FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the fifth day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.
TODAY’S POSITION: OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS
Importance (1-to-10 scale): 5
On the roster
Minnesota returns the middle of its offensive line and is relying on continuity, but status quo isn’t a certainty. John Sullivan returns as the leader of the line at center. Brandon Fusco is still emerging at right guard as a punishing run blocker. Fusco was a sixth-round pick and made the transition from center. The Vikings re-signed Charlie Johnson to a two-year contract as the starting left guard.
Johnson is back and the entire starting offensive line returns for the third straight season. But Johnson could be fighting to keep his spot. Minnesota has Jeff Baca, a sixth-round pick last year, and signed Vladimir Ducasse in free agency and could dip into the draft for a starting-caliber guard this year. Ducasse is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, but he has been unable to live up to being a second-round draft pick in 2010. Ducasse and Baca will provide competition for Johnson.
Center is set with Sullivan, signed through the 2016 season, and Joe Berger. Berger re-signed with Minnesota in the offseason. He’s a capable, veteran backup who can also play guard.
2013: Travis Bond, North Carolina: seventh round (214th overall) — claimed by Carolina Panthers, Nov. 13, 2013; still with Carolina
2013: Jeff Baca, UCLA: sixth round (196th overall) — still with the Vikings
2011: Brandon Fusco, Slippery Rock: sixth round (172nd overall) — still with the Vikings
2008: John Sullivan, Notre Dame: sixth round (187th overall) — still with the Vikings
2006: Ryan Cook, New Mexico: second round (51st overall) — released, September 2011; unrestricted free agent
Philosophy at the position
Minnesota has its road graders on the right side for the run game and the pass protectors on the left side with the leader and technician at center. The Vikings have hit on later picks in Sullivan and Fusco, both sixth-round selections. Finding a new starter at left guard and a replacement for Johnson seemed likely before he re-signed for two years. He’ll at least go into the season as the leader in a competition to start.
An eventual successor for Johnson is needed if coaches believe Baca isn’t the answer. Minnesota could wait until the third day again to look at the position based on its track record of finding contributors late. It’s highly likely the team will draft more competition and a possible starter at guard this year. While the elite talent at guard isn’t considered to be there like last season when three went in the first round, there are gems to be found on the second and possibly third days of the draft.
Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)
Xavier Su’a-Filo, junior, UCLA (6-foot-4, 307 pounds): Minnesota could look to go back to UCLA for another guard after picking Baca last year. However, the timing of their pick makes a guard in the first round unlikely. Su’a-Filo is a possible Day 1 starter and has room to grow. He might be the only guard to land in the first round. The Vikings, picking at No. 8, wouldn’t seem to be in position to draft Su’a-Filo without trading back. Reaching at No. 8 for Su’a-Filo isn’t likely a consideration.
Versatile? Check. Su’a-Filo has played tackle and guard in his career at UCLA and said he’s even been worked out as a center by NFL teams. He’s started 19 games at left tackle, but is seen mostly as a guard, where he has started 21 games.
Su’a-Filo has the nasty demeanor seen in standout guards and he’s athletic and powerful. Su’a-Filo left school after his junior season, but he is older, having spent a year on a mission trip after his freshman season at UCLA. With his power and quickness, he could thrive as a starting guard in either a power or zone blocking scheme.
Said Su’a-Filo: "I watch a lot of the guys I try to pattern my game after. I watch a lot of Logan Mankins, left guard from the New England Patriots. I think Logan, he was a high draft pick, but he’s physical. He’s a bad-ass, he started from Day 1 in New England, and I love how nasty he is — something about his game that I really try to implement. Other guys like Mike Iupati and Trent Williams are really mean and nasty like that and that’s what I’m trying to be like."
Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)
Trai Turner, redshirt sophomore, Louisiana State (6-3, 310): Turner is a power player who is thickly built. He’s young and somewhat inexperienced after playing just two seasons for LSU. He made the decision to opt for the draft and should be in the second-day mix and has the potential to develop into an eventual NFL starter, but likely not one to step in right away.
Turner has long arms and the strength to stand up against a pass rush, but he’s better at using his power to drive in the running game. He may be a better fit at right guard in a power-running scheme. Turner might be somewhat limited by his footwork and agility, but should become a strong run-blocker.
Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)
Jon Halapio, senior, Florida (6-3, 323): Want a nasty, physical player? Halapio is the guy. He’s big and strong and has all of the traits to be a dominant guard. He’s experienced, starting 43 games at Florida. Halapio has had an assortment of injuries, but played through many of them.
Halapio is the type of player who can manhandle blockers in short areas. He does struggle in movement at times and isn’t consistent. He has shown ability to pull and move his feet, but isn’t consistent in doing so. He drives defenders back on contact and gets a good push off the snap. Halapio is the essence of a physical, vicious guard with all the tools to be a standout starter.