Minnesota Vikings: Kevin Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS -- Between now and the Minnesota Vikings' first training camp practice July 25, we will break down each position group.

Today, we'll take a look at the offensive line.

Returning players: Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco. Phil Loadholt, Joe Berger, Jeff Baca, Mike Remmers, Kevin Murphy

Gone from last season: J'Marcus Webb

New this season: David Yankey (fifth-round pick from Stanford), Vladimir Ducasse (free agent from New York Jets), Antonio Richardson (undrafted free agent from Tennessee), Matt Hall (undrafted free agent from Belhaven), Pierce Burton (undrafted free agent from Mississippi), Austin Wentworth (undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State), Zac Kerin (undrafted free agent from Toledo)

Position coach: Jeff Davidson (fourth season)

Biggest issue: The Vikings' offensive line has been one of the most reliable units on the team for the past two seasons, but after a season when Kalil and Johnson struggled at times on the left side, the group will have to adapt to an offense with a different focus than the one the Vikings have used for the past several seasons. Run blocking has been the forte of this group, and while the line has been decent in pass protection, offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme, which will likely have the Vikings throwing more often and further downfield than they did under Bill Musgrave, will require linemen to hold their blocks longer and let plays develop. Kalil, in particular, needs to be better after a subpar follow-up to his Pro Bowl rookie season.

Player to watch: The Vikings were thrilled to see Yankey still available in the fifth round, and the rookie could push for a starting job before too long. He's a mean, physical guard who comes from a school that's produced a number of solid offensive linemen in recent years, and while he's been a left guard -- which might be the most vulnerable position on the Vikings' line -- Yankey has played both guard and tackle spots. His versatility and size (6-foot-6, 315 pounds) could make him a versatile backup, at the very least.

Medical report: Kalil had knee surgery after last season, and was limited to individual drills during the Vikings' organized team activities and minicamp. He's expected to be ready for the start of training camp, however.

Help wanted: The Vikings could look for backup help at tackle, and though they'll be helped by the fact Yankey and Ducasse can line up in a few different spots, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see them add a veteran backup at some point, like they had in Webb last year.

Quotable: "A lot of the ways that we're doing protections have changed," Davidson said. "There's a lot of nuances that have taken on different responsibilities for everybody within the line. The communication part is very important. That's what we spent an inordinate amount of time on, during the OTAs especially. The run game, there are some changes. I would call them minor tweaks, as compared to what we've done in the pass. Protection-wise is where we've made a substantial change. Some of the adjustments we're making with the protections, that's taken a lot of time."
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing on with our position-by-position outlook at the Minnesota Vikings' roster. Today: the offensive tackles.


2014 free agents: J'Marcus Webb

The good: The Vikings know they're set at the position, with Matt Kalil signed through 2015 and Phil Loadholt under contract until 2016. Both players got better after rough starts to the season; Loadholt allowed just one sack in the Vikings' final 13 games after giving up three in their first three, and Pro Football Focus ranked him the 10th-best tackle in the game. Kalil's best work came in the month of December, when he was credited with just two quarterback hits and no sacks, per Pro Football Focus. The Vikings know who both of their tackles will be for the foreseeable future, and they might have the best tackle tandem in the division.

The bad: When taken as a whole, it's hard to see Kalil's year as anything other than a setback from his superb rookie season. He gave up four sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 33 hurries, after allowing three sacks, four hits and 20 hurries as a rookie. The Vikings might be able to get Kalil some help on the left side of the line if they upgrade at left guard from veteran Charlie Johnson, who is a free agent after a disappointing year, but they'll be counting on Kalil to build on what he did toward the end of the season and get back to playing the way he did as a rookie. He seemed to struggle more against speed rushers in 2013 than he did as a rookie. With offensive line coach Jeff Davidson looking likely to return, Kalil will at least have some of the same structure in place he did during his first two years.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Loadholt ($5.57 million), Kalil ($5.39 million), Mike Remmers ($495,000). The Vikings also had tackle Kevin Murphy on their practice squad, and signed him to a reserve/future contract after the season. The Vikings might also look for a veteran backup at the position, like they had in Webb this season. Webb is a free agent this spring, but it's possible the Vikings could bring him back.

Draft priority: Low. The Vikings' fortunes (literally and figuratively) are tied up in Kalil and Loadholt at the position, and anything they do with their tackles would be simply to add depth to their roster.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was in April 2012 at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital, shortly after former Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson had signed with the Tennessee Titans, that Hutchinson pulled center John Sullivan aside and asked him to take the mantle of leadership for the Vikings' work with the hospital.

Sullivan had been going to charity events there since his rookie season, following a player he looked to as a mentor on and off the field, and Hutchinson knew he needed to ask a current player to keep the relationship with the hospital strong now that he was leaving. Sullivan was an easy choice.

"He asked me at Amplatz, at their annual event, WineFest," Sullivan said. "I was sitting with him -- he knew he was going to Tennessee, and he said, 'They'd like to have a current player hosting the events. I'd love it if you could take over.' I learned a lot from Steve -- how to go about handling myself here, and this being the right thing to do. He deserves some credit for that."

Sullivan dove into the work to such a degree that on Tuesday, at Amplatz Children's Hospital, the Vikings named him their 2013 Community Man of the Year, making him a nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in February. Sullivan personally donated $150,000 toward the medically-friendly playground built in his name over the summer, has sponsored Halloween, Thanksgiving and December holiday parties over the past three years and is the celebrity chair for the hospital's golf event each year. On Tuesday, he hosted the 2013 holiday party with five other Vikings players -- quarterback Matt Cassel, punter Jeff Locke, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive linemen Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil and Kevin Murphy -- continuing a tradition passed to him by Hutchinson.

NFL teams are approached regularly with opportunities for charity work, and the Vikings are no different. But the relationship between a team and a charity tends to thrive when there's a player who's personally invested in it.

"There are so many great charities out there. There are so many things you want to do," Cassel said. "We get a lot of opportunities to go out to other guys' charities -- they might be passionate about something, where we might be more passionate about something else. But supporting each other -- because we've all been blessed to be put in this position to go and give back -- is a pretty special and unique opportunity for all of us."

Cassel has been involved with the NFL's Play 60 initiative to promote youth fitness since his time in Kansas City, and has continued his work there in Minnesota. That particular cause can travel with a player around the country, but something like a local children's hospital obviously cannot. In those cases, players often find a younger candidate to make sure the work continues after they're gone.

"Some of those charities, it's a great opportunity for guys to step in," Cassel said. "Maybe somebody's stepping out, and they need that void filled. John has done a remarkable job here, obviously."

Said Sullivan: "Just like I was here to support somebody hosting these events before, (my teammates) make this all possible. You need a lot of guys out here to support you and support this cause. It doesn't take much. It's a positive experience for everybody involved, so it's not a hard sell."