Saturday, July 30, 2016

john sullivan

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Out with the old, in with the new

Vikings' starting offensive line
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Competition is the name of the game for the Minnesota Vikings, who completely revamped the look of their offensive line this offseason. Last year’s unit, which featured rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings and reserve center Joe Berger, was a ramshackle bunch of pieces playing out of position.

Mike Harris, traditionally a tackle, was thrust into the lineup as a right guard. Brandon Fusco, the right guard of old, was forced to move to the left side of the line. And Clemmings, no matter how much of a “steal” he was in the draft, clearly wasn’t ready to take the reigns from an injured Phil Loadholt.

Heading into 2016, a pivotal year for the Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman took measures to prevent another disaster up front. His free agent signings — an re-signings — signal an emphasis on protecting third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and solidifying one of the team’s weakest links from 2015:

  • Re-structuring right tackle Phil Loadholt and retaining left tackle Matt Kalil — consistency and continuity at the tackle position can’t hurt, right?
  • Re-signing right guard Mike Harris, who is expected to compete with Brandon Fusco for starting duties next season
  • Signing free agent left guard Alex Boone, who will step in immediately next to Matt Kalil
  • Bringing in free agent right tackle Andre Smith for a visit — the former Cincinnati Bengal is reportedly deciding between Arizona and Minnesota for his next contract

With all of these changes, moves, and potential signings, Spielman is fostering a competitive environment in Minnesota. Presumed starters today may end up on the bench tomorrow; it’s a guessing game at this point of the offseason. And that’s why I asked the VT team to make their best guess and predict the Vikings’ starting offensive line come Week 1. Who will rise and solidify a spot as one of the top-five?

It’s Week 1 of the 2016 regular season. Who is starting on the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings?

Vikings free agency targets
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The NFL League Year officially begins on March 9th, but there really are no timeouts when it comes to professional football. Once the final whistle blows at the end of the Super Bowl, front offices ramp up their efforts to improve rosters by making cuts, trades, and adding new talent.

That starts during Free Agency, which coincides with the beginning of the “new” year. Top-tier players, journeymen, and sleepers become available to the highest-bidding, and at times, most desperate teams. The Minnesota Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman generally take a cautious approach to the free-for-all extravaganza, finding value in lesser-known names who don’t dominate the headlines.

It’s an approach that recently brought players like Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota; free agency additions that make an impact at a reasonable price. This year’s crop of players is filled with a few high-profile names, many of whom fans would like to see in purple and gold. But who would the VT Team like to see in Minnesota next year? I asked, and they answered!

Who is one player you’d like to see the Vikings sign in Free Agency?

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Kelechi Osemele's free agent fit
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Brandon Fusco made the switch from right guard to left guard for the Minnesota Vikings last season, and his transition was as smooth as Adrian Peterson trying to hold onto the football in a playoff game. In simpler terms, he struggled throughout 2015, and his difficulty shifting to the opposite side of the line has raised questions about the unit as a whole.

Specifically, the Vikings must decide what to do with three players this offseason: center John Sullivan, right tackle Phil Loadholt, and right guard Mike Harris. The first two will make their return from injuries in 2016, but an instant rebound isn’t guaranteed for either player. And given their large salary cap hits, general manager Rick Spielman may decide to move forward without them next season.

That leaves Harris, who is set to become a free agent. The four-year veteran should garner a healthy contract from the Vikings or another suitor in March. Letting Harris, Loadholt, and Sullivan walk would allow Spielman to spend more money in free agency. It’s a strategy he rarely employs, but a strategy that potentially makes sense with the rare talent hitting the market next month.

Meet Kelechi Osemele, a free agent guard-tackle hybrid who immediately patches a hole on the Vikings’ offensive line.

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Originally recruited to play tight end, Clemson University guard Eric Mac Lain isn’t your prototypical offensive lineman. A 2011 high school graduate from North Carolina, the 6’5″, 245-pound prospect was the 6th-ranked tight end in the country and a top-60 national recruit, per Rivals. He redshirted as a freshman at Clemson, but played 38 snaps at tight end and 10 snaps at tight end in 2012. By the time 2015 rolled around, Mac Lain had started just one game for the Tigers.

That lack of experience didn’t prevent Mac Lain from becoming a leader for the Tigers, though. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney praised the left guard for his leadership, on an off the field:

“Eric has been an unbelievable leader. He took Mitch Hyatt under his wing, a true freshman left tackle, getting Guillermo back, Ryan Norton battling through injuries, Joe Gore, Maverick stepping in, Crowder, all those guys, they’ve been incredible. It doesn’t matter who we’ve played, they have been incredibly consistent,” Swinney said, per the Clemson Insider.

After making the full-time switch to left guard, Mac Lain anchored a unit that helped the Tigers rush for more than 3,000 yards this season. In the National Championship Game, the offense racked up over 500 yards against one of the country’s best defenses. Mac Lain’s proven he can make a position switch at college football’s highest level, which should make him an intriguing prospect in the middle-to-late rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Vikings Jeff Davidson Offensive Line
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

In his final press conference of the 2015 season, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer thanked the University of Minnesota, revealed his players’ offseason surgeries, and announced the release of one of the team’s coaches.

According to Zimmer, the team has parted ways with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. When asked why he chose not to retain Davidson’s contract, Zimmer told reporters, “I didn’t want to.”

Davidson spent five years with the Vikings. He was a holdover from Leslie Frazier’s coaching staff and led a unit that struggled over the past two seasons. In 2014, the line allowed 51 sacks. In 2015, the banged-up group allowed 45 more sacks. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was the victim of 44 of those — far too many in Norv Turner’s Air Coryell offense.

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