The numbers: Last year—8. Current count—15. Projection this year—9.
The candidates: Jeff Baca, Joe Berger, Travis Bond, Brandon Fusco, Tyler Holmes, Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog, Phil Loadholt, DeMarcus Love, Kevin Murphy, Seth Olsen, John Sullivan, Camden Wentz.
The locks: Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco, Loadholt.
The sleeper: Every NFL team needs a versatile backup lineman that can play guard and tackle. Bond appeared to be that guy during offseason practices, but he is one of several options for that role. Preseason will be his key time period.
The longshot: As long as he is sufficiently recovered from microfracture knee surgery, John Sullivan is the starting center. In order for Wentz to overcome the odds, he will have to unseat Berger, who is entering his ninth NFL season. Wentz, an undrafted free agent, has a strong background from his experience at North Carolina State, but he will have to be pretty impressive in preseason for the Vikings to trust him as a developmental investment.
The analysis: The entire starting lineup from last year, which saw all five make every start, returns. Kalil should continue to build on one impressive rookie Pro Bowl season at left tackle, and right tackle Loadholt was re-signed to a healthy four-year, $25 million contract in March. Guards Fusco and Johnson will fight to maintain their starting status and Sullivan will anchor the operation as long as he returns successfully from microfracture knee surgery.
The details will be in the depth. Berger, Kropog, Love and Murphy return from their various roles in 2012. Berger was the seldom-used backup for Sullivan and the guards. Kropog essentially split time between the practice squad and being a game-day inactive, Love was placed on injured reserve before the season began, and Murphy was a full-season member of the practice squad. All of them will have to fight for their roster survival, mainly because of the additions of rookies Bond and Baca, as well as the return of veteran Olsen, who spent time with the Vikings in 2010 and 2011. The swing guard-tackle will be the toughest decision.
Matt Kalil: He made a huge difference in 2012 and should only continue to build on a Pro Bowl season.
Charlie Johnson: After moving from left tackle in 2011 to guard in 2012, Johnson settled in, but he shouldn't get too comfortable. The Vikings added a lot of young talent at guard and tackle that could challenge him.
John Sullivan: Health is the biggest question mark for Sullivan. Will he be on the field full-time at the start of training camp after microfracture knee surgery?
Brandon Fusco: He precariously held onto a starting job at right guard throughout the 2012 season. While Geoff Schwartz is gone, players like Baca, Bond and Olsen will challenge Fusco, the former college center who transitioned to guard for the Vikings.
Phil Loadholt: The Vikings showed their confidence in Loadholt with a big free-agent contract, leaving little doubt about his status for the next several years.
Travis Bond: The Vikings experimented a lot with their backup offensive linemen during offseason practices and the seventh-round pick got work at guard and tackle. He could earn a spot as a swingman on the roster.
Seth Olsen: Olsen fits somewhere between experienced veteran and raw rookie, but the fourth-year player out of Iowa could challenge for a guard spot if all goes well for him.
Joe Berger: He saw the field for only three snaps on offense during the 2012 season, but he contributed often on special teams and was Sullivan's main backup. The recovery of Sullivan from microfracture surgery could determine how willing the Vikings are to go younger than the 31-year-old Berger on the offensive line.
Jeff Baca: The sixth-round draft choice split time between guard and center during offseason practices and will be one of the main challengers for the job Berger held last year.
Brandon Keith: Originally a seventh-round draft choice of the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, he started a career-high 11 games for them in 2011 before sitting out last year. There are a ton of challengers for the tackle/guard backup spot and Keith will be squarely in the mix.
DeMarcus Love: After spending 2012 on injured reserve, it's a make-or-break season for Love. He could establish himself as a solid backup tackle or be cut and never heard from again after spending his entire rookie season on the 53-man roster. That's how precarious the life of a backup lineman is.
Kevin Murphy: Coaches mentioned him several times during the 2012 season as he labored on the practice squad, but the competition at tackle is deeper this year and Murphy will have to establish himself as a 53-man roster kind of player or make way for other developmental players on the practice squad.
Tyler Holmes: He spent 13 weeks on the practice squad last year, but, like Murphy, will see increased competition from guys like Baca, Bond and Olsen.
Troy Kropog: He was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster for the final month of the 2012 season but didn't play a snap. He worked at both right and left tackle during offseason practices.
Camden Wentz: He started 39 consecutive games for NC State, playing 2,943 snaps and allowing only three sacks, but he has a ton of young competition in front of him. The practice squad seems a likely landing spot.
The projection: Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco, Loadholt, Bond, Olsen, Berger, Keith.
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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