Minnesota Vikings training camp breakdown: offensive linemen

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The most unheralded set of positions in the NFL also happen to be some of the most important; winning the battle in the trenches is often the best way to win a football game. As it stands, the Minnesota Vikings have one of the most underrated lines in the league, with an elite center, a top-tier right tackle and a developing left tackle. With the emergence of Brandon Fusco at right guard, the Vikings could end up with one of the top lines in the league.

That all means functionally nothing if they get injured and can’t fill in for depth, or if Kalil doesn’t bounce back. To that end, evaluating positions along the line may be one of the most important duties of the new coaching staff and front office.

 

Safe: Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt, David Yankey

There’s little question in anyone’s mind that last year’s starters are locks to the make the roster, even if there is a question about who is going to start at left guard.

At left tackle, Matt Kalil’s responsibility is to have a bounce-back year and replicate his successful rookie season, where he gave up only two sacks and two hits (along with 19 hurries). Last year, per Pro Football Focus, he more than doubled that—allowing four sacks, 12 hits and 33 hurries. Injury played a role, but there’s still a chance he could have played better. Regardless, expect the pass-blocking specialist to rebound, and hopefully to improve his run blocking, which has always been wanting—though far worse last year.

Charlie Johnson is probably the only starter last year that is not truly “safe” as a player to remain as a starter, but he’s still a lock to make the roster. He would be a spectacular swing backup, but as it stands, his lack of awareness and low foot speed make him less than ideal as a left guard. His status as a left guard should be under question, but it’s clear he should be on the roster.

The best center in the league is the Vikings’ own John Sullivan, and his work in the film room shows up on the field as one of the more cerebral and adaptable players in the league. His run blocking technique is top-notch and he runs the protection scheme excellently. A slow start in 2013 hurt the team, but he returned to his excellent form by the second half of the season. If the Vikings’ offensive line returns to the top of the league, it will be because of him.

The Vikings have made a habit out of turning late-round offensive line picks into solid starters, and Brandon Fusco is the most recent proof of that strategy. His emergence as a starting-quality guard (or better) was hardly inevitable; he took the job from a markedly better player in 2012 and didn’t so well, but in 2013, he may have been the most consistently good performer on the line, with powerful run-blocking to pair with his still-developing pass blocking skills. He should be a core member of the team for years to come.

Speaking of improvement, there may have been no greater turnaround on the team than Phil Loadholt’s emergence as an elite right tackle. After years of mediocrity and mistake-prone play, the heavy-footed tackle was able to become one of the premier players at his position. There’s still work to be done as a pass blocker and he needs to repeat his low penalty rate into next year, but the Vikings will certainly rely on him.

The only other safe player on the roster is David Yankey, who despite being a late-round pick has already shown positive signs of starting-quality play at guard. He could push Charlie Johnson for a starting spot today, but will most likely be developed alongside other young linemen for at least a year before seriously challenging for a starting spot.

 

On the bubble: Jeff Baca, Joe Berger, Kevin Murphy, Antonio Richardson

Jeff Baca is last year’s late-round offensive lineman hope (aside from Travis Bond, that is), and Vikings fans have seen little of him. From a pre-draft perspective, Yankey was a far better player than Baca, but that doesn’t mean Baca is out. As a center-guard swing player, he could serve as vital backup for years to come with starting upside. He’s less in the mold of Fusco as a mean run-blocking player and more of a technique-oriented pass blocker like Sullivan. But with several backup guards and centers competing for the same spot, he’s not safe.

The primary backup to John Sullivan is Joe Berger, and despite poor play for other teams in previous stints, the 32-year-old interior linemen has been stellar in his short time spelling John Sullivan. That said, it’s a small sample of his play at best, and his age may work against him as he seeks to secure another year as a veteran backup. He’s a smart player that may turn out to be critical, but the Vikings are stacking their roster with smart players who are younger.

Kevin Murphy has been involved with the Vikings team for the past two years and made the practice squad both years. In 2013, he moved onto the regular team squad for a game before moving back down. He has a better shot than others of making the team, but that’s largely because of a lack of options. Murphy struggled quite a bit in training camp in 2012, but made a lot of strides in 2013. If he improves a little more, he has a good chance to make the squad.

Murphy’s primary competition figures to be Antonio Richardson, a high-round talent that dropped out of the draft due to medical concerns. Richardson displays both the speed and strength of a high-quality tackle, but if he doesn’t impress in a big way, his medical history could prove to be too much for the Vikings to gamble on. Richardson’s 2012 was far superior to his 2013 and it may be on him to show what he did as a junior at Tennessee (where he stonewalled Clowney) than as a senior.

 

On the outside looking in: Austin Wentworth, Vladimir Ducasse, Zac Kerin, Matt Hall, Burton Pierce

Austin Wentworth was the final undrafted free agent to sign with the Vikings, but he was probably the best offensive linemen of the UDFA and tryout bunch. A tackle for Fresno State’s Derek Carr, he projects as a guard in the NFL. He didn’t have the footspeed to deal with edge rushers, but that won’t be an issue inside. He’s fairly quick for a guard, but needs to improve his strength in order to get onto a roster, and that may be what keeps him back.

Vladimir Ducasse is a physical wonder who was supposed to be the Jets’ guard of the future with outstanding physical skills but low football experience. Unfortunately, additional football coaching didn’t materialize into solid play, and Ducasse’s technique hasn’t really developed. He’s shown very brief flashes of brilliant play, but for the most part has been disappointing and was benched more than once as Jet. It would take a big turnaround for him to make the roster.

Injuries to an otherwise draftable player are a common story for undrafted free agents, but there’s a good chance that Zac Kerin still would not have been drafted had he prevented himself from injuring his hamstring. There’s nothing that stands out about him in a big way—he has the appropriate size, speed and weight to be a center in the NFL, but no outstanding technique. A smart player with a lot of work-hard attitude, Kerin would have to prove he was the reason Toledo quietly had one of the best offensive lines in the country instead of a combination of many other factors, including strength of competition.

Players who transfer three or four times are hardly considered solid NFL prospects (Tom Savage excluded, evidently) and Matt Hall is one of them. He certainly deserves a look, but there are some questions after he transferred from Ole Miss to Arkansas, then Belhaven. He did a very good job against his NAIA opponents, but would need to provide more than just size (he’s 6’9” and 323 pounds) to the discussion in order to make the roster.

Pierce Burton took the opposite route, going to a junior college then transferring to Ole Miss. He’s grown both physically and technically in his year at Ole Miss, but that doesn’t mean he’s a polished prospect. He will likely switch to guard at training camp, but has a lot of technique work to do regardless in order to make the roster.

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