With both of their starting guards from 2011, Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, released, chances are the Minnesota Vikings' two starting guards this year will be guys that have played another position along the offensive line more than guard.
Charlie Johnson, who has more experience at tackle than guard – both with the Indianapolis Colts and the Vikings – is expected to be the starter at left guard after drafting highly regarded Matt Kalil in the first round to take over at left tackle. The right guard spot is a little more uncertain, but the two leading candidates are Geoff Schwartz, who also has played more tackle than guard with the Carolina Panthers, and Brandon Fusco, who played center throughout his college career at Slippery Rock before beginning to practice more at guard midway through his rookie season.
Schwartz has the advantage of NFL experience over Fusco, but Fusco has been working with the first-team offensive line more.
"I played tackle at (Oregon) and then I played the first 2½ years (with the Panthers) and then I moved to guard in the bye week and started the rest of the season there," Schwartz said, referring to the 2010 season. "So I really haven't had much practice time at guard. I got hurt really early last year and in camp, too, so I've had about a week of practice at guard last camp before I got hurt."
Schwartz's preseason hip injury took him out of action for the entire 2011 season and the Panthers allowed him to test the free-agent market. In addition to the Vikings, he visited the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. All three teams showing the most interest wanted him as a guard, which was fine with him.
"Guard is where I feel I'm best at and I think the coaches agree with that," he said.
"I like playing guard. I just feel more comfortable in there. It suits what I do best. I just like it inside."
Like many of the Vikings' free-agent targets this year, Schwartz is on a one-year contract that calls for $550,000 in base-salary compensation. It is, essentially, a "prove-it" type of deal. If he wins the starting job and performs well, bigger money is likely to follow.
But it is the Vikings' more immediate situation that intrigued Schwartz. With Hutchinson and Herrera gone, the offensive line had holes to fill.
"That's one thing you look at. I was starting before in Carolina and last year was unfortunate," he said, referring to his hip surgery. "I believe I'm a starter. I was looking at spots that had competition at my position and this was one of them. That's another reason why I came – to compete."
He also finds a familiar face. Jeff Davidson, who was the Panthers' offensive coordinator from 2007-10, made the move to become the Vikings' offensive line coach when Carolina went away from John Fox and toward Ron Rivera as the head coach.
The familiarity with Davidson and his preferred blocking schemes is making for an easier transition for Schwartz.
"It's one of the main reasons why I decided to come here. I was under Davidson for three years in Carolina. I think he's a great coach. I like his philosophy and how he teaches the offensive line, so it was kind of an easy choice to come here," Schwartz said.
"(The schemes) are almost the exact same as we did in Carolina, back before Rivera got there. It's totally different now, but the stuff we ran when Davidson was our coach was basically the same. That's one thing I liked about coming here was the familiarity with the zone block and kind of the power stuff we do. I can come into a situation where I kind of know what I'm doing already."
With a hip that he feels is nearly back to 100 percent and a familiar and comfortable blocking scheme, what does Schwartz need to prove to earn the starting spot?
"I just need to get back on the field," he said. "That's basically what it is, and get 100 percent healthy and then just let my play do the talking."
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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