The Vikings' biggest pending free agents are split fairly evenly on defense and offense.
Defensively, linebackers Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley and safety Jamarca Sanford are the starters scheduled for free agency on March 12. Offensively, right tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton and receiver Jerome Simpson are the biggest unrestricted free agents.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said he would like to have Loadholt back, among others, and re-signing the big lineman would help keep intact one of the team's most stable and reliable units.
"Obviously, if you can keep a group together and put the same five (offensive linemen) on the field every week, you're going to build some cohesiveness," guard Charlie Johnson said. "We were fortunate enough to have that. Just for me, I think you could feel that starting off the season and ending up (in the playoffs). I felt like we improved. We got better as the weeks went by. Are we there yet? No we're not. There are still things we can do better. But hopefully if we can keep this same five, this group of guys together moving into next year, it'll just get better and better and better as it goes."
Loadholt is the only one of the starters scheduled to be a free agent. Like the Vikings, he wants to work out a contract extension. If he does, it would set up a rarity – all five starting offensive linemen returning to the same position after starting all 16 games together in 2012.
In 2011, Johnson was signed by the Vikings after the lockout at the start of training camp and ended up as Bryant McKinnie's replacement when the Vikings released him. In 2012, Johnson made the switch from left tackle to left guard after the team drafted Matt Kalil fourth overall.
"I'm going to feel settled wherever. I think there are a lot of other people who make a big deal out of moving than I did. I'm going to feel good wherever I am," he said. "Right now it's guard. And I'll feel good there moving forward."
Johnson would likely remain there if Loadholt returns, and he believes the Vikings have a good mauler if Loadholt does continue his career in Minnesota.
"He's obviously a big guy who can move people off the ball, and he has the long arms to use in pass protection. I think what he brings to our line is that kind of – we all have it a little bit – but he has a nastiness," Johnson said. "If you watch Phil, if you ever see him play, he's constantly around the pile. He's finishing people. He's doing stuff like that that resonates in our room. And he brings that to us. Where it's ‘Wow, I need to go do this.' You want to be a part of that. That's what makes football fun. He brings that to our room."
Offensive linemen often talk about their performance and compare it to five fingers coming together to form a fist. John Sullivan, the man in the middle of that line making the calls for protection, believes the line and offense in general is in a good place for the future.
"Absolutely. It goes beyond the offensive line. We've got a good core group of young guys here, some good veteran leadership and I think we're definitely trending in the right direction," Sullivan said. "We're on the upswing as a team, as an organization."
The addition of first-round pick Matt Kalil may have helped the most. He lived up to his status as the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. But even before that honor, he was getting rave reviews from his teammates on the offensive line.
That continued after the season, too.
"There's tons of pressure being the fourth pick. He handled that well. He got better throughout the course of the season. The things that you can't coach – his intangibles, his size, his athleticism – they're off the charts," Sullivan said. "He didn't just rest on those. He didn't just get by using his athletic ability. He worked on technique. He took coaching. He tried to get better throughout the course of the year and I think it really showed. In my mind, he's already one of the best tackles, if not the best left tackle, in football."
Kalil's athleticism impressed his new teammates the most. Throughout the season, it didn't take much prompting to hear of how impressed teammates were with his skills.
"He's what you draw up for a left tackle – tall, long arms, good feet," Johnson said. "And he may be the fastest lineman I've ever been around. It's kind of ridiculous how fast he is. I think a lot of Adrian runs that you see him finish 70, 80 yard down the field, Matt's always the first one there. Now whether that's him being young and excited and all that is one thing. But he's just a big, athletic guy. And there were some times where we slipped him out on screens and stuff and it's fun to watch."
Like Kalil, guard Brandon Fusco was another newcomer to the starting lineup in 2012. However, Fusco's game is built more on power and aggressiveness, and he doesn't have the natural skills or refined technique of Kalil.
Asked if Fusco is a long-term solution at right guard, Sullivan deferred to the front office for that assessment.
"It's one of those things where I feel good about playing next to him, but those aren't my decisions. That's coaching, that's front office," Sullivan said. "The way that the system works, you should be able to plug anybody into any spot and we'll keep going. That's what the coach and the front office is designed to do – to get guys ready and have people in place that can play that spot. But, yeah, would I go out and play next to Brandon any day of the week? Of course I would."
In addition to Loadholt, the Vikings might also consider approaching Johnson about a new contract. He is scheduled to make $2.9 million in base salary in 2013 and admitted he never feels at ease with his job status.
"I never feel settled. I don't. I always feel that whatever the contract is or whatever, I always feel like you're out there," he said. "Hopefully I've done enough to say, ‘Hey, I can be a guy they can count on moving forward.' But you never know with this business. Nothing's given. So I'm just going to work hard and keep working to get better and hopefully keep proving to them that I can be somebody that they can rely on."
Kalil and Sullivan will surely be back, Johnson and Fusco are likely to return, and Loadholt's situation will depend on the level of his contract request and ensuing negotiations and how that meshes with the assessment general manager Rick Spielman and the coaching staff have set on him.
Sullivan believes the offensive line has a good dynamic now.
"Rick's done a great job with his vision, building a young roster with guys who are hungry and want to work hard, and having good veteran leadership," Sullivan said. "I think we're definitely a team on the upswing."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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