Key matchup: Vikings’ battle at right guard

Right guard is the only starting spot truly open for competition on the Vikings offense and Mike Harris has the lead.

During the preseason, our weekly Key Matchup focuses on positions where playing time may be up for grabs internally as opposed to a part-time matchup of a starter from the Vikings and their opponent (this week the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). With the exception of the third preseason game (fourth for the Vikings since they played in the Hall of Fame game), starters will see very limited action, so this week’s matchup focuses on the battle taking place at right guard, which isn’t yet conclusively decided.

The right guard position seemed to be pretty well defined a year ago at this time. Not only had Brandon Fusco, a sixth-round draft pick from Slippery Rock (Pa.) University in 2011, proved he can handle the position at the NFL level, he was rewarded with a long-term contract extension that appeared to have the right guard position mapped out for the short-to-long-term future.

However, that all changed when the Vikings opted out of bringing back veteran Charlie Johnson, who struggled in his one year as the starting left tackle for the Vikings when pressed into duty when the team released an overweight and dangerously out of shape Bryant McKinnie in 2011. When the team used the fourth pick of the draft on left tackle Matt Kalil in 2012, Johnson was moved inside, where he played the last three years at left guard.

With Johnson gone, a void opened up at left guard, which, in most right-handed offenses, is more critical than the right guard spot. It didn’t take the Vikings long to determine that their best left guard option was their starting right guard. Fusco was moved from the right side to the left and it created an opening at right guard that hasn’t seen anyone penned in as the automatic starter.

During the OTA/minicamp season, the first option to be the starting right guard was rookie T.J. Clemmings. A player the Vikings viewed as a gift when he was still available in the fourth round, once the team got down to training camp and began working out every day, it was deemed by the powers that be that Clemmings would be better suited to do his work as a right tackle behind starter Phil Loadholt, once again opening up the right guard position.

The current placeholder at right guard is Mike Harris. The best thing he has going for him is a familiarity with Norv Turner and his offense. He was with Turner in San Diego in 2012, the coach’s final season with the Chargers, and started nine games as a rookie. In the five games he played in 2013, he started three of those, as well as starting five games for the Vikings in 2014.

So where’s the problem?

All of those starts came at tackle, not guard. He has never started a meaningful game in college or the pros at guard, which makes for a transition that often forces a player to learn certain techniques in his assignments. At the current time, one of his backup options is sixth-round rookie Tyrus Thompson, who played his entire career at Oklahoma as a tackle.

The odd man out in this scenario is the same mystery man who didn’t see the field last year, despite the Vikings losing both of their starting guards during the season – second-year pro David Yankey. A player who graded out by many recognized scouts as a second-round prospect, the Vikings got Yankey in the fifth round and there have been rising questions as to what everyone in the league saw that made them pass on him so often between the start of the second round and when he landed with the Vikings.

As things currently stand, Harris will be lining up at right guard when the regular season begins at San Francisco Sept. 14. But, a month ago, we were seeing Clemmings was the frontrunner to be the starter. A month from now when the games starting meaning something, it may be someone else. But, for now, the battle of Harris trying to keep his job and others trying to make a statement is this week’s key matchup.

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