Pelissero: Hutchinson's decline a reminder of age on Vikings' o-line
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A broken thumb isn't the beginning of the end for Steve Hutchinson. The reality is he started down that path awhile ago.
At age 33, the Minnesota Vikings' six-time All-Pro left guard is declining. That's how it goes around this time for even the greatest at the game's most brutal position.
Hutchinson isn't bad by any stretch -- most scouts still count him as a solid starter. But for a player who was the best at his position for several years, as Hutchinson was in a prime that only recently ended, the difference between good and great is obvious.
And so as Hutchinson tries again to practice on Friday, his right hand heavily bandaged and prone to throbbing if the thumb is so much as moved, there surely are heavier things on his mind than a 123-game starting streak that snapped last weekend.
"The lifespan of a lineman is right there between the 15- and 10-year (mark)," Vikings offensive line coach Pat Morris said on Thursday.
"And usually, some guys know when to go. I've had veterans like Harris Barton when I was with the 49ers (from 1997 to 2003) and other guys -- they kind of get a feel when they know they're not there. (Hutchinson)'s right near that. He knows it, how many years he has left. But it's up to see basically if his health is an issue."
Barton played 10 seasons and twice was named All-Pro at tackle before knee problems ended his career. Guards such as Vikings legend Randall McDaniel, who played until age 37, are the exception to the rule.
"The first thing that usually goes is the knees, and it's not necessarily getting hurt a lot -- it's just the flexibility is what goes," said an NFC scout who has studied the Vikings closely.
"(Hutchinson) will struggle to get underneath people and get movement and keep his balance, basically. You see that a lot more. There's times it was just kind of a thin block, and (a defensive tackle) would just throw him. Up until this year, you'd never see anyone do this to 'Hutch.' He used to kick our ass."
The Vikings saw the drop-off in Hutchinson's play last season, but it widely was attributed to a nagging shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.
This season, there had been no health-related excuses -- his only listing on the injury report was for a quadriceps injury that limited him in two late-October practices -- before he busted the thumb on Nov. 28 at Washington.
"He plays real physical," Morris said. "When you're a guard, when you're in the inside area, you get knocked around a lot, and you play all those straight games -- it's going to slow you down a little bit. Usually, as you get older, a lot of times, your legs go a little bit. Age gets to you."
That's a concern for the Vikings' line that extends beyond Hutchinson, given the age of several starters and the lack of probable successors behind them.
Since 2002, when they drafted left tackle Bryant McKinnie with the No. 7 overall selection, the Vikings have used only six of 55 picks (10.9%) -- none in the top 48 -- on offensive linemen.
Of the four that remain on the roster, Ryan Cook (second round in 2006) is a backup-type who could be a free agent after the season; center John Sullivan (sixth in 2008) and Loadholt (second in 2009) are below-average -- though seemingly ascending -- second-year starters; and rookie fifth-round pick Chris DeGeare got shoved around in his first NFL start last week against Buffalo.
Hutchinson, McKinnie (31) and right guard Anthony Herrera (30) all are on the wrong side of age 30, and Herrera is rehabbing triceps and major knee injuries that could threaten his availability for the start of training camp.
"I thought (Hutchinson) really fell off this season, and McKinnie's been kind of going that way for a while," the scout said. "I know Herrera's not old, but I thought he looked a lot worse this year for whatever reason."
None of them are bad. McKinnie actually is playing better than he did down the stretch of his Pro Bowl season in 2009, when he was battling plantar fasciitis in both feet, and Herrera always has been a scrapper who uses aggression to offset his physical limitations.
It's just that the Vikings have to figure out a way to add youth and talent to the group this offseason, at a time when they also will be searching for a franchise quarterback and need to target help in the secondary, too.
"That's probably one of the positions that's harder to find good players to fit in there," Morris said. "Everybody we play, you can circle a guy -- 'God, how come he's playing there?' Well, there's really no one else good enough to replace him right now."
DeGeare may get another chance this week against the New York Giants' dangerous front, considering how Hutchinson's work has been limited in practice this week.
For a left guard, a right-hand injury is particularly troubling, because it's the one used to punch, grip and protect inside-out -- and the one defensive lineman slap away.
Hutchinson was terse on Wednesday when asked about the injury and his personal performance this season, saying, "Yeah, had a pretty good year, 'til the fact that last week, when I didn't play."
With scheduled compensation of $6.73 million in 2011 and $7 million in 2012, though, the Vikings aren't paying for pretty good. They're paying for elite -- which Hutchinson was when he signed his seven-year, $49 million contract in March 2006 -- and that makes it worth wondering how eager a new regime will be to pay him at all.
"I think sometimes scouting reports call it 'a declining Pro Bowler,'" Morris said. "The word 'decline' doesn't mean -- it just means, hey, you're getting old and you can't move, you can't move as fast as you used to.
"I still think he has years left here. Guys have played longer than that. But I think the way he can adapt to it as a veteran -- sometimes, (being) a veteran gets you to play more efficient. When you're young, you kind of knock heads, but I think he can play a little more efficient to extend his career, and (limiting) the practice reps help. You can't beat those old bodies."