Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.

Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.

Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.

Vikings 2013 look ahead: Offensive line

Posted by: Updated: January 22, 2013 - 1:16 PM

The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the offensive line.


Get excited: The Vikings offensive front stayed healthy in 2012 and wound up starting the same quintet for all 16 regular season games plus the playoff contest in Green Bay. The unit of Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt developed a strong chemistry as the season went on. And while Adrian Peterson is certainly capable of attaining excellence behind even the most mediocre of offensive lines, there’s no doubt his 2,097-yard explosion in 2012 was catalyzed by the bruising run blocking of the guys up front.

The Vikings also surrendered 17 fewer sacks in 2012 than they did in 2011 – from 49 down to 32. And despite the occasional lapse, the line also limited its costly penalties.

Without question, Sullivan emerged as the leader while Kalil’s immediate impact further validated the Vikings’ choice to use the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft on him.

Sullivan’s rise has been a fun one to keep an eye on. Five years ago, the Vikings nabbed him in the sixth round and were not exactly banking on that pick paying long-term dividends. They feared he was too slow and a bit too small to be much more than a serviceable back-up. But they also saw enough intangibles that they figured Sullivan was an OK value pick.

Since then, with a superb combination of intelligence and drive, Sullivan has kept getting better. So much so that the Vikings gave him an eye-opening five-year, $25 million extension in December 2011. Sullivan rewarded the organization with his best season yet, emerging as a standout who even received seven All-Pro votes.

Kalil, meanwhile, was everything the Vikings dreamed he’d be and more in pass protection. And there’s a genuine belief at Winter Park that, barring injury, the starting left tackle position won’t have to be addressed again until the 2020s. That’s some pretty solid comfort to have.

Keep an eye on: The right side of the line with Loadholt and Fusco.

Loadholt is set to become a free agent in March. So between now and then, the Vikings will have to weigh whether it’s worth giving Loadholt the money he will command in a long-term extension versus whether there might be comparable right tackle options in free agency or the draft.

A draft sleeper to keep an eye on would be Ohio State’s Reid Fragel, a converted tight end who has loads of potential and could be a great value pick in Round 3 if he’s still on the board.

The Vikings also have to be honest about what they see in DeMarcus Love, a 2011 sixth-round pick who missed all of this season with a torn pectoral muscle and whose durability seems like it might be iffy at best. Love was inactive for all 16 games his rookie season in 2011.

So just how does General Manager Rick Spielman see Loadholt fitting into the future plans? Spielman called Loadholt “a true warrior type player” and stressed the value of retaining continuity up front.

“We’ll go through the process in comparing him to the [other] right tackles out there,” Spielman said. “I know we would love to have that unit together for a while, just because I think with the offensive line if you can get them playing together, and with how they played this year, to have that same group keep working together, especially at the age a lot of those guys are at, it really helps you solidify yourself up front.”

At guard, the Fusco situation is an interesting one. The 24-year-old struggled enough in the season’s second month that the Vikings wound up cutting his reps without taking his starting spot away. Fusco was put in a timeshare with Geoff Schwartz for nine games. But Schwartz never stood out or did enough to unseat Fusco as the starter. And when Fusco regained his confidence in December, he regained full control of that right guard spot.

“I need to get better with my techniques,” Fusco said. “That’s what hindered me when I struggled some. And a lot of it is getting that confidence back. Towards the end of the season, I had some pretty strong games. And I can hang my hat on that and use that for next season. But now I have to strengthen my techniques.”

Reason for worry: If the Vikings’ health up front was a significant reason for their 10-win surge, it also left open the question to how good the depth is there. Schwartz, as we mentioned, was OK but nothing special during his time on the field and is now set to become a free agent. It’ll be interesting to see if the Vikings make a push to retain him or whether Schwartz will seek opportunity elsewhere where he’d have a better chance to start.

The other back-up linemen who were on the active roster at season’s end were: guard/center Joe Berger and tackle Troy Kropog. Guard Tyler Holmes and tackle Kevin Murphy, meanwhile, were on the practice squad and signed to futures contracts the week after the playoff loss in Green Bay.

Berger will be a free agent again in March. And it’s hard to know how dependable any of those other young guys could be if circumstances pushed them into a starting role. In other words, don’t be surprised if there’s turnover in the Vikings’ o-line situation.


Team Irvin 32 FINAL
Team Carter 28
Miami 96 FINAL
Chicago 84
Oklahoma City 98 FINAL
Cleveland 108
Dallas 106 FINAL
New Orleans 109
Indiana 106 FINAL
Orlando 99
LA Clippers 120 FINAL
Phoenix 100
Minnesota 100 FINAL
Atlanta 112
Detroit 110 FINAL
Toronto 114
Milwaukee 95 FINAL
San Antonio 101
Boston 111 FINAL
Golden State 114
Washington 117 FINAL
Denver 115
Houston 99 FINAL
LA Lakers 87
Team Toews 17 FINAL
Team Foligno 12
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Connecticut 66
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Virginia 50 FINAL
Virginia Tech 47
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Ohio State 82
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Binghamton 54
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UCF 46
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Hartford 61
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Manhattan 71
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Marist 73
Rowan 48 FINAL
Princeton 96
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Rhode Island 53
Duke 77 FINAL
St Johns 68
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Siena 55
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Wichita State 74
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UMass Lowell 50
Seton Hall 57 FINAL
Butler 77
South Alabama 55
Northern Iowa 54 FINAL
Illinois State 53
Louisville 80 FINAL
Pittsburgh 68
Albany 69
Niagara 64 FINAL
Iona 87
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NC State 78
Belmont 63 FINAL
Tennessee St 55
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Villanova 71
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Maryland 68
Washington 56 FINAL
Utah 77
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Villanova 81
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Florida 72
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Alabama 52
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Washington 63
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William & Mary 57
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Albany 82
Binghamton 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Towson 63 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 71
Wake Forest 80 FINAL
(17) Florida State 110
Georgia Tech 68 FINAL
Virginia 62
(22) Georgia 51 FINAL
(5) Tennessee 59
Drake 79 FINAL
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Iona 80 FINAL
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Fairfield 33 FINAL
Monmouth 59
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Penn State 76
Wisconsin 71 FINAL
Michigan State 77
Ohio State 79 FINAL
Purdue 71
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Butler 58 FINAL
Xavier 54
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Marquette 75
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DePaul 90
Northeastern 77 FINAL
Elon 80
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Cincinnati 31
Oregon 78 FINAL
Arizona 81
Bradley 46 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 45
NC State 49 FINAL
(23) Syracuse 66
(7) Maryland 84 FINAL
Indiana 74
Illinois State 35 FINAL
Missouri State 58
Colorado 68 FINAL
Washington St 73
Tulane 45 FINAL
South Florida 64
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(13) Arizona State 57
Vermont 63 FINAL
UMass Lowell 72
Iowa State 58 FINAL
(8) Texas 57
Southern Ill 61 FINAL
Wichita State 80
(15) Duke 74 FINAL
(12) North Carolina 67
Miami-Florida 55 FINAL
(4) Louisville 68
(21) Minnesota 61 FINAL
(25) Rutgers 66
California 72 FINAL
(11) Stanford 71 FINAL
USC 60


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