting through to the practice squad), and it will be interesting to see how he develops this season. He could be the top backup tackle if the team feels that he has progressed enough.
As far as the remaining backups, the final two spots will likely go to Berger and DeGeare. DeGeare actually started a couple of games for the Vikings in 2010, but showed up to camp in 2011 out of shape, got cut by the Vikings, and found himself on Minnesota's practice squad for most of last season. Berger got a couple of starts for the Vikings last season, and the team seems to like him.
One player that is a practice squad candidate is Saulsberry. Saulsberry went undrafted out of Mississippi State, but many experts had a him as a draftable prospect, with some having him as high as the fifth or sixth round. He's a dark horse to make the big roster coming out of camp, but has a very good chance of ending up on Minnesota's practice squad, in my opinion.
Making the cut: Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco, Loadholt, Schwartz, Love, Berger, DeGeare
Not making the cut: Brown, Holmes, Horn, Pasztor, Saulsberry, Weems
Positions on the 53-man roster accounted for: 27 out of 53
We'll have another easy one tomorrow, as we look at the specialists on this year's installment of the Minnesota Vikings.