There is a lot of concern amongst Vikings fans about third year left tackle Matt Kalil after a poor sophomore season in 2013.
It’s understandable since sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders weren’t terribly favorable in grading to Kalil.
We should never get too caught up in those grades though, because as much hard work as those sites put into analytics, they are held back by not knowing what every lineman’s responsibility is for every variation on every play.
That said, there was a noticeable dip in Kalil’s play and you didn’t need to know much about football to notice it.
Can Kalil bounce back? It’s a critical question considering how important his job as left tackle is. In today’s NFL you need bookend tackles no matter who is under center and it is doubly vital if your quarterback is either mediocre (as Matt Cassel is) or unproven (as Teddy Bridgewater is).
The answer as far as I am concerned? Absolutely.
There were two things which had a significant impact on Kalil’s effectiveness and hampered his ability to repeat his 2012 success. Let’s take a look at both and see why they won’t be a factor again this year.
In some ways, re-signing Charlie Johnson to a two-year, $2.5 million contract was a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, he gives the team a veteran left guard, but he hasn’t been good for several years.
Johnson was a drag on the left side and Kalil often had to take care of assisting Johnson on top of his own blocking duties. When you can’t trust your interior help, it makes it very tough to do your own job, especially for a second-year left tackle.
Why shouldn’t you be worried about this?
Well, Johnson will be on a super-short leash. They paid him some decent money but the guaranteed money ($1.5 million) is all up front and they could cut him with no real impact towards 2015.
Among the players behind him is rookie David Yankey, a Stanford grad who many had going in rounds 2 or 3, not round 5 where the Vikings got him.
While a bit stiff and slow, Yankey is a big, strong, physical and smart interior lineman who I wouldn’t be shocked to see win the left guard spot outright. He could also move to right guard, allowing Brandon Fusco to kick left if need be.
The Vikings have options this year and there should be no hesitation to make moves if Johnson struggles, which will let Kalil concentrate on holding the edge.
Kalil had multiple injury issues last year. We knew about his back problems early last October, but it’s only recently that we learned he had been dealing with knee issues as well.
While he refused to blame the injuries for his decline to the Pioneer Press’ Chris Tomasson, it had to have been a drag on his play. The tackle positions on the line need to be able to slide over and deal with pressure from myriad directions off the edge. Having a balky knee is going to make that difficult, and further, it’s going to hamper you in the run game as well (where Kalil’s rating from PFF took the biggest hit).
Kalil did admit it hampered his movements, so while he won’t use it as an excuse, it’s clear it had an impact.
The knee has been scoped now and USA Today’s Tom Pelissero says Kalil should be fine by training camp.
The proper adjustments to conditioning should take care of the back issues, and the knee issues should be all gone post-surgery.
So the health issues which plagued him in 2013 shouldn’t be an issue in 2014.
Combine those two factors and it’s not surprising to see Kalil’s effectiveness take a nosedive. Many second-year players have a “slump” anyway, but when you add factors like a struggling linemate or injuries, it will exacerbate that.
What should also make you confident about a rebound year is that his run blocking was where he had the most issues. His pass protection, while not as good as it was in his rookie year, was solid for the most part.
That’s despite having poor play from the quarterback, often with balls being held too long and forcing the line to have to hold an extra couple of seconds.
If, as I have written before, rookie Teddy Bridgewater gets the starting job then you are getting a player who makes quick decisions and gets the ball out swiftly, thereby taking the pressure off the line.
As far as the run blocking goes, the lack of injury and the (hopefully) improved interior blocking on the left side should help that rating rise back up for Kalil.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also part of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com, the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com and a contributor to Sports On Earth. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.