Minnesota Vikings' revamped O-line begins to take shape

By The Sports Xchange   |   Aug. 2, 2016 at 3:21 PM
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MANKATO, Minn. -- The Battle Royale competition at offensive line that was supposed to highlight the Minnesota Vikings' 2016 training camp hasn't materialized.

Yes, there is an interesting battle at center, where long-time starter John Sullivan is fighting to hold off Joe Berger, the long-time backup who stepped in and was impressive when Sullivan missed all of last season because of two back surgeries.

But the presumed free-for-all of battles up and down the line, particularly on the right side, fizzled when veteran right tackle Phil Loadholt retired days before camp started and right guard Mike Harris was placed on the non-football illness list with a mysterious head injury that has sidelined Harris since the team's June minicamp. Neither Harris, nor the team will explain the nature of the illness or how long Harris will be out.

"It's really just a medical deal," Zimmer said. "We just got to get it cleared up and as soon as that happens, then he can [practice]. I have no idea how long that will be."

Meanwhile, the O-line train is getting farther away from the station as new line coach Tony Sparano hammers away on the kind of tougher, more aggressive mentality that Zimmer coveted when he identified offensive line as the team's No. 1 offseason priority immediately following the playoff loss to Seattle.

"I've always believed the players develop the personality of their coach," Sparano said. "If I'm old-school or tough, and people want to call me that, I consider it a compliment."

General manager Rick Spielman had supplied Sparano with serious competition and an elite young starter. The latter came first with the signing of prized free agent left guard Alex Boone, a beast of a player both in terms of size and mentality. Next was the signing of former Bengals right tackle Andre Smith to the kind of one-year, prove-it deal that Spielman loves to do for motivational reasons.

Spielman convinced Loadholt to take a pay cut with another prove-it contract after Loadholt missed all of last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon. And Harris also returned on a one-year deal even though the team had moved Brandon Fusco from left guard, where he struggled a year ago, back to his natural right guard position, where Harris started every game last season.

Loadholt had missed the past 22 games because of injuries. When he suffered another injury working out before the start of camp, the 30-year-old decided his body had had enough.

The Vikings responded by pitting second-year player T.J. Clemmings against Smith in a competition at right tackle. Clemmings struggled tremendously while starting every game there a year ago and had been working on the left side in hopes he could become the backup swing tackle in 2016.

The Vikings had four practices, two in full pads, before reaching their first off-day on Tuesday. Sparano has alternated starters at center and right tackle every other day. Sullivan, who is in his first training camp battle since taking over for Matt Birk in 2009, and Smith were the first to go at center and right tackle, respectively. Berger and Clemmings have stepped in for them every other day.

Meanwhile, the other three starters have been Matt Kalil at left tackle, Boone at left guard and Fusco at right guard. Boone has looked exceptional, but, overall, the line has been getting punished consistently by a defensive line that's strong, deep and among the best in the league.

That's good news for a defense that was fifth in points allowed last season. But not so good news for an offense desperate to upgrade the weakest part of last year's 29th-ranked unit.

Zimmer said he wants his starting five up front set "as soon as possible." Circumstances might be making that easier, but not necessarily better.

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