MANKATO, Minn. — One of the biggest focus areas of the offseason for the Minnesota Vikings was upgrading an offensive line that had aged and slumped last season.
A week into training camp, those changes are being tested as depth and competition has eroded due to injuries.
The latest concern is Geoff Schwartz, a former 16-game starter for the Carolina Panthers who was signed to a one-year deal in the offseason and expected to compete for the starting right guard position. Schwartz, who missed all of last season with a hip injury, wasn’t at Friday morning’s walk-through, and coach Leslie Frazier said Schwartz traveled back to the Twin Cities to be checked out for an abdominal strain.
“He said he had trouble turning to his left or right, one of them,” Frazier said. “Just couldn’t make any adjustments he needed to make when he turned in that direction. Obviously for an offensive lineman, we want him to be able to turn in any direction with ease. He’s having trouble doing that, so we wanted to go back and get it checked and find out what’s going on.”
Schwartz joins a growing list of injured Vikings, including offensive linemen Patrick Brown (knee) and DeMarcus Love (shoulder), and rookie Kevin Murphy, who left Friday’s practice feeling ill. With Schwartz and Brown out and Love still unable to practice in pads, 12 offensive linemen are left to split the practice reps. The starting line has been comprised of first-round draft pick left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
Schwartz had been rotating with Fusco in a competition to replace Anthony Herrera at right guard. Schwartz, who had slowly begun to work his way into the mix in training camp, had received several first-team repetitions at right guard during Thursday afternoon’s padded practice. Brown and Love started training camp as the second-team tackles. Also in camp are centers Joe Berger and Quentin Saulsberry, guards Chris DeGeare, Tyler Holmes and Austin Pasztor, and tackles Levi Horn and Kevin Murphy.
The lack of healthy bodies has Frazier wondering if Minnesota needs to bring in extra help to avoid overworking the players left on the field — specifically at tackle, where Kalil was taking extra reps Thursday because the team was without Brown and Love.
“We’re going to bring in some guys to work out and take a look because you don’t want to get down to 11 or 10,” Frazier said. “So, we’re going to bring some guys in, and (general manager Rick Spielman) and his staff are looking at some guys right now.”
Frazier said Brown has a Grade-1 sprain of the medial collateral ligament but is expected to return within a few days. Love was taking second-team reps during Friday’s walk-through but hasn’t practiced in pads since Saturday.
Schwartz’s injuries have caused him to miss valuable development time with his new team. He was still working his way back during the offseason and wasn’t able to practice with the first team in minicamp. One thing that could help Schwartz still remain in the competition with Fusco is his familiarity with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, who had worked with Schwartz in Carolina.
But Schwartz will need to be on the field and prove he can avoid injuries. Schwartz’s abdominal pain is a concern because he is coming back from hip surgery.
“That’s what we want to check out, if its anything related to the hip and if there is something else going on,” Frazier said.
Fusco received the majority of snaps with the first team offense all offseason and has remained there during training camp. Drafted as a center in the sixth round last season out of Slippery Rock, Fusco dedicated himself in the offseason, improving his diet and working out heavily in an effort to win the starting right guard spot.
“Off last year, being a rookie, I had a different mindset that I wanted to make the team and establish myself on this team,” Fusco said. “This year is a whole different attitude on this team. I want to be a starter on this team for years to come. Not just become just an ordinary starter but a solid, great starter for this team.”