As the Vikings continue their offseason programs, the coaches will drive home the philosophy of competition. No position group will have a more crowded room than the offensive line. Daniel House analyzes how a shift in coaching philosophies from continuity to competition will impact the development of the Vikings offensive line unit.
Updated: May 19th, 2016 12:00pm
Updated: May 19th, 2016 12:00pm
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
As the Vikings continue their offseason programs, the coaches will drive home the philosophy of competition. No position group will have a more crowded room than the offensive line. With over 16 players under contract, the battle for a roster spot will be intense during training camp and the preseason.
A Crowded Room
The Vikings traded for Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles during the season, drafted Willie Beavers in the fourth round, and signed Andre Smith and Alex Boone to bolster the offensive line. Not to mention, Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan will be returning from season-ending injuries. T.J. Clemmings is shifting to left tackle and will continue to develop as a player. Mike Harris was extremely effective at right guard in 2015 and Joe Berger was rated as one of the top centers last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Austin Shepherd showed flashes in limited playing time during the 2015 season. Zac Kerin has been stashed away since 2014, but has caught my eye during training camp practices. This will be a huge year for left tackle Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco to prove they are players for the future. With all of these competent bodies on the roster, the bar will be raised to make this roster. In recent seasons, the Vikings offensive line philosophy has over-valued continuity. New offensive line coach Tony Sparano will force this position group to compete, while working to find the best mix of players. He has a history of benching players in the middle of the season if it isn't working out. It's clear that Mike Zimmer wanted to improve the protection and run blocking this offseason. According to Spotrac, the Vikings have the most total cap space invested in the offensive line position. Over 28 percent of the Vikings' cap is pooled into the offensive line. The next closest team is the New York Jets at 24.6 percent. The roster construction will be heavily reliant upon the amount of offensive lineman that make the team. As many as 10 players among the offensive line could make this roster, which may force the Vikings to eliminate a skill player.
Change in Philosophy
Arif Hasan and I had a discussion about the shift in offensive line coaching philosophies in the latest episode of the Norse Code Podcast. Tony Sparano has a history of valuing competition over continuity. Under the previous regime with Jeff Davidson, he rarely made any players hit the bench after poor performances. In fact, after a relatively successful 2012 up front, Davidson kept less than mediocre left guard Charlie Johnson on the field for the entire season in 2013. Joe Berger started 9 games in 2014 after Brandon Fusco went down with an injury. The theme in 2015 was the same and it took debilitating injuries to make any changes up front. With the over valuing of continuity the Vikings had under former offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, there was never a competition to find the best mix up front. The competition philosophy holds each player accountable to play their best. Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco certainly will have to show they are worthy this season or could be on their way out.
Sparano's Benching/Competition History
After some research, it's clear Tony Sparano has no problem benching a player to improve the protection up front.
In 2009, Tony Sparano made a couple of changes to the offensive line in the middle of the season. Nate Garner moved to right guard to replace Donald Thomas, while Justin Smiley returned to the left guard spot.
In 2010, rookie John Jerry was benched for Pat McQuistan in Miami.
When Sparano was with Oakland in 2013, Lucas Nix was benched midseason after an abysmal 10-game start to the year.
In 2014, Menelik Watson played 12 games and started nine, alternating with offensive tackle Khalif Barnes on the right side of the offensive line. He was injured for part of the season, but Sparano was still shuffling him around.
Tony Sparano will stress competition, physicality, strength, and a nasty playing style. Mike Zimmer indicated he wants his offensive line to be tough. Sparano has a history of being hard on his players to get the best out of them. With the new level of accountability and competition among this offensive line, there will be a culture change. The Vikings added Alex Boone to be the enforcer of this group and he will bring out the 'nasty' among all the other players on the roster.
Durability and Recovery with Sullivan and Loadholt
All of these bodies the Vikings brought in signals the concern regarding the return of both Phil Loadholt and John Sulivan. Sullivan had major back surgery and Loadholt suffered a torn achilles in the preseason. Both of those injuries can be tough to recover from. They might return, but how will they hold up for the duration of the season? Having extra offensive lineman waiting in the wings might be necessary for both of these players. It just seems likely one of the two will likely be heading out during roster cuts. The questionable return from these types of injuries leave plenty of doubt surrounding what the offensive line will look like when the Vikings take the field for week one in Tennessee. Training camp and the preseason will provide more clarity to this huge question mark.
It's clear the Vikings will have a culture change among their offensive line with new position coach Tony Sparano. Valuing competition over continuity is more important when constructing effective offensive line units. It's clear the Vikings invested money in the offensive line to improve other aspects of their offense. They made trades, drafted a player, and signed two free agents to contracts. How the offensive line is constructed will have a major impact on the formation of the 53-man roster. The uncertain returns of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt might force the coaches to keep an extra offensive lineman on the roster. Matt Kalil will need to play better or Alex Boone could kick out to left tackle. Even Mike Harris or Andre Smith could take Kalil's job in the middle of the season. Brandon Fusco will have competition with Mike Harris and Joe Berger. Fusco will need to return to 2013 form, but will be given every opportunity to do so considering the amount of money invested into him.
As training camp progresses, we will see the battle up front take focus as 16 players battle for 9 or 10 spots. All of the players on this roster will have the opportunity to battle, which is a significant change from Vikings offensive line units of the past.