Still playing the 'What's my line?' game

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2007 - 12:08 AM

Coach Brad Childress says he likes the Vikings' depth on the offensive line. But is its unsettled status a good thing or a bad thing?

The Bears and Packers have been set for some time on the same starting offensive linemen they had a year ago. Meanwhile, at Winter Park, home of the team chasing the Bears and Packers in the NFC North, there apparently is an entire side of the line that remains unsettled a mere 11 days before the regular season begins.

That's what Vikings coach Brad Childress essentially said Tuesday when asked if Artis Hicks and Anthony Herrera were still competing for the starting right guard position.

"It's a competition, at right guard and right tackle," said Childress, making sure to include tackles Ryan Cook and Marcus Johnson in the mix of potential starters. "But competition is not always a bad thing because it brings the best out of those guys."

No unit needs more time to jell than the offensive line. The Packers have used the same five starters in all three preseason games. Injuries have forced the Bears to use two extra starters, but only as a precaution.

Although it's unusual for the Vikings to head into Thursday's preseason finale against the Dallas Cowboys without a definitive top five up front, it doesn't necessarily mean a catastrophic start to the season awaits. Childress reflected on some teams he's been on that "have been on the fence" at some of those positions heading into the final preseason game.

"In some instances, that's good," Childress said. "And in some instances, you might call it not so good."

And what about this instance? "I like the fact that we have depth," Childress said.

Right guard appears to be more unsettled than right tackle. While Cook has started all three preseason games at tackle, Hicks and Herrera both have started at guard. Hicks started the first two preseason games, followed immediately by Herrera. They flip-flopped Saturday at Seattle.

"Just because [Herrera] started last week was by virtue of I wanted to see him play with the No. 1 offensive line and the No. 1 group," Childress said. "I think that's only fair."

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Steve Hutchinson and center Matt Birk played all 16 games together last season. Hutchinson missed the preseason opener because of personal reasons. He was replaced by Herrera, who -- like Hicks and Cook -- gives the Vikings valuable versatility.

"I never had any doubts I could play in this league," said Herrera, 27, a former rookie free agent left over from the Mike Tice era. "I started at the University of Tennessee for four years. I didn't get drafted [in 2004] only because of some things I got into in college. I know I can play."

The 6-2, 315-pound Herrera is more athletic, but less experienced. He has played in 12 career games, including six starts at the end of the 2005 season. Hicks, 28, gives the Vikings a bigger body (6-4, 335) with more experience (57 games and 48 starts, including playoffs). He started 14 games last year in his first season with the Vikings.

Childress is keeping the starting right guard for the Cowboys game a secret, saying, "You might just have to wait until game time to see." Apparently, Hicks and Herrera also might have to wait until then.

"They don't tell us anything; they let us know right before the game," Herrera said. "Of course, you'd want to know. But it doesn't matter."

Both players said they've maintained a friendship throughout the summer-long competition.

"It's a business," Hicks said. "He's got a family, just like I do. We're great friends. Even on the field, we coach each other up. Everybody in this game who has been in this game for awhile, you know there are some things you just can't control. We can't control who starts, so why the hell spend sleepless nights worrying about it?"

Childress said he won't name a starter for the Sept. 9 Atlanta game based strictly on who performs the best on Thursday. That probably means he's leaning one way, even though he won't say which way.

"I'm not ready to crown anybody king at that position," Childress said. "But with that said, I'm glad those guys have competed and gotten all the reps that they've gotten because you never know, depth-wise, when a guy is going to have to step up."

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