Charlie Johnson was the starting left guard for the Vikings, and Pro Football Focus rated him as a -12.1. He was credited with allowing five sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries. He just finished his eighth season in the NFL and will be 31 years old next season. It is hard to believe that his play will increase much as he continues to get older, so the Vikings’ best option may be to cut the cords with Johnson and his $2.5 million salary-cap hit and move in a different direction for the 2015 season.
Last season the Vikings did have to move in a different direction for a few games as Johnson missed some time with an injury. It was up to Vladimir Ducasse to fill in for him, and he didn’t fair any better at the position. Before playing left guard, Ducasse played on the right side, filling in for the injured Brandon Fusco, but eventually lost the job to Joe Berger.
PFF had Ducasse rated with a -14.1 at the end of the 2014 season, and the only game he had that was rated positively was Week 4 with a 0.1 rating. Ducasse only played in eight games during the 2014 season, and was credited with four sacks, one quarterback hit, and nine quarterback hurries. Where he really struggled, though, was run blocking. At the end of the season PFF had his run blocking rated at a -8.8, and there was only one game where he was rated positively. Ducasse is a free agent this offseason, so it will be easier for the Vikings to part ways with him if they desire.
Heading into next season there are a couple different directions the Vikings could go when it comes to filling their need at the left guard position. They could continue to use Johnson for another season, they could go with one of the young guards – David Yankey or Austin Wentworth – they currently have on the team, or they could find a new guard in free agency or the draft.
If the Vikings like what they already have on their team, the two most likely candidates to fill the role would be Yankey and Wentworth. Both of the players just finished up their rookie season with the Vikings, and both had different routes on how they ended up with the team.
When Yankey first entered into the NFL draft, many experts believed that he would be taken in either the second or third round, but the Vikings were able to take him in the fifth round. According to NFL.com, his strengths coming out of college were that he had very good size and that he was good in pass protection, and once he arrived in Minnesota many people were thinking he would have the opportunity to push for a starting job. As linemen continued to get hurt, however, Yankey was never one of the players filling in for them. Head coach Mike Zimmer said that Yankey still needed to get stronger, and Yankey himself said that he still needed to improve on his techniques. Pass protection didn’t appear to be a strength as his balance seemed to be an issue.
Wentworth took a different road to the NFL. He was a tackle at Fresno State, but many believed that his size made him better suited to play guard at the professional level. NFL.com had his biggest strengths coming out of college being that he was a tough, blue-collared player with good hands, and was very dependable. The Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent and through the season he slowly worked his way up the depth chart – partially because of all the injuries to the offensive line. He even found himself on the field with the offense on occasion towards the end of the season as the offense’s jumbo tight end in short-yardage situations.
The Vikings, however, may not feel comfortable handing over the starting role to either of those players, and may wish to address the need in free agency. One free agent that could make sense would be Joe Berger. Berger has been with the Vikings for four years, and played 613 offensive snaps for them last year. He was the highest rated Minnesota guard by PFF with a 3.3, and he played very consistently in both pass protection and run blocking. The only downside with Berger is that he is currently 32 years old, so signing him again would only be a short-term fix at the position.
Free-agent optionsOrlando Franklin: If the Vikings want to look at more a long-term fill at the position in free agency, one of the top candidates could be Orlando Franklin. Franklin spent his 2014 season playing for the Denver Broncos and now enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. He played 1,123 snaps for the Broncos last season and was an anchor in the middle of their line. PFF also has him as the highest rated offensive guard in free agency with a 12.0, and he spent all 16 games during the regular season at the left guard position. Franklin is also 27 years old, and should be able to hold down the left guard position for years to come.
Mike Iupati: He spent his 2014 season with the San Francisco 49ers and enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. He did not play in every game during the regular season, such as Franklin did, but he only missed one and was still on the field for 970 snaps. Iupati is the second-highest rated guard by PFF with an 11.2 rating and is 28 years old. He primarily plays on the left side of the line and would be able to be a solid foundation for the Vikings for years to come.
Other notable free agent guards this offseason would be Clint Boling (5.8) and Ronald Leary (5.0), both of whom play on the left side of the line.
The Vikings have many options with what they can do at the left guard position for the 2015 season, but it is clear that something will need to change. The play at that position wasn’t up to snuff during the 2014 season, and if they want to be able to run the ball consistently and keep their quarterback clean, the position will need to be addressed this offseason.