Vikings face tough competition without McKinnie

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Dwight Freeney.

Julius Peppers.

Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Depending on health issues, those are the four right defensive ends the Minnesota Vikings will face during left tackle Bryant McKinnie's four-game suspension, which the NFL announced Friday. Combined, those four players have 225 career sacks -- a total they could double against whomever the Vikings throw out as McKinnie's replacement.

We jest. Sort of.

The Vikings have been bracing for some sort of discipline ever since McKinnie was arrested Feb. 24 after a fight outside a Miami nightclub. It was McKinnie's fourth arrest since entering the NFL in 2002, and already he had forfeited one game check under the league's personal conduct policy for his role in the 2005 "Love Boat" incident.

Nevertheless, four games was the high end of the disciplinary range the Vikings were expecting. It leaves them in a tough spot: Without a critical starter against an extraordinary succession of opponents to start a season in which the Vikings believe the NFC North is theirs for the taking.

McKinnie has never made a Pro Bowl but he is one of a select class of NFL players who are physically suited to play left tackle. It's the most difficult job on the offensive line and there are relatively few players who can sustain a winning level of play over an extended period of time.

The assumption is that coach Brad Childress will insert veteran backup Artis Hicks into McKinnie's spot. But truth be told, the Vikings -- like many teams -- don't have a true and viable option behind their starter at left tackle. Hicks officially is a backup guard and tackle, but he is much better suited to play guard. He hasn't played left tackle in a regular-season game since 2005, when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Instead of maximizing Hicks' practice time at left tackle during training camp, the Vikings rotated a series of young players there. That list included Chase Johnson, a reserve who did not appear in a game last season, and two undrafted rookies: Drew Radovich and Tim Mattran. Only two weeks ago did the Vikings begin using Hicks in that spot, and despite his versatility, it's fair to say Hicks represents a significant dropoff from McKinnie.

Did the length and timing of McKinnie's punishment take the Vikings by surprise? Doubtful. The situation is a prime example of commissioner Roger Goodell's stated intent to come down hard on repeat offenders of the personal conduct policy -- even if the legal side hasn't been adjudicated. McKinnie's next court date isn't until Sept. 24, and attorney Larry Kerr is attempting to move him into a pretrial diversion program that could eventually lead to the charges being dismissed altogether.

But Goodell and McKinnie met in June, and the commissioner must be convinced the punishment is warranted based on the facts as he knows them.

Losing a left tackle can be a crippling blow. The Vikings have a strong enough roster to overcome McKinnie's suspension, but it won't be easy.