Who is this Matt Kalil, and where has he been? I’ve watched the Vikings’ three preseason games, and the No. 75 stepping onto the field isn’t the same player I watched in 2014. We all know the story — Kalil allowed a league-high 12 sacks last season while playing every offensive snap through chronic knee pain. More often than not, Kalil looked slow, unsure of himself, and passive in pass protection, giving some of the league’s best edge rushers free shots on first-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
It wasn’t all his fault, though. Kalil’s knees became such an issue last season that he required arthroscopic surgery from Dr. James Andrews — the same doctor who repaired Adrian Peterson’s ACL — and has been taking precautionary steps to improve his health since January. Midway through training camp, Kalil reflected on his injuries and the mental toll they took on him this offseason, per Andrew Krammer:
“You get to a point where everything hurts so much, you’re like, ‘OK, one more year and then there’s no way,'” Kalil said. “There’s a lot of things, too, besides football. Obviously I love football and I’m healthy, obviously I’m going to do everything I can like I am now.”
“But if you’re not [healthy], it wears on you. If you had to go to practice and feel excruciating pain every day, it wouldn’t be really fun to work with. You feel like you have to survive at practice instead of get better and work on your skills. You know what I mean? That’s what it was like last year. It’s all good now, I’m healthy.”
Given his newfound health and confidence, Kalil can finally focus on perfecting his technique. That extra practice time, from working individually on his kickstep to battling Everson Griffen in one-on-ones, means Kalil is beginning to look more and more like his 2012 self. That Matt Kalil, the fourth-overall selection in the NFL Draft, earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and lived up to the college hype, routinely shutting down elite rushers like Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, and Clay Matthews.
However, his road to recovery hasn’t been without bumps and bruises. As Adam wrote earlier this month, Kalil started camp as the team’s revolving door, losing one-on-one battles with Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, and even rookie Danielle Hunter. The same issues that cropped up in 2014 — lazy footwork, high pad level, a late first punch — resurfaced throughout practices, and the worries of an ever-fearful Vikings fan base grew with every poor camp report.
But then, the Vikings traveled to Canton for the Hall of Fame Game and Kalil played…great? He did, are you sure? Yes, Kalil was solid, and surprisingly, that’s been the case in every one of the Vikings’ three exhibition games. Even Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, which ranked Kalil the third-worst tackle in 2014, has been surprised by Kalil’s performances:
Don't look now, but Matt Kalil has a positive grade this preseason. Has been perfect in pass pro. 0 pressures.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) August 25, 2015
Where did this turnaround come from, and how has Kalil been so efficient? Granted, it’s only the preseason, and we’re dealing with a small sample size, but the film never lies — Kalil looks healthy, motivated, and engaged thus far in 2015.