Vikings’ deep pre-camp preview: Interior OL

Perhaps the interior of the offensive line is a bit underrated. Most see John Sullivan as a top-10 center, but Brandon Fusco is getting better every year at guard. We look at the metrics, salary implications, challengers, sleepers and more on the Vikings’ offensive line.

The players: Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, David Yankey, Joe Berger, Jeff Baca, Vladimir Ducasse, Zac Kerin, Austin Wentworth.

Positional spending: The Vikings aren’t financially committed heavily to either of their guards, but they have invested significantly in their center. Sullivan is averaging $4.9 million on a deal struck late in the 2011 season, paying him as a top-10 center, which many consider him to be.

“The center market had become somewhat overpaid with the emergence of (Nick) Mangold and (Ryan) Kalil following the wild $37.5 million contract the Rams gave Jason Brown in 2009,” overthecap.com wrote in naming Sullivan the best contract for the Vikings. “Despite the top-end prices, the Vikings were able to lock Sullivan up at $4.9 million a season, around a 40% discount from the top of the market. The Vikings’ decision would look even better in light of more expensive contracts given to Chris Myers and Max Unger, both very good players, which may have represented what the market would have been for Sullivan had he hit free agency.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s renegotiated contract has him averaging $2.5 million on a two-year structured that makes him hard to cut this year but easy to part with from a cap standpoint after this season. Fusco is the ascending guard who is a great value with a $1.45 million cap number that includes a big escalator because of his performance in 2013. He is likely to be considered for an extension before the end of the season.

With the focal point of the Vikings offense starting with the running game and Adrian Peterson, the team has invested heavily in their offensive line. They are eighth in the league with $24.18 million invested in the offensive line as a whole, according to overthecap.com.

Last year: Sullivan continued to play well and Fusco agreed with the notion that he had his best season yet in 2013. The combination of the three starting interior linemen accounted for 46 of a possible 48 starts between them, with Berger used as an injury fill-in for one game each for Johnson and Fusco. The Vikings ended up with the fifth-ranked rushing attack in the league.

The outlook: Guard is the only position on the offensive line where the starting lineup from last year looks threatened. If Yankey picks up the offense quickly enough and is impressive in the preseason, he could pose a serious challenge to Johnson’s spot at left guard. Other than that, the roster battles here will be mainly for backup capacity. Last year, the Vikings finished the season with five interior linemen on the roster, with Berger and Baca providing the second line of support at guard and center. This year, Yankey and Ducasse should give them stiff competition on the final roster cuts.

Deep stats: With a decent threesome of offensive linemen in the middle, the Vikings’ running game ranked fifth in the league with a 5.08-yard average per run up the middle and a top-ranked 6.71-yard average over right guard (Fusco’s spot). They were ninth over Johnson’s spot at left guard. Their rushing statistics overall might have been even better if they had taken advantage of that more often – they were only average in their number of rushes over the center and guard spots.

Breakout possibility: After making the leap from Slippery Rock to the NFL, Fusco has been improving each of the last two years. He is put together better physically these days than he was as a rookie and says he has improved dramatically with his understanding of the game and how defensive fronts are set up to attack, crediting Sullivan for that. It shows. He went from the 73rd-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus in 2012 to the eighth-ranked guard last year, and he is trending toward a long career as a solid starter.

Sleeper potential: Yankey was forced to miss most of the offseason practices, so he isn’t likely to push for a starting spot early in the preseason, but if he can pick up the blocking schemes fast enough and improve his pass protection, he should challenge for Johnson’s job eventually.


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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