TVA previews the 10 storylines that will be consuming our lives starting on July 26 when the Vikings report to Mankato (full camp schedule available from Vikings.com).
4. The Battle for Right Guard
It’s not exactly the battle for Stalingrad but it is vitally important to the Vikings as part of their whole retooling of the offensive line. Somebody has to play right guard for this team. It’s not going to be Anthony Herrera because he finally packed up his creaky old knees and went home. And it’s not going to be David Dixon because he’s really old and I’m guessing not in football shape. So who it it going to be? Right now there are three prime candidates. And they are:
1. Brandon Fusco
The 2011 6th-round pick out of Slippery Rock – every mention of Fusco must include the fact that he was drafted out of Slippery Rock; it’s a rule or something – is considered the front runner if you listen to the stuff coming out of Leslie Frazier’s piehole. But is he really the front runner? He has very limited experience, having played in only 3 games so far in his career. He was considered a project coming out of college and with only those 3 games under his belt he still has to be categorized as relatively raw. But, this is a rebuilding team, and relative rawness maybe isn’t such a big issue. The Vikings clearly like his potential and given their whole youth movement approach it probably makes sense to give him first crack.
2. Geoff Schwartz
Schwartz was one of the most intriguing low-profile pick-ups by any team this whole offseason. This guy was on his way to Pro Bowl contention in some people’s eyes when he messed up his hip, an injury that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. With other people emerging on their roster, the Panthers felt fine letting Schwartz walk. The Vikings quickly picked him up, signing him to a 1-year, $1.5 million contract. Obviously Schwartz has to prove he can still play coming off a missed season, but at 25 he’s still plenty young enough to get his career back on track. He’s considered a mauler in the power running game which is exactly what the Vikings want. If Fusco can’t lock down the starting job, Schwartz should very easily claim that spot, and if he stays healthy all season and gets back to where he was with Carolina, the Vikes may have themselves an 8-year starter and possible Pro Bowler.
3. Joe Berger
Berger was brought in for depth last season and ended up playing way more than anyone wanted him to. He projects as a swing guy whose experience makes him a valuable back-up at multiple positions including center. If this guy ends up winning the right guard job, something went very, very wrong.
The only possible dark horse in this competition is Chris DeGeare, the perennial practice squad guy. But I really don’t see DeGeare poking his head into this race unless a couple guys get injured. It’s between Fusco and Schwartz. I think most people expect that Schwartz will end up claiming the prize when all is said and done, even if Fusco is starting out a notch ahead of him in the eyes of coaches.
How does this all fit into the overall offensive line picture for 2012? It’s a storyline many will be eagerly watching throughout camp and the preseason. The Vikings were just dismal in 2011, in part thanks to age and injury, in part thanks to Charlie Johnson playing out of position at left tackle. The addition of Matt Kalil – assuming he ever gets signed – should set the dominoes in motion, and when they’re done falling, the Vikings should – should – have an improved corps of blockers come the season opener.
Of course things can still go wrong. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves assuming everything will fall into place the way we hope. Sure, Kalil should be loads better than Charlie Johnson when all is said and done – if he isn’t he’ll be one of the great busts in draft history – but he’s still a rookie and he still could have major struggles ahead of him. The second big assumption people are making is that Charlie Johnson can just slide over and become an adequate left guard. Maybe, but what if he doesn’t make the transition? What if John Sullivan isn’t as good as all those rating sites like Pro Football Focus keep saying he is? What if Phil Loadholt fails to progress?
That’s sort of your “glass half empty” interlude for the day. My only point here is, there’s lots of optimism about what the Vikings’ O-line could be, but that’s all still in the “on paper” stage. Let’s see them get out there and try to gel as a unit. There are going to be two new starters out there at least and one additional guy starting at a new position so, there could be a period of struggle before things come together. Then again, sometimes offensive lines mesh faster than you expect. Maybe the Vikings will get lucky and these five guys will find their chemistry right away. If Kalil turns out to be the beast everyone expects, it will make life easier for Johnson, who will also benefit from being lined up next to Sullivan. And if Schwartz or Fusco pan out, and can stay healthy and provide some stability alongside Phil Loadholt, maybe that will help Loadholt become more than the slightly-above-average right tackle he projects to be.
A lot of maybes and what-ifs here. Kind of like the entire rest of the roster. Ain’t rebuilding fun?