Heading into the 2006 season, most observers considered the Vikings' two biggest challenges to be getting better play out of their linebacking corps and obtaining a semblance of pass protection and run-blocking out of the right side of their offensive line. With the addition of Ben Leber, continuing improved play from E.J. Henderson, and flashes of run-stopping ability from Napolean Harris, the Vikings markedly improved their linebacking play in 2006, a primary reason for their vaulting into the top ten of NFL defenses.
The Vikings' defense remained susceptible to the pass in 2006, however, particularly against schemes that took advantage of Harris' pass-coverage short-comings. But, even against the pass, new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's defense was much improved over 2005. And with the expected return of rookie Chad Greenway in 2007, things should only improve for the Vikings' linebacking corps in 2007--even with the probable departure of starting middle linebacker Harris.
Unfortunatley, the improvements that the Vikings made in the linebacking corps were not matched along the offensive line. Despite the addition of Steve Hutchinson as starting left guard and the introduction of a purportedly line-friendly, quick passing system, the Vikings' offense regressed remarkably under first-year head coach and primary play-caller Brad Childress.
The offensive line's problems were not surprising given the moves that the Vikings did and did not make in the 2005-2006 off-season. Adding Hutchinson and returning center Matt Birk merely fortified a left and center of the line that were already at least stable. The real problem in 2005, in addition to Birk's absence in the middle, was the utter lack of players who could play on the right side of the line. Childress' 2006 solution was to re-insert a struggling Marcus Johnson and to acquire right guard Artis Hicks in a trade with his former team, Philadelphia.
Marcus Johnson continued to struggle in 2006, actually regressing to near-Rosenthal levels. And Hicks' play made Johnson's play look sterling in contrast. To make matters worse, veteran backups Mike Rosenthal and Jason Whittle only made Vikings' fans pine for the return of Johnson and Hicks, as the pair demonstrated their renowned familiarity with each other by routinely false starting and/or holding opponents in tandem.
If performance were all that mattered and cap issues and matters such as who would replace an ousted player were non-sequiturs, the Vikings would enter the 2006-2007 off-season with vacancies at both right guard and tackle and at their respective backup positions. With a hefty chunk of the team's salary cap already committed to the left side of the line for the long haul, however, at least one of the two starters from 2006 likely will return in 2007. Childress' cronyism favors Hicks. Upside favors Johnson.
But even if the Vikings are able to replace only one of the members of the right side of their offensive line, they ought to see improved pass protection and run blocking in 2007, if only because it's virtually impossible to find something worse than what they entered games with in 2006. The Vikings are said to be smitten with Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas, but so, too, presumably, are each of the teams selecting ahead of the Vikings in the 2007 draft. At 6'6", 310 pounds, and with a 40-time of 5.10, it's easy to understand why. And it's easy to assume that Thomas probably will not fall to Minnesota at number seven.
With a fixation on building the team's strength from the line--a fixation that led the Vikings to blunder in giving underwhelming left tackle Bryant McKinnie a windfall contract extension in 2006--expect the Vikings to look for offensive line help in the draft, even if Thomas is gone when they select in the first round. That help could come in the form of Sam Baker, 6'5", 305 pounds, out of USC, Levi Brown, 6'5", 325 pounds, out of Penn State, or Jake Long, 6'7", 338 pounds, out of Michigan, with all but Thomas likely second round options, assuming Baker and long declare for the draft as underclassmen.
But before the Vikings plan their big board for the 2007 NFL draft, they likely will be among the teams bidding for the services of one of several free agent offensive linemen on the market this season. At the top of that list is Pittsburgh tackle Max Starks, a 6'8", 338 pound behemoth.
If Pittsburgh opts to retain Starks, a restricted free agent, the Vikings would still have two other nice free agent targets in unrestricted free agents Leonard Davis of Arizona and Mike Gandy of Buffalo. At 6'6", 365 pounds, it's difficult to ignore Davis. The problem for Minnesota, however, is that Davis plays left tackle. If he's able to adapt to right tackle--and Childress re-considers his zone-blocking scheme--Davis would be an ideal, if expensive, addition to the Vikings' offensive line in 2007.
At 6'4", 310 pounds, Mike Gandy might better suit the zone-blocking scheme that the Vikings run, but he, too, plays left tackle. And, though an upgrade over anything the Vikings currently have on the right side of the offensive line--assuming Ryan Cook progresses at merely a normal rate--if Gandy can play on the right side he would be a useful addition. The greater caveat on Gandy than his suitability to the left side of the line is that, despite joining the Bills as a free agent in 2005, Gandy has already lost his starting job to Jason Peters. That might make Gandy less expensive if there were higher quality free-agent offensive tackles on the market this year, but, since there are not, it might just make him a large risk.
Whether through the draft or via free-agency, the Vikings must address their offensive line issues in the 2006-2007 off-season if they intend to be serious contenders in 2007. With decent salary cap space, the Vikings should be in position to land one of the three offensive tackles on the market, if they want to commit big dollars and up-front money in 2007. If not, they'll be searching for a diamond in the rough or hoping for good fortune in the 2007 entry draft.
Up Next: Passing Game.