All of the buzz on the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings this offseason has centered around rookie left tackle Matt Kalil.
His battles with DE Jared Allen have already become a must see matchup in training camp, but the development of right tackle Phil Loadholt might be just as important to the offense's success in 2012.
The mammoth 6'8", 343-pound lineman is looking to fulfill his enormous potential entering his third season with the Vikings which happens to be a contract year.
In almost a complete turnaround from his rookie season, Loadholt struggled with pass protection and penalties while excelling in the run game with his size and power in 2011. In his 2010 rookie season he was a better pass protector than a run blocker, so the Vikings know that the potential is there for him to put it together.
The former second-round draft pick does continue to receive praise from his coaches for his hard work and dedication in practices, making the expectations for 2012 even higher, and he knows it. From Jeremy Fowler, via twincities.com:
"You have two or three drives where you look like a pretty damn good offensive tackle," he said. "Then you do something that you don't look like it. Not that I let up, but everybody in this league is so good, you take one bad technique and it can go the wrong way."
The Vikings are trying to improve the play on the offensive line in an effort to take pressure off of Loadholt and, of course, to protect franchise QB Christian Ponder.
By drafting Kalil it allows Charlie Johnson to move to left guard from left tackle where he is a more natural fit. John Sullivan has established himself at center and earned a five-year extension. Three to four players (Brandon Fusco, Geoff Schwartz, Joe Berger and Chris DeGeare) have a shot to start at right guard.
With 47 career starts, Loadholt has been durable force on the line, making his backup, Patrick Brown, a relative unknown. In 2011 we saw Brown struggle in his one brief appearance against the Chicago Bears.
Though Brown may be listed on the depth chart behind Loadholt, it could be a Schwartz that would replace him if Loadholt gets injured. Schwartz has the starting experience with the Panthers at both right tackle and right guard.
Schwartz should be a quick study as he is familiar with second-year OL coach Jeff Davidson's schemes from their time together with the Panthers.
The experienced Schwartz could end up winning the starting right guard battle in training camp, giving the Vikings a reason to look at free agents to provide additional depth behind Loadholt.
Like OL coach Jeff Davidson and Schwartz, coaches and former players seem to make great pairings as they can quickly pick up schemes and know what to expect from each other.
This could lead to Davidson calling on another former Panthers player in free-agent right tackle Jeff Otah.
2011 saw Otah lose his starting job to rookie Byron Bell as he dealt with back and knee injuries.
The Panthers recently attempted to trade the 6'6", 330-pound right tackle to the New York Jets for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013 but Otah could not pass his physical and the trade was vetoed.
Otah has missed a total of 31 of a possible 35 games the past two seasons and suffered a recovery setback this offseason with knee soreness which led to the failed Jets physical.
Still just 26, the No. 19 overall pick of the 2008 draft has the potential to be one of the better right tackles in football if he can get and stay healthy.
This offseason the Vikings management have looked at players like John Carlson, Geoff Schwartz and Chris Carr who have had injury issues but offer good potential and experience yet are still relatively young, so Otah would seem to fit the Vikings rebuilding plan.
Even though Phil Loadholt is likely to end up earning an extension with the Vikings in the offseason, a low-risk/high-reward backup could prove to be worth the gamble.
Once Otah is healed, the Vikings have nothing to lose to at least bring him in for a tryout and see if they can revitalize his career under the tutelage of a familiar mentor in Jeff Davidson.