Note: For the next five weekdays, we’ll take an exclusive look at the Vikings’ draft. We’ll combine positions on some days in order to address as many areas as possible. Check for a new post by mid-morning through Thursday.
The issues: The Vikings have questions essentially at every spot along their line, whether it’s age, injuries or ineffective play. Depth is also a problem. They have a new position coach and a new offensive scheme, so changes are likely.
What they have: Left tackle Bryant McKinnie (32 in September) and left guard Steve Hutchinson (34 in November) aren’t getting any younger. McKinnie’s inconsistency continues to draw the ire of fans. He is under contract through 2013, but the Vikings need to find an eventual replacement for him.
Hutchinson finished last season on injured reserve because of a broken bone in his hand and can’t play at a Pro Bowl level forever.
Center John Sullivan had a rough 2010 season that included the death of his father before training camp and two separate calf injuries. Sullivan’s size and ability to hold up against mammoth nose tackles remains an issue, but the team seems willing to stick with him after pointing to everything he endured last season.
Right guard Anthony Herrera has battled a few injuries in recent seasons, including ACL surgery late in the 2010 season. It’s unclear when he will return to full strength after this latest injury. Right tackle Phil Loadholt’s second season wasn’t as promising as his rookie campaign, partly because he was bothered by offseason shoulder surgery the first few months. Loadholt remains better as a run blocker than in pass protection, but he’s a tough player who has the right mentality and focus.
The team liked what it saw from guard Chris DeGeare in relief of Hutchinson late in his rookie season. DeGeare will compete for the starting job at right guard in camp.
Ryan Cook is entering his sixth season and has become the backup utility lineman who is capable of playing multiple positions.
What they need: Offensive line play can be difficult to analyze because we’re not privy to blocking assignments and responsibilities on any given play. But it’s no secret that the Vikings need a better collective performance from this position group.
It will be interesting to see what changes offensive line coach Jeff Davidson brings and whether new schemes and a new voice can lead to better results. Coach Leslie Frazier has said repeatedly that he wants to build the offense around a physical running game with Adrian Peterson. That requires the line to dominate up front and create running lanes.
The Vikings also need to stay healthy. That, of course, is the goal for every team, but the Vikings don’t have the depth to overcome injuries right now.
The Vikings definitely could get younger along the line. McKinnie, Hutchinson and Herrera (31) are all older than 30. They also need to find someone who will push McKinnie and Loadholt. DeGeare showed some promise in his first season at guard.
Despite Sullivan’s struggles last season, Frazier said Sullivan will return as the starting center next season. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman also expressed confidence in Sullivan this offseason.
“[I’m] excited about Sullivan,” Spielman said at the scouting combine. “He had to go through a lot of durability issues with both calves and the appendectomy before training camp, the death of his father -- he had a really, really rough year last year. We were very excited about what we saw in ’09, so we’re expecting John to come back and be [stronger], because he is a young player.”
Conclusion: It won’t be surprising if the Vikings address this area in the early rounds. A number of mock draft predict they will take an offensive tackle in the first or second round.
If the Vikings decide to take a tackle in the first round, Boston College's Anthony Castonzo could be a possibility. USC's Tyron Smith is the top-rated tackle and a likely Top 10 pick.
The Vikings need to find McKinnie’s replacement at some point and could look to upgrade the interior too. Spielman said the Vikings “need to continue to add youth and depth to our offensive line.” This position group could be a high priority in the draft.