Leading up to the start of training camp on Friday, we will set the stage for Vikings camp by taking a look at where things stand at each position group. Today, we resume the series with the crowded offensive line.
A QUICK REFRESHER: Two days after the playoff loss to the Seahawks, coach Mike Zimmer announced that offensive line Jeff Davidson would not be coming back and put all of the offensive linemen on the roster on watch, saying, “We’ve got to do better.” The Vikings eventually hired fiery former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano to be their offensive line coach and signed guard Alex Boone, the talkative former 49ers guard who “was born to be in this division,” and right tackle Andre Smith in free agency. They also moved youngster T.J. Clemmings from right tackle to left, though that was before they got the news that veteran Phil Loadholt plans to retire.
HOT CAMP STORYLINE: The competition along the offensive line figures to be the most intense of camp and the Vikings storyline of the summer. With the addition of Boone and Smith and the return of John Sullivan from injury, the Vikings now have eight linemen who have started at least 16 NFL games. You might recall that teams typically start only five linemen. The left side of the line, with Matt Kalil at tackle and Boone at guard, is pretty much set in stone. But we should get to see some compelling battles at center and right guard. We’ll see about right tackle.
TOP BATTLE TO WATCH: At center, Sullivan, who missed the entire 2015 season after twice undergoing back surgery, split the first-team reps during spring practices with Joe Berger, who played well in Sullivan’s place last season. If Sullivan has fully recovered from back injuries, and the Vikings won’t fully know that until they see him in pads slamming into other large men, he will have to pry his job back from Berger.
POSSIBLY IN DANGER: If Sullivan is unable to reclaim his starting spot from Berger, whose contract is very team-friendly, he could be on the outs. And if highly-paid veteran Brandon Fusco loses his battle with Mike Harris at right guard, he too could potentially be a post-camp casualty.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: The Vikings have a few interesting offensive line prospects who have played sparingly, if at all, in the NFL. They include Zac Kerin, Nick Easton, Jeremiah Sirles and 2016 fourth-round pick Willie Beavers. But the one who seems most likely to play his way into the starting mix this summer is 2015 seventh-round pick Austin Shepherd. He is far from a great athlete (trust me, I know a thing or two about not being a great athlete). But he left Alabama as a pretty polished prospect last spring and parlayed that into snaps in the team’s heavy sets last season, then fared pretty well out there, too. Shepherd is not a lock to make the squad, but he certainly seems like a youngster worth keeping around.
EARLY ROSTER BREAKDOWN:
- On the 90-man roster: 15
- Projected to make the 53-man: 8-10
- Roster locks: 2 (Kalil, Boone)
- Good bets: 6 (Berger, Sullivan, Fusco, Clemmings, Smith, Beavers)
- On the bubble: 5 (Kerin, Sirles, Harris, Shepherd, OT Carter Bykowski)
- Longshots: 2 (Easton, G Isame Faciane)