Vikings may look for depth on interior line

Today is the sixth day of two weeks of Minnesota Vikings coverage leading up to the April 25 beginning of the NFL Draft.

April 12: Five best draft moments in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst draft moments in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
April 15: Running backs/fullbacks position preview

Today: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
April 21: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
April 24: Rick Spielman’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round picks

TODAY’S POSITION: INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN


Importance (1-to-10 scale): 4

On the roster

The inside of Minnesota’s offensive line was a mix last season with center John Sullivan turning into one of the league’s best centers. He was flanked by Charlie Johnson at left guard and Brandon Fusco at right guard, and both struggled at times. But together, the three were also part of a strong run-blocking unit that helped the Vikings rush for the second-most yards in the NFL last year and helped Adrian Peterson put up the second-most, single-season rushing yards in NFL history.

Johnson moved to left guard from left tackle after the team drafted Matt Kalil, and the team believes his skill better fits the guard position and that he can likely improve in his second year at the spot. Fusco started losing time to Geoff Schwartz midway through the season but then played most of the downs the final few weeks. Schwartz left as a free agent, and the team would like Fusco, a former center, to develop into a standout guard. He has a mean streak but needs to become more consistent and better all around.

The Vikings added Seth Olsen in free agency, and he will have a chance to stick as a backup after playing in 11 games over the past two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Olsen is unlikely to challenge Fusco for a starting spot, but Fusco will have to prove he should remain the starter. Minnesota also has Tyler Holmes, who was on the practice squad last season.

Last five offensive guards or centers drafted

 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; currently with the Dallas Cowboys

2005 — Marcus Johnson, Mississippi: second round (49th overall) — Signed as free agent with Oakland Raiders, April 2009; out of the NFL

2002 — Ed TaAmu, Utah: fourth round (132nd overall) — waived with knee injury, September 2002; out of the NFL

Philosophy at the position

Minnesota is a run-first team, and the responsibility for its success falls on the offensive line’s ability to get a push up front. Sullivan is a leader and technician in the middle, strong in both the run game and pass blocking. Johnson and Fusco both have the temperament to dominate in the running game and the skills to be solid starting guards, but both will need to improve on last year. Overall, the Vikings have hit on players later in the draft who have helped on the interior of the offensive line. Sullivan and Fusco were sixth-rounders, as was former starting center Matt Birk. Minnesota could add to the line on the third day of the draft, maybe looking at someone with the ability to swing along several positions on the line. The backups, right now, appear to be Joe Berger, who can play center and guard, Olsen and tackle DeMarcus Love. But another player who could swing between guard and tackle, or someone who could challenge Johnson or Fusco for a starting spot, would likely be welcomed.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Chance Warmack, senior, Alabama (6-2, 317).  This season could be a rarity in the NFL with the mix of talent at guard and a lack of sure-fire top picks at the usual positions high in the draft. Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper are being talked about as possible top-10 selections. There hasn’t been a guard selected in the top 10 since the New Orleans Saints took Colorado’s Chris Naeole No. 10 in 1997. The last top-five interior lineman was Bill Fralic, at No. 2 by the Atlanta Falcons in 1985. You have to go back to 1998 to find two guards selected in the top 10. But Warmack and Cooper are special talents. Many analysts peg Warmack as being a shade better than Cooper, but there are several that prefer Cooper. Warmack is a power player, and Cooper is considered more athletic. Warmack has good strength and is still mobile enough to pull. He started three years at Alabama and is likely to develop into an elite run blocker with the ability to hold the pocket in pass protections.

Warmack says: “It makes me feel good to get the level of respect in that manner (of being declared the best player in the draft by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock). But at the same time, I don’t really pay attention to that too much. I know where I came from, I know where I started, and that’s the same mentality I have now. I appreciate the praise, but nothing’s perfect. I’m human. I make mistakes. I’m just going to continue to get better.”

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Brian Winters, senior, Kent State (6-4, 320). A left tackle in college, Winters is likely to move to guard in the NFL. A former wrestler, he is tough, strong and plays with leverage. He has good footwork and mobility that will be an asset inside. A four-year starter, Winters explodes into defenders with good initial punch. His drawbacks are what will likely force him inside. He’s not quite athletic enough to handle the outside in the NFL and would likely struggle against speed rushers. He has the potential to turn into a solid starter and is just the type of player who can swing between guard and tackle in the NFL.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Brian Schwenke, senior, California (6-3, 314). Schwenke, too, will be able to play multiple positions in the NFL and has already done so at California. He’s a three-year starter who has played each of the three inside positions. He split time between left and right guard in 2010, played left guard in 2011 and was a center last year, earning first-team all-conference. He can be drafted on the third day, be a backup in the NFL from Day 1 with the versatility to help in different positions and maybe could develop into a starter. He’s quick off the ball and plays with good leverage. Schwenke lacks great power and he’s believed to be a better fit at center.

FOXSports.com’s draft expert Taylor Jones says: “Those two guys (Warmack and Cooper) are clear-cut, to me, top-10 picks. And that’s unheard of. I think when Carl Nicks got the new contract in Tampa Bay and then Ben Grubbs followed that and went to New Orleans to basically backfill Carl Nicks’ spot, that kind of set the pace to say, ‘OK, interior lineman are valuable in this league.’ They set the tone. There’s a market for these guys. You’ve seen the Pouncey brothers go high. You’ve seen David DeCastro go high in the draft. Zeitler from Wisconsin was a first-round pick. So, there’s a market for these guys to go high in the draft that you haven’t necessarily seen in recent drafts. I think both of these guys are worthy of top-10 picks, in my opinion.

“So, it’s top heavy in that regard, but I think Larry Warford from Kentucky is serviceable as a guard. I think Barrett Jones and Travis Frederick are good centers, although I think Frederick is a step ahead of Jones in the fact that he can play both guard and center and can play both just as well as the next…You’ve got to get a little more creative as you go down the list. It’s not as deep as other drafts, but there’s still some other players in there that you can get some contributions from.”

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