Position analysis: Guards and centers

John Sullivan started every game, but he had a rotation of guards next to him, creating a difficult situation in the interior offensive line for the Vikings in 2014. We take a player-by-player look at the offensive guards and centers as well as the group’s performance as a whole.

Joe Berger
Berger just finished his 10th season in the NFL and his fourth with the Minnesota Vikings. Before his time in Minnesota, he had spent time with the Carolina Panthers – the Panthers selected him in the sixth round of the 2005 draft – Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Berger appeared in all 16 games and did so again during the 2014 season, but he was able to start in nine of those games due to an injury to starting right guard Brandon Fusco. Berger was not the immediate backup for the position, but after he performed well filling in for an injured Vladimir Ducassee against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he took over the starting role.

Berger did a good job filling in when given the opportunity, and he was the only offensive guard on the Vikings roster to be given a positive grade at the end of the year by Pro Football Focus. He was only credited with allowing three sacks and two quarterback hits, and was always usually a solid run blocker.

This offseason, Berger’s future is up in the air as he is a free agent at 32 years old, and the Vikings had two rookie guards on their roster a season ago. That makes it unclear whether the Vikings will bring him back or not, but his solid performance in 2014, his experience, and his flexibility – he can play both center and guard – will all help his chances of re-signing.

Vladimir Ducasse
Ducasse just finished his fifth year in the NFL, but only his first year with the Vikings. He was originally drafted by the New York Jets in the second round in 2010 and spent his first four years there.

He started more games in 2014 – six – than he had in any other year during his professional career. Before this past season, the most games he had started in a single season was four in 2013. Although he got the opportunity to start multiple games for the Vikings this past season, he truggled at times.

PFF graded Ducasse with a -14.1 overall grade during the season, which was the lowest of all the Vikings’ guards that saw action – Ducasse, Berger and Johnson. He was credited with allowing four sacks and a quarterback hit and seemed to consistently struggle in run blocking. That and an injury ultimately led to his demotion from the starting lineup in favor of Berger.

The Vikings only signed Ducasse to a one-year deal during the offseason a year ago, so he will once again be a free agent. It brings into question what the future holds for him and whether the Vikings will want to resign him or not. After a season like he had, and with a seemingly deep stable at offensive guard, it’s possible the two may part ways.

Brandon Fusco
After being selected in the sixth round – the highest drafted player out of Slippery Rock – in 2010 by the Vikings, Fusco finished his fourth season in the NFL. He is expected to be the starting right guard for years to come and the Vikings signed him to an extension in September. Things, however, did not go well for him after that.

Fusco suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the Week 3 matchup against the New Orleans Saints and was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 24. With plenty of time to rehab the injury, he should be the starter at right guard for the Vikings next season.

Charlie Johnson
Johnson just finished up his ninth season in the NFL, his fourth with the Vikings. Before his time in Minnesota he played for the Indianapolis Colts, who selected him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft. He was with them until he signed with the Vikings as a free agent in 2011 to take over for Bryant McKinnie.

Johnson had a down season in 2014, finishing the year with a -12.1 overall rating by PFF, and he had only one game – Week 13 against the Panthers – in which he had a rating above a 1.0. On the season he allowed five sacks and seven quarterback hits, and was average as a run blocker.

Starting 14 out of 16 games, he was able to play for a majority of the year but suffered an ankle injury late in the season against the New York Jets. That injury caused him to miss the Week 15 and 16 games, but he was healthy enough at the end of the season to play in the final game of the year.

Last season was not a good one for Johnson, but as of right now he is expected to be the starting left guard for the Vikings next year. There is a possibility, though, that he could be pushed by one of the younger guards on the team and lose the spot, or there is the possibility that the Vikings could bring in a new guard via free agency in the offseason.

John Sullivan
Sullivan just finished up his sixth year in the NFL after the Vikings drafted him in 2008 out of Notre Dame. He continued to be the sturdy foundation in the middle of the offensive line last year, starting all 16 games – although he left the Buffalo game early with a concussion – when players all across the line were going down with injuries.

Not only was Sullivan present for every game, but he was probably the most consistent player on the Vikings offensive line. PFF gave him a 5.6 rating at the end of the year, which made him the 12th-best center in the NFL, according to the analytical web site. In 16 games last season Sullivan was credited with allowing just two sacks and six quarterback hits. He also performed well as a run blocker, garnishing a ranking of a -1 or worse just three times.

His continued presence at center not only helped his fellow linemen but also the team’s rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, who was thrust into the starting role after Matt Cassel went down with an injury. Having a starting veteran center that could help with blitz pickup, protection and preparation helped the rookie’s development tremendously.

Sullivan will be the starting center next year as he is under the five-year contract extension he signed with the Vikings back in 2011.

Austin Wentworth
Wentworth, like Yankey, just finished up his rookie year with the Vikings. After his time at Fresno State, he went undrafted in 2014 and signed with Minnesota, where he earned a spot on the 53-man roster.

Guard is not Wentworth’s natural position, as he played tackle in college, but being 6-foot-4, 315 pounds makes him better suited for a guard. Along with those two positions, Wentworth also has the ability to play the jumbo tight end position – where he comes in as an extra lineman – and saw the field on multiple occasions towards the end of the season in that role.

After arriving as an undrafted rookie free agent, Wentworth was toward the bottom of the Vikings’ depth chart. He was able to work his way up it and see the field on both offense and special teams. In the coming years he should provide key depth to the offensive line and will likely remain a special teams contributor.

David Yankey
Yankey finished his rookie year with the Vikings after being drafted in the fifth round out of Sanford. There were high expectations for Yankey when he first arrived in Minnesota, but things didn’t play out as planned. Head coach Mike Zimmer brought up on multiple occasions that Yankey still needed to develop his strength, and Yankey said himself that he needed to work on his techniques.

Yankey was able to work on the details of the guard position without pressure of game situations – he didn’t play in any games – but the coaching staff also had him training at the tackle position to help make him more flexible. Although 2014 was a learning experience for Yankey, the next few seasons he should be a solid backup and pushing for a starting role with the Vikings.

Offensive Guard/Center Overview
The middle of the offensive lined struggled plenty with injuries over the course of the 2014 season, especially the guard position. Even through all of that, Sullivan and Berger were able to have successful seasons, but the left guard position seemed to be a weakness all year long.

Some of that could have been credited to the poor play of left tackle Matt Kalil for the first half of the season, but Johnson and Ducasse didn’t perform up to a high standard, either. The two of them combined to allow nine sacks to opponents, too many coming from the middle of the line.

The interior of the offensive line seems to have a good mix of veterans and young players, and it could be as soon as next season when some of these young players push for a starting role, especially with two of the veterans – Ducasse and Berger – being up for free agency this offseason.

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