Teddy Bridgewater has been the subject of much debate , and rightly so, but there is more reason to be concerned about the offensive line. The 2015 season ended with Pro Football Focus ranking the Minnesota Vikings offensive line 14th overall, 16th in pass protection. Football Outsiders ranked the Vikings pass blocking a dismal 29th. Both ranked the Vikings in the top 10 in run blocking. Clearly, they were not a top half of the league offensive line, but with the addition of Alex Boone, a healthy John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco back at a more natural position, does the offensive line look better going into 2016?
Minnesota Vikings Offensive Line Preview
The 2015 Vikings offensive line was plagued by injuries and under performing players. The first and perhaps biggest problem with the offensive line was the injuries to John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Both were injured prior to the first regular season game and never played a snap in 2015. Sullivan out with a back problem that required surgery and Loadholt tore his Achilles’ tendon.
The result was pressing rookie, 4th round pick, T.J. Clemmings into action earlier than the Vikings would have liked. Joe Berger also took over at center. T.J. Clemmings was clearly overmatched all season at right tackle. It’s hard to place all the blame on him. No NFL team expects that their rookie fourth round pick will start 16 games. Still, Clemmings wasn’t good, and it hurt the team. Berger, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise and played as well as Sullivan had previously, possibly better.
Going into this season the Vikings don’t have the health issues, at this point, that they did in 2015. Outside of players missing a practice or two for minor issues there have been no serious health issues among projected starters. From all reports, Sullivan is feeling good physically and Phil Loadholt retired after suffering a setback in his recovery. Mike Harris has been suffering from some sort of head ailment that seems like it could rob him of the 2016 season, if not his career. The loss of Harris would be a further blow to the offensive line depth, given his ability to play multiple spots.
Under performing players are the next issue and that was spearheaded by left guard, Brandon Fusco. Moved to left guard in an effort to prop up a flailing Matt Kalil, Fusco was rated as one of the worst offensive linemen in the entire league by Pro Football Focus (PFF). Brandon Fusco may be better suited to the other side of the line a right guard but that’s no excuse for how bad he was last season.
Matt Kalil, once again, struggled in 2015 but not to the extent that he did in 2014. The led to some saying he improved. He improved in comparison to a dumpster fire of a season in 2014. He was still well below average via the good old eye test and PFF. Sometimes too much validity can be placed on the PFF stats. In Kalil’s and Fusco’s cases, they both failed the eye test as well.
Offensive Line Changes
The Fusco at left guard experiment failed miserably so the Minnesota Vikings moved quickly to fix the situation by signing Alex Boone to start at left guard and move Fusco back to right guard. Alex Boone is a proven solid guard noted for his toughness and attitude. Boone may not be an all-pro at this point but he’s certainly the type of player the Vikings needed. Not only does Boone represent an upgrade at the position but may also help bring an edge to the line, particularly Matt Kalil. MikeHarris could be a huge loss at guard if he can’t come back and leaves Beavers, Jeremiah Sirles and possibly Zac Kerin at guard.
Phil Loadholt retired. This throws a monkey wrench in the depth at tackle. Loadholt was expected to compete and likely win the right tackle job over free agent signing Andre Smith. Instead , the Vikings have Clemmings and Smith competing for the job. Tackle depth likely has rookie Willie Beavers/Sirles and T.J. Clemmings as backups. This is not ideal given inexperience and previous performance.
At center this season , not much changes with John Sullivan back he was expected to start and have Joe Berger as a swing man for guard and center. If Sullivan can regain form from earlier in his career depth across the line improves. That would leave Berger to plug in where needed at guard or even tackle.
Vikings Offensive Line in the Preseason
Coming into the preseason the general feeling among the media and fans was that the Vikings would be improved along the offensive line given improved health and free agent signings. Unfortunately, to this point the offensive line has not proven to be any better than it was last season.
Certainly, Boone has looked as advertised but outside of Boone the rest of the line has been underwhelming so far. Kalil looks no different than last season, though he has been praised by teammates and coaches so perhaps it’s just not visible in the limited action fans see in preseason play. Andre Smith should have easily won the right tackle job with Loadholt retiring but he has been so bad that Clemmings still has a chance to retain his job. John Sullivan is getting closer and closer to losing his job to Berger, and Fusco hasn’t been very promising either.
Chances are that the Vikings go into the season with Smith and Kalil at tackle, Boone and Fusco at guard and Sullivan at center. The Vikings would be wise to keep Berger in reserve so he is free to fill in should Fusco or Sullivan perform poorly or get injured.
This year is a big year for a team coming off of a breakout season in 2015. The Vikings have a young quarterback poised to break out and lead them to bigger things. It could be hard for the team and Teddy Bridgewater to take that next step in development this year if the offensive line is acting more like an anchor than a plow. Bridgewater was held out of the second preseason game. Coach Mike Zimmer refused to state why. The reason may be that he didn’t want his young quarterback out there against a vicious defense like the Seahawks. There are further concerns of how the lien would hold up against Seattle. It’s a damning indicator of what the coaching staff thinks of the offensive line if they held out Bridgewater.