MANKATO – Matt Kalil is pain free, for now at least.
Through four days of training camp, the Vikings left tackle has been able to avoid spending too much time after practice receiving treatment on his knees as he did is the past, when he had to hope pain subsided before the next practice.
“It feels nice to feel fine after practice and not so knee-shot,” Kalil said.
It took a few procedures over the past two offseasons for the 26-year-old to reach this point, but it’s a healthy sensation Kalil hasn’t felt since 2013. It comes at a good time in what could be a make-or-break season.
Kalil had arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees in the offseason. It’s the second consecutive year the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft underwent the procedure. Last year, Kalil had his right knee scoped after dealing with inflammation in 2013.
This time last year, Kalil also spoke positively about his health, but went on to have the worst season of his career. He gave up 11 sacks through the first 10 games, according to Pro Football Focus. He dealt with swelling in his knees, but quietly decided to hold off any surgical procedures until the offseason.
“When you’re fighting to survive, once practice is over you’re there trying to recover and get ready for the next day,” Kalil said. “You know it’s going to be a grind because you’re just hurting all the time.”
Kalil showed improvement, however, from his tepid start, allowing one sack during the final eight games. It was still a far cry from the rookie version of Kalil, who made the Pro Bowl and appeared to be a mainstay at the most important position on the line.
“I know I’ll play well, and I’ll be all right,” Kalil said. “In my career really I’ve had one bad year, and that was last year. I thought I fought towards the end a little bit and grew mentally by getting mentally tougher. Other than that, I know what I’m capable of doing.”
The 6-7 Kalil is listed at 317 pounds after arriving at camp last year at 308. Kalil was on a health kick last year with his diet that made him leaner, which wasn’t ideal for an offensive lineman. Kalil said he’s carrying the extra weight well, and he’s now in the process of improving his technique. He’s trying to break old habits from last year when Kalil compensated in certain areas of his technique because of his knee problems.
“His sets look much better to me,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I’d like for him to continue to finish those kind of plays when he’s in good position instead of not finish as well as I’d like him to.”
Kalil will also benefit from teammates lined up next to, and across, from him. The Vikings shifted Brandon Fusco from right to left guard in order to solidify the left side for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. While Kalil’s play regressed last season, he didn’t receive much help from left guard Charlie Johnson, who was released during the offseason.
“I think [Fusco’s] one of the best guards in the NFL,” Kalil said. “He’s strong, smart and quick. We’re working together and just getting better each day. It’s a long camp but at least we’re making progress. We’re going up, not going down.”
Kalil will face some athletic defensive ends throughout the season, but he has been in a battle with Everson Griffen throughout camp.
The only scuffle in camp so far was between the two USC products during the first day in pads on Tuesday. Kalil, known for his laid-back personality off the field, showed some toughness in a situation where he felt he had to defend himself.
“You want people to respect you,” Kalil said. “There’s a time and place for it. Obviously you don’t want to get in a fight every play, but when the opportunity strikes, stand up for yourself and get after it.”
Griffen has gotten the upper hand through two days of practice with pads, but Kalil has sensed improvement at left tackle.
“Each day I’m getting better,” Kalil said. “Not saying I’m perfect because Everson is probably one of the best guys I’ll go against, but the more I can compete against him and get more wins against him in practice, the more confident I’ll be. I’ll definitely be ready by game one.”