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Vikings Beef Up Offensive Line Competition

Posted by Mike Wobschall on March 26, 2012 – 11:23 am

The Vikings have made official the signing of free agent OL Geoff Schwartz, adding the versatile 5th-year pro to an offensive line that is getting younger this offseason. The move reunites Schwartz with Vikings OL coach Jeff Davidson, who was the Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator from 2007-10 when Schwartz was drafted by the Panthers in the 7th round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of Oregon.

The Vikings released veteran OGs Anthony Herrera and Steve Hutchinson earlier this month, and they appear committed to getting younger along the offensive line while also adding competition at the same time. Schwartz will turn 26 in July and has played in 32 games with 19 starts in his career. He’s dealt with injuries since entering the NFL, with his 32 games played and 19 starts coming over just 2 seasons. He is listed as appearing in no games in 2008 (his rookie season) and in 2011.

Following the release of Herrera and Hutchinson, I proposed an economical, long-term plan for the offensive line that included drafting Matt Kalil at #3, moving Charlie Johnson to LG and then holding competition for the starting RG spot between veteran Joe Berger and youngster Brandon Fusco, along with Chris DeGeare and any other future draft picks joining the competition. That plan would produce plenty of competition for at least one starting spot – RG – and could also open competition at LG should one of the youngsters push Johnson for playing time.

The Vikings decision to sign Schwartz only increases the competition for playing time. One could argue that if the Vikings had to play a game today, Schwartz would be the starter at one of the guard positions, or event perhaps at LT. But the Vikings don’t have to play a game today, and won’t play a game for another 4.5 months. In the meantime, Schwartz and the rest of his new offensive line teammates will go through a robust competition for playing time.


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Free Agent CB, OL Possibilities For Vikings, Report Says

Posted by Mike Wobschall on March 16, 2012 – 11:00 am

Many Vikings fans have been clamoring for the team to address the secondary and offensive line in free agency, and have grown impatient with the perceived lack of development in that effort. Those fans should be happy to learn, then, that the Vikings may soon look to address each position.

Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press is reporting that the Vikings may host free agent OL Geoff Schwartz in the near future, and that there could be interest in free agent DB Alan Ball. I have not confirmed with any team officials as to whether this is the case or not, but we’ll pass along information to you if the team confirms these, or any other, developments.

If the team is indeed interested in Schwartz, it would make a lot of sense. Schwartz can play G or RT, and he played for Vikings OL coach Jeff Davidson in Carolina. The Panthers selected Schwartz with a 7th-round pick in 2008, but he was able to make the team and progress into a steady contributor, playing 32 games with 19 starts over 4 seasons. He’ll turn 26 in July, and fits the themes of free agency that I like for the Vikings – get younger and surround Christian Ponder with talented offensive pieces.

While it’d be premature to declare Schwartz a starter if he wound up with the Vikings, he would compete for a starting job at either LG or RG most likely, and at a minimum he could be a versatile reserve lineman capable of playing up to three positions. Again, I’ve not confirmed the Vikings interest in Schwartz, but it would make a lot of sense.

As for Ball, Fowler states in his report that the 6-2 DB “is probably a more natural fit at corner,” but it sounds like Ball can also play safety. Ball was also a 7th round pick, with Dallas selecting him out of Illinois in 2007. As is the case with Schwartz, being a 7th-round pick might not excite fans. But you do have to give him credit for entering the NFL with little expectation, but then carving out a multi-year career with the team that drafted him.

Just as I said with Schwartz, I have not confirmed the team’s interest in Ball. But he fits a position of need for the Vikings and we’ll watch all weekend and into next week to see if anything materializes on that front.


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An Economical, Long-Term Plan For The Offensive Line

Posted by Mike Wobschall on March 13, 2012 – 6:06 am

Accustomed to watching a top tier running game since 2007 and tired of watching their brand-new franchise QB run for his life, Vikings fans are anxious to see the team make moves to improve the offensive line. But even with USC LT Matt Kalil expected to be the Vikings 1st-round pick next month, Vikings fans want more.

And it’s understandable. Christian Ponder was sacked 30 times in just 11 games, plus the Vikings released RG Anthony Herrera and LG Steve Hutchinson this past weekend, opening up a pair of vacancies in the starting lineup.

As a result, Ben Grubbs and Carl Nicks – a pair of OGs who have 3 Pro Bowls and 2 All-Pro selections between them – are in high demand among Vikings fans. Both are scheduled to become free agents at 3:00 p.m. CT today, and both play positions of need for the Vikings.

While both players would serve as upgrades at their position, don’t expect the Vikings to enter the bidding for their services. The Vikings do have a considerable amount of salary cap space, but signing Nicks would eat much of it up and the Vikings have more than just one player on their wish list; Grubbs will likely command an expensive salary as well. With other needs on the roster, the Vikings would be better-served, in my view, to use their free agency money on other positions, such as CB or WR.

A big part of my opinion on the matter is the plan I’d like to see the Vikings put into place this offseason to improve the offensive line. No, there may not be high-priced and Pro Bowl-caliber free agent signings on the horizon, but I still foresee the Vikings solving their offensive line woes. And I see them solving it by going young. Hear me out…

– Take Kalil in the 1st round, which will provide a starting LT and yield a replacement for Hutchinson at LG with Charlie Johnson sliding over. He will play better and will feel more comfortable at LG.
— John Sullivan has emerged as a Top 5-7 center in the NFL according to those who know more about it than me, and the Vikings locked him up to a contract extension last season. He becomes the leader of this young group, especially with Hutchinson no longer in the picture.
— At RG the Vikings can lean on veteran Joe Berger and 2nd-year player Brandon Fusco. I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews from coaches and players about Fusco’s progress last year and his prospects for the future.
— To round out the line, Loadholt will be back as the starting RT. He had a down year in 2011 and he’ll be the first to acknowledge that. But 2012 is a contract year for him, he’s been around Winter Park for much of the offseason, and OL coach Jeff Davidson is determined to help him improve. I like that situation.
— Lastly, other youngsters such as Chris DeGeare and Pat Brown can compete for playing time along the line should one of the proposed 5 starters falter or suffer an injury.

Are there questions here? Certainly. And there’s no guarantee my proposed solution will work. But for this Vikings team, coming off a 3-13 record with several holes to fill in the starting lineup – particularly the wide receiver position to help Ponder – I believe a young and affordable offensive line with some upside is a better group than a veteran, expensive collection of veterans who are being paid more for past production than they are for expectation.

Nicks and Grubbs are names most fans recognize, and I understand why Vikings fans demand the team pursue them. But you can’t have All-Pros at every position, or at least you can’t sign All-Pros in free agency at every position. I have confidence in the plan I laid out above, and more importantly I have confidence in the young players on the roster and the experience and tutelage Davidson can bring to the meeting room.

What do you say, Vikings fans? Are you okay with the team going young on the offensive line so they can pursue more talented players at other important positions? Let us know what you think by leaving your thoughts in the comments section below this entry.


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A Closer Look At Jeff Davidson And The Offensive Line

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 8, 2011 – 5:58 pm

Over the next five days on the vikings.com Blog, we’ll breakdown the Vikings roster position-by-position to give fans a comprehensive assessment of the team as the first preseason game – this Saturday night in Tennessee – approaches. First up is the offensive line.

Jeff Davidson is not a household name in Minnesota. At least not yet. But given how badly Vikings fans want the offensive line to improve this season, something tells me Davidson’s efforts will not go unnoticed.

Davidson is the Vikings offensive line coach and he brings to Minnesota a wide array of experience and also a pedigree of being around successful football programs. He was an offensive lineman and team captain at Ohio State, played for the Denver Broncos for five seasons in the 1990s and eventually got into coaching. After stops in New Orleans and Cleveland, Davidson landed with the New England Patriots on Bill Belichick’s staff, where he was a part of three Super Bowl-winning teams. Following his time in New England, Davidson jumped to Carolina, where he was the offensive coordinator and guided offenses that featured explosive rushing attacks and powerful offensive lines.

With the Vikings, Davidson has the personnel in place to retool an offensive line that features talented and capable players. At least three starters will return for Week 1 – LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan and RT Phil Loadholt – and a couple of them (Hutchinson and Sullivan) are finally healthy after battling injuries for most of the 2010 season. The Vikings will feature a new LT – probably Charlie Johnson, who replaces Bryant McKinnie – and right now second-year player Chris DeGeare is filling in for Anthony Herrera, who is on the mend and is working hard to get back into the action.

Beyond those projected starters, Davidson has a deep pool of reserves (11 linemen total) that includes nine guys at or under the age of 25, including two draft picks from the 2011 class. The competition for roster spots is truly wide open and difficult to project at this point, even for the coaching staff.

“Am I willing to say [there are] truly ones (first stringers), twos and threes with this group? No, it’s just so I know who’s going to be in the practice at that time,” Davidson explained. “As time goes on, we’ll start whittling it down to who we think is going to help us and we’ll put our best five on the field, then the next six, next seven, next eight. That’s how you have to think of it.”

Although his depth chart is not well defined at this point, Davidson does seem pleased with the work habits of his group.

“I’m happy with the way that we’re working,” Davidson said. “I’ve been to places in the past where you had to really keep a boot up their butts, if you will, about making guys work. You don’t have to do that here. We’ve got guys that have not ‘arrived’ and are completely willing to work to get better.

“What I’m trying to force myself to see in this group, the biggest thing we have to do in the time period we’re trying to get them ready, is force them to see what’s occurring, communicate it out and get five guys acting like one. That’s really what I’m all about. In order to do that, you’ve got to get different guys playing next to each other, you’ve got to get them competing against different guys on defense, so it’s not the same daily grind.”

For what it’s worth, I did keep track of which players were working with which teams on Monday. Granted, this was just one day’s worth of practice, and depth charts change frequently during training camp, but I know many of you are curious to know who is playing. Here’s what I found on Monday…

– Seth Olsen filled in for Hutchinson at first-team LG for parts of Monday morning’s practice.
— Pat Brown and DeMarcus Love are alternating at second-team LT, with the nod going Brown at the moment. But don’t count Love out; he can probably play both LT and RT, plus I saw him get dinged up (knee) during practice and then quickly return, perhaps a display of the toughness you need in offensive linemen.
— Conan Amituanai and Byron Isom are alternating at second-team LG.
— Jon Cooper and Brandon Fusco are alternating at second-team center.
— Ryan Cook is the second-team RG and Rodney Huntley is right behind him.
— Thomas Welch and Scott Kooistra are alternating at second-team RT, but I think the slight edge goes to Kooistra here.

Finally, I asked Davidson about Loadholt. I think Loadholt had a fine rookie season and kind of plateaued in 2010. Now that’s he’s fully healthy and has Davidson as a tutor, I think Loadholt is poised to improve this year and perhaps develop into a dominant, road-grading blocker in the run game. Loadholt’s disposition off the field is calm and collected, but on the field he clearly has a mean streak, which is a good trait for an offensive lineman to possess.

It sounds like Davidson sees that mean streak as well. More importantly, though, Davidson sees a self-motivated player in Loadholt.

“Oh yeah, I do,” Davidson when asked if he saw the same mean streak in Loadholt that I see during games and practice. “I think he’s a tough guy. He’s another guy that you don’t have to [motivate] to practice hard. He just naturally does that. Those guys are easy to work with because they are constantly working.”


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vikings.com Arrives In Indianapolis

Posted by Mike Wobschall on February 23, 2011 – 1:34 pm

The vikings.com team that consists of yours truly and videographer extraordinaire Jordan Struck has arrived in Indianapolis and we’re getting settled in to start bringing you non-stop and comprehensive coverage of the 2011 Scouting Combine from Lucas Oil Stadium.

Traveling from Minneapolis to Indianapolis on Delta Airlines was excellent and we arrived to our hotel, which is located just a few minutes walk from the stadium, right on schedule. Several Vikings personnel were on this morning’s flight, including special assistant to the head coach/LBs coach Mike Singletary, OL coach Jeff Davidson and assistant offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield, TEs coach Jimmie Johnson and a few others. The rest of the Vikings contingent has either already arrived or will be arriving over the next day or two.

Remember, not every player invited to the Combine arrives at the same time. The players are divided into their position groups and then those position groups come to the Combine on a staggered schedule. So that obviously impacts when certain assistant coaches arrive to do their work at the event.

I also spent quite a while visiting at the airport and in the cab ride to the hotel with former Vikings assistant coach Dean Dalton. A guy who spent a long time in the coaching profession, Dalton now takes his expertise to the air waves and is a host on Sirius NFL Radio. It’s chats with guys such as Dalton that really makes the Combine fun over the span of a few days. It’s routine to run into local and especially national football media members and it’s fun to get their opinions on certain matters.

That’s about it for now. Jordan and I are going to head to the stadium to film a quick segment and that will be made available to you for viewing in some form or another over then next 24 hours. We’ll have that and much, much more from the Combine so be sure to constantly check back to vikings.com and the vikings.com Blog for more.


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New OL Coach Davidson Brings Experience, Pedigree To Vikings

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 20, 2011 – 4:21 pm

Leslie Frazier has won a Super Bowl as both a player and a coach, and in his effort to guide the Vikings to a Super Bowl Frazier is surrounding himself with others who experienced success in the NFL. The latest example is Jeff Davidson, who has been hired by Frazier to be the Vikings OL coach.

Perhaps Vikings fans are unfamiliar with Davidson’s name, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t qualified for the job. In Davidson, Frazier has added an individual with a wide array of experience and a pedigree of being around successful football programs.

Before his coaching career began, Davidson attended and played football at Ohio State University, where he was a guard and was also named co-captain as a senior; Davidson’s father, Jim, also played at Ohio State and was both an All-American and captain. Davidson was a 5th-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1990 and played 5 seasons in the Mile High City as both a LG and LT, where he was a part of a division-winning team that advanced to the AFC Championship Game following the 1991 season.

Davidson’s coaching career began in New Orleans (1995-96) and he’s also spent time with the Cleveland Browns (2005-06). But his 2 most notable stops have been with the New England Patriots (1997-2004) and the Carolina Panthers (2007-10).

With the Patriots, Davidson held titles of TEs coach, assistant OL coach and TEs/Assistant OL. As a member of Bill Belichick’s staff beginning in 2000, Davidson was part of Patriots teams that won 3 Super Bowls.

Most recently, though, Davidson was Carolina’s offensive coordinator. During Davidson’s 4 seasons in Carolina, the Panthers featured an explosive and dynamic rushing attack, something the Vikings will look to maintain with Adrian Peterson at RB.  In 2008 and 2009, the Panthers were led on the ground by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, highlighted by Williams’ franchise-record 1,515 yards and 18 rushing TDs in 2008. Davidson also had a pair of offensive linemen earn Pro Bowl honors in Ryan Kalil at center in 2009 and Jordan Gross at tackle in 2008.

“One of the things I really liked about Jeff is that they were able to find a way with DeAngelo Williams along with Jonathan Stewart, to have two 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said on Thursday. “As you know, we have two outstanding backs in our minds with Adrian being the premier back in the National Football League and then Toby Gerhart, who’s a guy we have high hopes for. To be able to find a guy who understands and knows how to incorporate two very good backs in the run game was something that really kind of got my interest and I think it’s going to be a plus for us, the success they had running the football down in Carolina.”

Davidson wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player and he’s not a household coaching name in Minnesota, but he is an individual who’s been on successful and Super Bowl-winning coaching staffs that have featured both talented offensive lines and powerful rushing attacks. With the Vikings, Davidson has the personnel in place to retool an offensive line that features talented and capable players. Davidson will also be a good teacher for any new offensive linemen the Vikings may bring in this offseason via free agency and the draft process.

Now it’s a matter of Davidson using that experience and pedigree to get the job done.


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