Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson will snag most of the headlines from the Vikings offense, but the offensive line will be the most important position group to watch during training camp.
The Vikings have all the pieces in place on offense but will need consistency from the offensive line this year. The unit suffered a number of injuries and had to use just about every backup last season. It resulted in poor performances in the trenches, particuarly in pass protection, for a team operating with a rookie quarterback in Bridgewater.
The unit heads into Mankato with a fairly healthy group and a few new faces hoping to win a starting job. We continue our training camp preview by analyzing the offensive line.
SAFE BET STARTERS: Matt Kalil, Brandon Fusco, John Sullivan, Phil Loadholt
The offensive line returns four starters, though one will likely play a new position. Fusco shifted from right to left guard during the early portion of the offseason to work on the left side with Kalil. The Vikings released left guard Charlie Johnson during the offseason, and Fusco appears to be his replacement unless something changes during training camp.
Fusco and Loadholt each suffered torn pectoral muscles during the season and landed on injured reserve. They were both limited during OTAs and minicamp, but they’re expected to be full participants once training camp begins.
Kalil and Sullivan were the only two starters on the offensive line that played every game. Sullivan received a one-year extension and a raise during the offseason. He provided stability along the offensive line when the Vikings lost three of their starters during the season and has been of the best centers in the NFL over the last few seasons.
BACKUPS: T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson, Austin Shepherd, Babatunde Aiyegbusi, Joe Berger, David Yankey, Zac Kerin, Tom Farniok, Bobby Vardaro
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: It started as an opening at let guard, but it appears Fusco will shift into that starting role. So now the Vikings’ most significant starting position up for grabs during training camp will be at right guard. We saw the Vikings mix in rookies T.J. Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson with the first team unit at right guard during OTAs and minicamp. Clemmings and Thompson both exclusively played offensive tackle at Pittsburgh and Oklahoma. The two rookies appear to be in competition with second-year offensive lineman David Yankey and veteran Joe Berger, who will enter his 12th season. The extra preseason game will give the coaching staff five opportunities to see all four players in pads against different opponents, and it appears to be a camp battle that will drag well into late August.
THE BURNING QUESTION: This will be a make-or-break season for Kalil, who has been inconsistent at left tackle over the last few seasons. He will still be used as the starting left tackle, and there were signs of progress late last season. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement for Kalil, who hasn’t been the same dominating player we saw as a rookie.
Kalil reportedly underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees during the offseason. It’s the second straight offseason he’s had the procedure performed on one of his knees. The Vikings still picked up his 2016 fifth-year option during the offseason, worth $11.1 million. It’s not guaranteed until the new league year starts or Kalil suffers a significant injury.
So there’s a big incentive for Kalil to play well to receive his fifth-year option salary and possibly parlay his play into a contract extension. If he continues to struggle, the Vikings will likely have to move on from their fourth overall pick in 2012.