The Vikings will have changes at several positions, but offensive line, tight end and safety are three units that could experience a dramatic makeover.
Safety might have two new starters and both of them could be rookies. The tight ends will no longer have veterans Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser in their meeting room and taking the majority of snaps on the field. And the offensive line, the group that has long used the analogy of five fingers working together, could have the most changes of any position.
Three of the five spots will have new starters as the team's philosophy to get younger has been implemented aggressively on the line. Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, both longtime starters at the guard positions, were released. Charlie Johnson, last year's starting left tackle, will slide inside to left guard and Brandon Fusco and Geoff Schwartz are expected to compete for the right guard spot.
For Johnson, talk of a move to guard is nothing new, but becoming a starter there for the Vikings is new.
"This has been something I've been dealing with since I got into the league, going on six years now. It just happened to be the past couple of years I was at tackle," Johnson said. "But the first couple years (in Indianapolis) it was wherever I was needed was where I would play. So I've dealt with it. It's not a problem."
If Fusco wins the battle at right guard, he, too, will be undergoing a position switch of sorts. Throughout his college career at Division II Slippery Rock, he was a center. During the second half of last season, he began to make the transition to guard, one that could take some adjustment.
"You always have the ball in your hand (as a center), so it's a little different," Fusco said.
"I haven't played guard since high school, but I played a couple games. I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's my job to start this year at right guard. I'm going to have to be comfortable with it.
"Last year my goal was to obviously make the team, establish myself on the team. This year though, it's nothing less than starting. That's my goal and something I've worked for since I was a little kid."
The moves of Johnson to left guard and Fusco (or 2012 free-agent addition Schwartz) to right guard will put additional responsibility on center John Sullivan, who had his best season as a pro last year. It's the first time in his career that he won't enter the season with Hutchinson and Herrera on his left and right, respectively.
"It will be different without those guys. Steve and Anthony had a big effect on my career so far. I worked with those guys very closely," Sullivan said. "They taught me a lot and I appreciate everything they did for me. And like I said before, that's the business, guys have to move on, and we'll get it figured out and have a successful 2012 season."
Sullivan said Johnson's veteran status and his familiarity with the offense will help his transition, one that Sullivan assumes will be "seamless." Having a full offseason should also help with the changes on the line after trying to survive in a new offense last year after being locked out of offseason practices because of the battle between the NFL and players union over a new collective bargaining agreement.
"I think that will help to a great degree before the 2012 regular season starts," Sullivan starts.
Perhaps the most important change will take place at left tackle. Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson believes Johnson's most natural position is guard, but when the Vikings decided to release longtime starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the onus was placed on Johnson to protect the quarterback's blind side.
The results all along the offensive line were less than spectacular. The Vikings gave up 49 sacks; only four teams surrendered more. That's a big reason why the Vikings invested the No. 4 overall pick in former USC left tackle Matt Kalil, the consensus best tackle in the draft.
"It is huge. A lot of time last year – it didn't necessarily have to do with the protection – a lot of times I wasn't comfortable getting to my third, fourth reads, checking the ball down. Instead of just checking it down when a guy is wide open, I'd just run," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "That's something I have to get away from. It's easy to break the habit. It's just going to make it so much better having full confidence in the protection. Offensive line is looking good. They got stacked up pretty quickly and they've got a lot of depth now. I'm excited about that as a quarterback."
With new starters at three different positions along the offensive line, it could take the unit some time to mesh, but Sullivan is optimistic it will come together.
"I don't think it will be that difficult. We have great coaches," he said. "It's a group of hard-working guys. We're pretty much on the same wavelength that way. There's nobody we really have to police in this group. Everybody's out here – self-motivated, working hard every single day. It will be the time on the field and fortunately this offseason will have that."
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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