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Updated: July 21st, 2010 12:03am
Training camp preview: Scouting the Vikings' offensive line

Training camp preview: Scouting the Vikings' offensive line

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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Each weekday until the Minnesota Vikings report to training camp on July 29, 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero breaks down the roster at another position, based on offseason practice observations and conversations with coaches, scouts and personnel people around the NFL. Day 3: Offensive line.

On the roster (14)

Locks: C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, LG Steve Hutchinson, RT Phil Loadholt, LT Bryant McKinnie.

Good bets: OL Ryan Cook.

On the bubble: G Chris DeGeare, C Jon Cooper, T Patrick Brown, T Chris Clark, T Drew Radovich.

Long shots: G Thomas Austin, G Adrian Battles, T Bill Noethlich.

The situation

All indications are the Vikings plan to go into the season with the same five starters they had in 2009. McKinnie (6-foot-8, 335 pounds) still has loads of ability, but he's wildly inconsistent and turns 31 in September. He's signed through 2013, but roster bonuses in each of the final three years -- including $1 million in 2011 -- makes this season an important one to prove he's worth keeping around. Though Hutchinson (6-5, 313) made his sixth All-Pro team in 2009, his performance suffered as he battled a shoulder injury that required surgery, and scouts no longer put him in an elite category at age 32. Nicked or not, more is expected of him as a run blocker.

The Vikings hope Sullivan (6-4, 301) will get stronger and play with more physicality in his second season as starter. His smarts and resourcefulness are strengths, and recovery from last year's foot/ankle injury will help, too. Herrera (6-2, 315) is a scrapper the Vikings believe will bounce back after playing last season banged up. He's not getting younger at age 30, though. A second-round draft pick (54th overall) last year, Loadholt (6-8, 343) might end up at left tackle eventually, but his size and physicality make him a good fit on the right side for now. He should be better in the running game and less penalty-prone (11 last season) with a year's experience and two good shoulders.

There's not much depth outside of Cook (6-6, 328), who washed out as a right tackle but remains a valuable jack-of-all-trades guy. The Vikings gave him the original-round restricted tender ($1.176 million). Cooper (6-2, 291) got into one game as a rookie. DeGeare (6-4, 325) looks like a monster, but there's a reason he fell to the fifth round (161st overall) out of Wake Forest. Consistency is an issue. Brown (6-5, 310), Clark (6-5, 315) and Radovich (6-5, 305) all finished last season on the practice squad.

Best battle

It's wide open behind the starting five, plus Cook. DeGeare has so much potential he's probably worth developing even if he struggles in camp. None of the practice-squad holdovers at tackle has appeared in an NFL game -- Radovich made the 53-man roster in 2008 before a shoulder injury ended his season -- but the departure of veteran Artis Hicks (Philadelphia) might open a spot for one of them.

Sleeper alert

The Vikings signed four rookie offensive linemen in the hours after the NFL Draft ended, and Austin (6-4, 310) is the only one who's still around. He recorded 316 knockdown blocks in four seasons at Clemson, where he split time at guard and center. That versatility should work in Austin's favor. He also has good lineage -- his father, Tom Austin, played football at West Point and his great uncle, Billy Austin, was on Auburn's 1957 national championship team.

One NFL scout's take on ... Steve Hutchinson

"Hutch has really -- I think he's getting by more on (respect). It's well-earned respect because of the longevity and the things that he's been able to sustain. But as far as him being one of the dominant guards in the game anymore? I don't know about that. I can tell you I've seen better. But he's still good."

Outlook

The line held up well protecting Brett Favre most of last season, but run blocking fell off badly. Despite the presence of All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings finished 22nd in yards per carry (4.1) -- their worst ranking in 21 years. The drop-off was the product of several factors, including injuries, the insertion of two first-time starters and the shift to a pass-oriented offense that altered the mentality up front. But the reality is McKinnie and Hutchinson declining, Sullivan and Herrera are just guys -- Sullivan has much more room to grow -- and there's only one backup (Cook) with any substantial NFL playing experience, leaving the unit exposed if injuries hit again. On a highly talented Vikings team with Super Bowl aspirations, scouts say, the offensive line may be the biggest potential weakness.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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