David Yankey was a man stuck behind two men trying to become the next man up.
But things change quickly in the NFL. Bodies break, the billion-dollar empire keeps churning and, as Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said, “we adjust as coaches and players because that’s just what we do.”
Days ago, Phil Loadholt was the starting right tackle while rookie T.J. Clemmings and second-year pro Carter Bykowski were battling for the swing tackle spot that backs up both sides.
Today, Loadholt and Bykowski are out due to season-ending injuries and Clemmings is the starter at right tackle. Yankey and rookie Tyrus Thompson are the new men trying to be the next man at tackle.
“It definitely hits home that everything can change in one play,” Yankey said. “You just have to remember that and take it with you to work every day. You don’t want there to be a huge drop-off if you have to walk onto the field.”
With three preseason games left, the Vikings still have plenty to decide up front. They haven’t named right guard Mike Harris or Clemmings as opening day starters, nor have they settled on which three players will join veteran center-guard Joe Berger as backups on the 53-man roster.
Versatility ranks up there with ability when it comes to picking those three backups.
“Ultimately, we’re preparing to see who we can trust as our sixth and seventh [active] linemen on game day,” Davidson said. “We saw last year [at Buffalo] that we have to be prepared to adjust at any given moment.”
Early in that Bills game, center John Sullivan and guard Vladimir Ducasse were injured on the same play. Berger was the only interior lineman active, so Harris had to play right guard for the first time in his life. He played it well enough that the job is now his to lose.
Ironically, Clemmings is trying to be the savior at right tackle just three months after medical reports about an old stress fracture in his foot caused teams to back away from him in the draft. Once considered a potential first-rounder, he tumbled to the Vikings in the fourth round.
“I certainly see no ill effects physically with T.J.,” Davidson said. “I thought he did a nice job of being ready and stepping up for Phil on the third play of the game the other night.”
Yankey currently is the second-team right tackle, but also has worked at every guard and tackle spot this summer. Thompson, a sixth-round draft pick, is the second-team left tackle, but also has worked on the right side. Austin Shepherd, a rookie seventh-round pick, also has played guard and tackle and is in the mix even more because of the injuries.
Yankey, it appears, has a slight edge on Thompson because of all the work he’s put in since being selected in the fifth round of last year’s draft. Yankey didn’t play a snap last year while practicing and focusing on improving his strength to what coach Mike Zimmer considers NFL standards.
“He’s much improved from where he was a year ago,” Zimmer said Thursday.
Yankey played left guard and left tackle at Stanford. He came in last year as the presumed heir apparent to Charlie Johnson at left guard. He’s never played right tackle, but says, “It’s not that big of a deal.”
Yankey didn’t fully agree with the coaching staff’s decision to sit him all of last season despite multiple injuries at guard. But he didn’t fight the decision either.
“I mean it doesn’t really matter what I think,” he said. “The coaches told me what I needed to get better and I worked on those things. I’m getting a shot this year.”
Asked if he thinks Yankey is strong enough, Davidson shrugged and said: “We’ll see. Proof is in the pudding.
“He’s made progress, but we’re still looking to see what all he can do for us. I’m not ready to make any decisions yet.”
And so the men fighting to become the next man will, barring further injuries, keep slugging it out for at least another week.