Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Training Camp Position Preview: Guard & Center

Daniel House analyzes the interior of the Vikings offensive line and thinks one rookie can challenge an experienced veteran for a starting spot. 

Updated: July 2nd, 2014 11:32am

By: Daniel House

The interior of the Vikings offensive line has made some excellent strides over the last year. Brandon Fusco is developing into a top-tier guard in this league and John Sullivan is a fixture in the middle of the group. Vikings GM Rick Spielman addressed the shaky situation at left guard by adding a draft day steal in David Yankey. Charlie Johnson was signed to a modest two-year deal and many wonder if Yankey could challenge Johnson for his job. The Vikings have more depth at the guard position than in years past, but who are the second and third tier players on the depth chart? Let's take a look.

John Sullivan: John Sullivan was an absolute steal for the Vikings when they drafted him in the sixth-round in 2008. He is an affordable option and has developed into one of the most productive centers in the game. The problem with Sullivan has come in the durability category. Sullivan isn't going to lose his starting job, but he has to prove that past injuries and an inconsistent year in 2013 aren’t a concern for the future. Sullivan is a veteran leader for this team and his leadership skills are an excellent trait to pair with his abilities on-the-field.

Joe Berger: Since joining the team in 2011, Joe Berger has quietly become one of the most versatile players on the Vikings offensive line. In the event of injury, Berger can slide into any of the roles in the interior of the offensive line. During his time on the field, he has proven himself as a solid and serviceable backup. This is an important aspect that shouldn't be overlooked when you evaluate the Vikings offensive line. Many NFL teams are searching for a player who can be a versatile option when injuries plague their teams. Berger provides this for the Vikings and does so at an affordable price.

Brandon Fusco: Brandon Fusco nearly had his job taken away for inconsistent play in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, when the season came to a close, Fusco’s +14.5 overall grade was bested only by Louis Vasquez and Larry Warford at right guard, and Fusco’s +11.6 run block grade ranked fifth among all guards. He was an average pass blocker (+0.9), but he showed significant growth from 2012. He was quietly considered one of the top guards in the league last year and was named a secret superstar for 2014 by Pro Football Focus. The Vikings drafted Fusco in the sixth-round of the 2011 draft and turned him into a top-tier player in just three years on the field.

Charlie Johnson: Charlie Johnson was signed as a free agent in 2011 after he was released by the Indianapolis Colts in training camp. After struggling as the starter at left tackle that first year, he slid inside to his more natural left guard spot and played better in 2012. He took a huge step back last year and was obliterated in the pass blocking aspect of the game. The Vikings added David Yankey in the draft and he could easily challenge Johnson for the starting job in training camp. The Vikings could release Johnson without taking a hit, move Brandon Fusco to left guard, and slide David Yankey into a more natural right guard position. In contrast, they could leave everything the same and allow Yankey to fill Johnson's spot at left guard, but the other scenario seems realistic as well. Johnson will have to play bad to be released in training camp, but indications appear this isn't completely out of the realm.

David Yankey: The Vikings added David Yankey in the fifth-round of the draft and many draft experts couldn't believe the value the Vikings received. Yankey was widely considered a first or second round talent during the evaluation process. A poor senior year led to his slide, but Yankey has extremely raw athletic abilities that can be developed. He is a natural run blocker that has the athleticism and strength to make it look easy. Fix some of his issues in technique as a pass blocker and David Yankey could be a great option of the future of the Vikings offensive line. One thing is certain, Yankey is a hard worker and his above average intelligence and awareness will help his cause to win the battle for a starting spot with Charlie Johnson.

Jeff Baca: Jeff Baca looked extremely raw in his rookie year and this was to be expected from a sixth-round product in his rookie year. He spent most of his rookie season developing in practice and we haven't had a chance to see the progress he has made as a player. Baca is a solid run blocker, but has pass protection skills that have left something to be desired in the past. He is an extremely hard worker and he proved this early in training camp last year. The Vikings can continue to develop Baca into a player that could be a solid backup and versatile rotational player for the future.

Vlad Ducasse: Vlad Ducasse started four games for the Jets last season, losing his job after struggling in pass protection at left guard early in the year. The Vikings added him in the offseason to provide some depth behind Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco. The hill got even steeper for Ducasse after the Vikings added David Yankey in the draft. Ducasse was purely a player that could provide security if the team couldn't add a talented player in the draft. In order to make this roster, he would have to show he has more solid technique and consistency.

Austin Wentworth: Austin Wentworth was added in undrafted free agency out of Fresno State University. He has a heavy amount of experience at left guard and tackle and he could challenge for a practice squad spot if all the stars align. He has a blue-collar mentality and it shows in the highlight film. He is durable and never missed a game at the college level, but he will have a tough time adjusting to the speed of the NFL.

As a whole, it appears John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco are the only players set in their positions entering training camp. Charlie Johnson could easily be ousted by David Yankey and that could shuffle Fusco to the other side of the offensive line. As for the rest of the offensive line, Joe Berger is set to be the versatile offensive lineman and Baca, Ducasse, and Wenworth will be battling for the final roster spot.

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