Green Bay Packers: Ranking the NFC North offensive lines
2) MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Priority one for the Purple People Eaters is to make Teddy Bridgewater turn it loose. Whether he’s actually capable of being a winning quarterback by taking more shots downfield is up for debate, but the Vikings front office has spent top dollar in the offseason to put their young field general in the best position possible to take that next step.
Headlining the newcomers is 49ers import Alex Boone, a mammoth six-foot-eight guard, whose strength should provide Adrian Peterson with just enough push to accelerate through defenses, while his long 34 3/8-inch arms should offer his quarterback a few more precious seconds to keep him out of harm’s way.
Fellow free agent addition Andre Smith was brought in to compete with Phil Loadholt for the starting right tackle spot. Smith entered the league as a much-ballyhooed first-round pick, but while he’s had his moments in the NFL, he remains prone to bouts of inconsistency and constantly struggles to keep his weight down.
The 29-year-old bookend isn’t the most nimble of trench warriors and lacks the ability to bend his knees when engaging opponents. His strength lies in his arm length and strength to re-route pass rushers who are often forced to take the long path to the opposing passer.
The aforementioned Loadholt is recovering from an Achilles tear, but has been a devastating run blocker when healthy.
Pass protection is where the Vikings must elevate their level of play given the fact that they surrendered 45 sacks and ranked 31st overall in pass blocking efficiency according to Pro Football Focus.
Although the Packers actually gave up two more sacks, their offense averaged 35.8 passes per game while the run-heavy Vikings aired it out a mere 28.4 times per contest.
In order for Mike Zimmer’s boys to serve their quarterback with added security, they must get more from left tackle Matt Kalil, who the Vikings took with the fourth pick in the first round in 2012. Although the 26-year-old began his career by making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he’s had a steep fall from grace ever since.
His 2014 season was an outright disaster that saw Kalil give up a league-high 12 sacks. To his credit, he did improve the following year, but only in terms of going from being totally inept to performing at a level that was barely average for a player at his position.
The fifth-year veteran has played through an assortment of knee injuries and has yet to miss a game, in fact. But that doesn’t mean that his play hasn’t suffered because of it.
At various times throughout his career, Kalil has been unable to drop down and anchor against linemen who have overpowered the six-foot-seven, 308-pound edge blocker. Similarly, his footwork has also been poor particularly in his efforts to readjust to skilled rushers who employ stutter moves and head fakes.
But perhaps most discouraging of all has been the former Pac-12 member’s trouble in picking up stunts and blitzes, which may indicate that he may have lost some of his focus and confidence along the way.
Kalil’s underwhelming production was a huge reason why Zimmer decided to replace last year’s offensive line coach Jeff Davidson with Tony Sparano, who has already made an impression with his non-nonsense style and willingness to hold everyone accountable.
This is sure to be Kalil’s last stand. He will lose his job if he doesn’t return to his old rookie self. Vikings coaches are hoping that Boone’s enthusiasm can help inject the left tackle with a dose of fire and intensity.
The man who could very take over the all-important blindside protector job is second-year man T.J. Clemmings. The converted defensive end is as green as grass despite starting 16 games at right tackle.
Clemmings struggled mightily in pass protection last season, but has the raw tools to be an upgrade over Kalil if can he master the technical aspect of his position, as well as doing a better job of reading defenses. If he does, the ex-Pittsburgh Panther has the traits to be a tenacious finisher with quick feet.
This team looks to be well stocked along the interior with John Sullivan returning at starting center after an injury-plagued 2015. Though not the most physically-imposing trenchman, the long-time Viking is a cerebral competitor who wins his battles with excellent hand placement and an impeccable ability to gain leverage.
After a strong year taking over for the injured Sullivan at center, 33-year-old Joe Berger may shift over to right guard or serve as a valuable piece off the bench in 2016. In a late-season analysis of the 12th-year lineman, Pro Football Focus deemed Berger and Dallas’ Travis Frederick as the top centers in the NFL according to their grading system.
He had allowed only one sack and 12 pressures at the time of the report in mid-December. His exploits as a run blocker were also lauded as PFF pointed out how Peterson’s yards-per-carry average went up a full two yards when No. 28 run on either side of Berger as opposed to when he ran between the guard and tackles.
Look for Berger to compete with Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris at right guard. Fusco didn’t take well to his switch from right guard to left guard and gave up 42 quarterback hurries as a result. Harris’ transition from tackle to right guard, conversely, proved successful in that he missed a single snap all season and showed continued improvement in his pass protection technique.
Fourth-round pick Willie Beavers probably won’t contribute all that much as a rookie. While the Western Michigan man has the movement skills to someday be a starting tackle, he would just get overwhelmed at the point of attack if he were inserted into the regular lineup too soon.
Overall, this organization has assembled a varied array of big bodies that will compete for jobs at just about every position along the line. The biggest benefactor of the enhanced depth will be Bridgewater, who should see more off a push up the middle that should facilitate his ability to step up in the pocket.
Next: No. 1