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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Krammer: A little luck could go a long way for Vikings’ offensive line

By Andrew Krammer

Weeks before Matt Kalil flipped a hat off a jeering fan’s head outside TCF Bank Stadium, former Vikings left guard Charlie Johnson was already answering for the struggling rapport, which was then three years in the making, between the two.

It’s something we’re working on,” Johnson said, after the Vikings allowed six QB hits in a win against Washington on Nov. 2, 2014.

Four months later, Johnson was released to save the Vikings roughly $2.5 million in salary cap space and, more importantly, begin anew next to the franchise’s ailing left tackle in Kalil. Three years together, including two poor seasons for Kalil, was enough evidence to wipe the slate clean at left guard.

Enter Brandon Fusco, whose career high of a five-year contract extension in September 2014 was cut down by a season-ending torn pectoral muscle that same month. As Fusco rehabbed, the Vikings’ calculated move was to shift their best guard from right to left in order to shore up Kalil’s inside and ease the transition by having young candidates try out for right guard next to a veteran tackle.

“The communication over there is good,” said offensive coordinator Norv Turner at the time of the move. Fusco and Kalil had been a part of the same offensive line for each of Kalil’s three NFL seasons before the decision was made to pair the two.

“We’re capable of being a very good offensive line, we just have a lot of work to do,” Turner said, on July 27 at the start of training camp. “Obviously, we’ve got a change at left guard. We’re searching at right guard. We got a guy coming off a season-ending injury at right tackle, so we have a lot of uncertainty.”

Fast forward to February. They’re fresh off an 11-win season, a division title and coming a kick away from defeating the two-time NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round.

The 2015 success is all the more impressive considering they fielded a middling offense with an injury-thinned line. The offensive line’s underwhelming year resulted in Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer jettisoning position coach Jeff Davidson less than 48 hours after the season’s final snap.

Turner and new position coach Tony Sparano would likely long to stand on that uneven ground from last year’s training camp.

Because right now, it’d appear they’re straddling a fissure.

Staring into a potential rebuild for 2016, a little luck with full recoveries from two injured veterans could go a long way toward giving the Vikings a formidable line once again.

‘A lot of uncertainty’ was deemed the status last summer, before right tackle Phil Loadholt suffered a second season-ending injury in as many years, this time a tear to his left Achilles tendon. And before stalwart center John Sullivan underwent two back surgeries in two months to repair, and re-repair, a herniated disc last fall. (Sullivan required surgery again after a setback in the weight room. The Vikings also parted ways with strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus after the season.)

Headlined by those two injuries, the Vikings currently have an offensive line chock-full of question marks and underachievers. Two offensive linemen had solid campaigns last season, and one is a pending free agent while the other turns 34 this spring.

After three uneven seasons, they could move on from Kalil at left tackle as his expensive fifth-year option ($11M+) isn’t fully guaranteed until March 9. However, it’s not like they’re bursting at the seams with capable offensive tackles. And the Vikings’ well-managed salary cap means they can afford him at that price for next season.

Right guard Mike Harris had an admirable year transitioning from tackle, and is a pending free agent. Harris, who has made 22 starts in two seasons for the Vikings, said he’d like to stay in Minnesota, though he’s free to test the open market before committing anywhere. Another valuable and versatile veteran, Joe Berger, turns 34 in May and has one more season left under his current deal.

The first year at left guard was rocky for Fusco, who is trying to get back on track following one of his worst NFL seasons. Fusco allowed a career-worst 42 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, as he attributed his struggles to switching sides and a lack of strength following an offseason of rehab from a torn pectoral muscle.

And the Vikings didn’t feel good enough about their other young options to change course at right tackle with rookie T.J. Clemmings, who required a lot of help from the scheme and his teammates last season. General manager Rick Spielman traded for two offensive linemen early in the season, tackle Jeremiah Sirles and center Nick Easton, for depth and they were inactive all year.

So a little luck could go a long way. Specifically, Sullivan’s return would free up Berger to regain his role as the line’s ultimate safety net at center and guard. A healthy Loadholt gives back Adrian Peterson one of his best blockers and buys time for a developing player like Clemmings, or whoever is added at tackle.

That’s if they even roll the dice with their two recovering, high-priced veterans.

First, financial decisions will dictate whether or not Loadholt and Sullivan get a chance to return to form in Minnesota. Without the two last season, the Vikings allocated nearly 10 percent of their salary cap to injured reserve. Now coaches haven’t seen either play since August, setting a difficult backdrop in considering how to possibly adjust contracts. Loadholt and Sullivan are currently due non-guaranteed $5.4 million base salaries for the 2016 season (both in top 10 pay among position).

Loadholt, who hasn’t played a regular season game since Nov. 23, 2014, recently told reporters at a Vikings’ Black History Month event that his physical rehab is on schedule. Their biggest lineman, listed at 6-foot-8 and 345 pounds, has suffered a torn pectoral muscle and a torn Achilles tendon over the last two years.

“I’ve definitely got a lot of time now,” Loadholt said, via ESPN.com. “I kind of say, my season started now, for me — kind of moving around and stuff like that, getting back in shape. I feel like my season started now, which is good, because I’m not still rehabbing and barely walking and stuff like that.

“I’m running now, so that was the last big milestone that just happened.”

Last fall, the Vikings found both calm and uneasiness as they pushed forward with replacements. Berger, a veteran backup, fared so well in his career-high 16 starts that he was one of just four NFL centers to receive more than one All-Pro vote. Berger garnered three votes as the league’s top center by a national panel of media.

On the opposite side of the coin, Clemmings was quickly ruled out as an option for starting right guard before he was thrust into Loadholt’s spot following two season-ending injuries at tackle between Loadholt and Carter Bykowski. The previous year’s swing tackle, Mike Harris, was already pegged as the new right guard.

Clemmings endured a rough rookie season, and at his end-of-season press conference Zimmer was asked if he’d shown enough to be a long-term solution at right tackle.

“I think at times he did and at times he didn’t,” Zimmer said last month. “So he’s going to have to come back and compete.”

Regardless of the personnel, competition will be the offensive line’s mantra. Should Sullivan or Loadholt return, they’ll need to prove they’re healthy.

If either can make a full recovery, the Vikings’ line becomes more of a reload than a rebuild.

The post Krammer: A little luck could go a long way for Vikings’ offensive line appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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