The Vikings offensive line struggled last season, but can young depth solve some of their problems? Daniel House answers this question and more as he previews the offensive line.
Updated: July 16th, 2015 1:22pm
By: Daniel House
Updated: July 16th, 2015 1:22pm
By: Daniel House
To say the Vikings offensive line underachieved last season is putting it mildly. They allowed the third-most sacks in the league and they continually struggled to keep the pocket clean for Teddy Bridgewater. It didn't help when both Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt suffered pectoral muscle tears early in the season. The Vikings were relying on depth to replace those spots among the offensive line. Not to mention, Matt Kalil was performing at an extremely low level and it only made the situation more difficult. Kalil had knee surgery this off-season and according to many involved with the team, it contributed to his struggles last season. The Vikings addressed their depth issues by selecting three offensive lineman in the draft. T.J. Clemmings was a value pick in the fourth round and has the chance to start for the Vikings at right guard. During OTA's, Brandon Fusco was experimenting at left guard and the team might make that switch to ease the transition for Clemmings. John Sullivan will return as the leader of the offensive line and with some of the new additions to this group, the coaches are going to be expecting better performance from these players.
In 2014, John Sullivan was one of the only consistent pieces on the Vikings offensive line. He was the anchor of the group when injuries plagued every position to his left and right. He missed part of the Buffalo game with a concussion, but was cleared to return in time for the next week of play. Sullivan was very successful at getting to the second level to run block and blazed some excellent paths for the running backs. Sullivan is most liable in the passing game and has the tendency to get beat frequently. However, he was more consistent in this avenue during the 2014 season and allowed just 12 quarterback hurries -- the lowest total on the team.
As I discussed earlier, Matt Kalil had a very disappointing season in 2014. Kalil allowed 36 quarterback hurries, including 10 sacks over the first nine games of the season. Only Ja'Wuan James allowed more pressures (58), than Matt Kalil last season (55). He did improve slightly as the season came to a close and allowed just two sacks over the final seven contests. However, he still gave up 21 total pressures over that span. Kalil's technique was shaky at times and according to Kalil, much of these issues were mental. He needs to improve his hand placement and balance coming out of the stance. Defensive ends were beating him off the snap and he was unable to engage with them at the line of scrimmage. Kalil had a procedure done this off-season to prevent some knee joint pain and many believe this contributed to his struggles last season. Kalil needs to bounce back or he will be in danger of being benched for younger talent. Nonetheless, it will be very interesting to see how comfortable he looks on the field during training camp.
Torn pectoral muscles were the universal injury among Vikings offensive lineman this season. Brandon Fusco suffered one early in the season and just 11 games into the 2014 campaign, Phil Loadholt added another. During his time on the field, Loadholt continued to show his ability to be solid in run blocking, but pass protection was a different story. He was inconsistent in this avenue and had three games where he struggled to handle the pass rush. Loadholt was cleared to workout in January and it will be important to see his conditioning level as he enters training camp. Pectoral tears can be difficult to recover from as an offensive lineman when initiating contact with the defensive lineman. During training camp and the preseason, it will be necessary to watch how he handles one-on-one situations.
Fusco signed a 5-year extension before the 2014 season began and many were expecting a solid season from the right guard. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle just three games into the season and missed the remainder of the season. This injury really hurt the Vikings offensive line and proved the value of a player like Fusco among an offensive line. He was solid early in the season in both run and pass blocking and was arguably the best lineman before he suffered the injury. If there is a silver lining, Fusco suffered his injury earlier in the season, so he has had more time to recover and get conditioned. Now, the Vikings are asking him to try playing left guard in the off-season activities. He should be able to handle this transition and it should help T.J. Clemmings land a spot as the starting right guard. Both starting left and right guard positions will be determined during the next four to six weeks of work.
During portions of the mock draft season, T.J. Clemmings was projected as a first round product. Concerns about a foot injury caused him to fall down the draft boards and into the fourth round. The Vikings needed some offensive line depth and added some insane value when they selected him. Clemmings didn't play offense until his final two seasons at Pittsburgh and converted from a defensive lineman to an offensive tackle. His physical traits allow him to mold into a high caliber offensive lineman at this level. However, he is very raw and needs to improve his pass protection techniques. The coaching staff isn't ruling out the thought of him starting at right guard this season. He needs coaching and more experience, but a high character player with the talent level he can provide, was the perfect fit for the Vikings organization. He will be another player to monitor during one-on-one situations to see how he stacks up against the defensive lineman of the NFL.
Joe Berger is the utility man of the Vikings offensive line and can be counted on when injuries strike. In 2014, he joined the fold as the starter at right guard in week eight, after the coaches decided the Vlad Ducasse experiment was over. He locked down Ndamukong Suh in week 15, holding him to one tackle and no sacks. Berger showed that he is still productive and versatile at 32 years old. Drafted rookies such as Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd could provide a challenge for Berger if they show they can play multiple positions in training camp. If David Yankey shows improvement, he could take another guard spot on the depth chart. It ultimately comes down to whether the team values experience or wants to get younger at the position. I still believe Berger will be on this team, but I don't think it will be as easy for him this year in training camp.
The Vikings claimed Mike Harris off waivers during roster cuts and added him as rotational offensive line depth. He had worked with Norv Turner in San Diego and there were ties between the two of them. In a short stint of playing time, he allowed five sacks and wasn't a stable force as a swing tackle. He started five games and lacked physicality, but his versatility was needed when injuries became a major issue. The Vikings re-signed him this off-season and selected more depth in the draft. With those new additions, it doesn't seem likely that Mike Harris will make this team.
David Yankey was one of the most puzzling players on the Vikings roster last season. After being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, he was activated for just one game. It was believed he would have a chance to compete for the starting left guard spot. However, he couldn't translate to the league and was overmatched from a strength standpoint. The coaches have said he improved and benefited from full participation in off-season activities. He is another player that could challenge for a roster spot if he shows he can handle the physicality.
The Vikings claimed Carter Bykowski off of the 49ers practice squad in December and he was on the 53-man roster for the final three games of the 2014 season. He wasn't active, but the Eden Prairie, MN native had some time in the scheme. He was a name that was talked about during the Vikings off-season activities. The coaches like his work ethic and frame as an offensive lineman. The door is definitely open for the 'swing' positions on the offensive line.
Babatunde Aiyegbusi never played high school or college football, but played in the Polish league. He had a workout in March and over a dozen scouts attended it. The day after the workout, the Vikings signed him to a contract. Oh yeah, Aiyegbusi is only 6'9" and 345 pounds too. With all of that size, he is extremely raw and will need plenty of work with coaches to develop NFL caliber technique. When watching his tape, you will see he has a constant motor and can run block very well, but we haven't seen him pass protect in the NFL yet. Will he handle the speed and physicality of premier defensive lineman? This type of question can't be answered until he is evaluated during training camp and preseason. "Babs" could land on the practice squad if he needs more work, but remember, he is already 27 years old.
Tyrus Thompson can play multiple positions for the Vikings and fills the 'swing' tackle mold. Thompson particularly played left tackle at Oklahoma and his length and size were the attributes I found most interesting in his game. The main issue I could find with Thompson was an inconsistency in his effort. When he was getting his motor moving, he was finding defensive players in the second level and was making an immediate impact. With some coaches that can push him, these types of issues are easily correctable. He has all of the measurables to play in this league and it will be interesting to see how he translates to the pace of the NFL.
I was surprised that Austin Shepherd was still available in the seventh round for the Vikings. He is an extremely aggressive player who plays with an edge on film. He played right tackle at Alabama, but Rick Spielman indicated he would play guard for the Vikings. He has the position flexibility that the Vikings are looking for when they are structuring depth for this roster. Not to mention, he played in the SEC conference against some of the best competition. At this position, he will compete for one of the final two spots on the Vikings roster.
This offseason, Tom Farniok was added as undrafted rookie out of Iowa State. Farniok ended his career with 47 starts and was on the watch list for the Rimington Award -- an award given annually to the nation’s best center. Farniok earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors the last three seasons and is listed as a center for the Vikings. He could play guard, but that remains to be seen until training camp rolls along. Farniok is simply training camp competition and will see some snaps early in camp.
Zac Kerin has the ability to play center or guard and showed flashes of good technique during training camp last year. The coaches like him and after spending the entire season on the practice squad, he may have groomed some more talent. He is a physical player that has position flexibility and that is definitely a key in this offensive line group.
Bob Vardaro is a name to keep an eye as an under-the-radar undrafted rookie on this team. He started 33 straight games at left guard for Boston College. In a power running scheme, he was able to put his physicality, toughness, and durability on display. He really fits the mold of this team and will be a prospect I'll have my eyes on in the offensive line drills.
Isame Faciane is transitioning from the defensive line to the offensive line in 2015. It is tough to know how he will translate, but he is a very coachable player. That is what led to this positional decision. He will be worth keeping an eye on during one-on-one drills.
The Vikings offensive line needs to perform better as a starting unit and that begins with staying healthy. If this group can stay on the field and see an improvement from their depth, they can be sufficient. The battle for the final two roster spots will likely be between rookies Austin Shepherd, Tyrus Thompson, and second year player David Yankey. It will all come down to versatility and which skill-sets translate best to the NFL. As a whole, this group needs to protect better and give Teddy Bridgewater time to step into the pocket and make throws. Training camp practices and the coaching will be necessary to cultivate talent and produce the depth needed to be successful in the NFL.