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Craig: Vikings' offensive line gets much-needed upgrade

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG
  • Star Tribune
  • April 27, 2012 - 12:22 AM

The Vikings decided a decade of overlooking their offensive line was long enough.

Until they picked Southern California left tackle Matt Kalil fourth overall on Thursday night, the Vikings hadn't used a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman since they took Bryant McKinnie with the seventh overall pick in 2002.

That's nearly unheard of in today's NFL. In fact, only the Giants (1999), Chargers (2001) and Tennessee Titans (1993 as the Houston Oilers) had gone longer without selecting an offensive lineman in the first round.

Sensing the draft's depth at two other positions of need (receiver and cornerback), the Vikings pounced on a left tackle in part because the great ones tend to go in the top five, a spot the Vikings hope they don't revisit anytime soon.

Kalil's impact on the roster was immediate. He was named the starter as soon as General Manger Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier reached the lectern to address the pick. Charlie Johnson, last year's stopgap signing when it became apparent the team was going to release McKinnie, slides to left guard.

"We got a starting left tackle that will come in and really solidify a key position on our football team for many years to come," Frazier said. "You guys know how important that position is in our league with all the great pass rushers we see week in and week out. Having a guy like Matt Kalil really gives us a chance to have a cornerstone for our organization for years."

Ultimately, the success of the current Vikings depends on second-year quarterback Christian Ponder living up to last year's 11th overall selection. Kalil will play a major role in at least giving Ponder a fighting chance to succeed.

"We saw [Kalil] as a guy who could be a Pro Bowler for a long time," Frazier said. "That was obvious from our standpoint. And with what we're trying to do with our quarterback, we want to do the things necessary to ensure his success. [Left tackle] is a critical position when you're trying to build your football team."

Kalil also can make Johnson a more effective player. Johnson played admirably under difficult circumstances a year ago. But he's built like a left guard, whereas Kalil is the prototypical left tackle with a 6-7, 306-pound frame and the quickest feet that Vikings scouts have seen in years.

Johnson also turns just 28 on Tuesday. That's seven years younger than his predecessor at left guard, Steve Hutchinson, who was released after years of decline.

With Johnson at left guard, John Sullivan at center and Phil Loadholt at right tackle, the Vikings instantly reduced their unsettled offensive line positions to one. Right guard will be up for grabs between free-agent acquisition Geoff Schwartz, second-year pro Brandon Fusco and possibly Chris DeGeare, a former fifth-round pick who spent last year on the practice squad.

Kalil's impact also will be felt at tight end. The need for a blocking tight end to help protect Ponder's blind side has been eliminated, which is good considering Jim Kleinsasser retired. With fewer blocking duties, pass-catching tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson can spend more time running routes and take advantage of mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

"We feel like Matt's going to be the kind of guy who can block some of the top defensive ends in the league one on one," Kalil said. "We feel like we've addressed a tremendous need there."

Kalil also graded out as an "excellent" run blocker who's athletic and fast enough to pull, which is something offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave favors but couldn't use last year.

"We feel we got the best of both worlds in Matt," Frazier said. "There are going to be some growing pains along the way, but one of the good things about Matt coming to our team is he'll get the chance to face arguably the best defensive end in the National Football League [Jared Allen] every day in practice. That's going to be a great part of his prep, so we think he'll be able to get to that point by opening day. ... For where we are, this was the right pick. We definitely picked the right guy."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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