Meetings are taking place at Winter Park this week with the Vikings planning a detailed player-by-player evaluation of their current roster. As they perform their in-house review, we’re following suit and delivering our own snapshot evaluation of each position group.
Get excited: John Sullivan has been designated as a long-term answer at center, a reliable leader on a unit that badly needs stability. Sullivan’s worth to the franchise was made clear three weeks ago when the Vikings gave him a lucrative five-year contract extension. New general manager Rick Spielman had been exploring what other centers might be available via free agency or the draft if Sullivan’s contract had been allowed to expire. But Spielman kept coming back to one conclusion: Sullivan was as good or better than anyone he was seeing. Plus, at 26 years old, Sullivan should have plenty of gas left in the tank. So Spielman encouraged the team to lock him up. And what impressed the GM even more was how well Sullivan played in the final three games even after getting his new deal.
Keep an eye on: At guard, things get a little more tricky with it being possible that a Spielman-influenced youth movement will require veterans Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera to slide aside. Spielman is high on Brandon Fusco and the Vikings could also consider moving tackle Charlie Johnson inside if they were able to solidify the left tackle position through the draft or free agency. Plus, Joe Berger has proven to be a reliable fill-in whose 2012 price tag (approximately $1 million) is a fraction of what the Vikings will have to spend on Hutchinson (due close to $7 million next season) or Herrera ($2.65 million).
Plus, now that Spielman has the GM title he should have greater authority in making the move to get younger. That’s where the recent power shift will be most evident. Head coach Leslie Frazier loves the tenacity and emotion Herrera brings to the line and noticed a dip in the games the veteran guard was injured this past season. But with an eye on the big picture, Spielman is high on Fusco and may want to find ways to increase his opportunities.
Reason for worry: The Vikings allowed 49 sacks last season, fifth worst in the NFL. That’s not entirely on the offensive line. Tight ends and running backs share some responsibility for not limiting the pressure as opposing defenses grew blitz-happy over the final 10 games against rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. But it’s worth noting that Ponder took an absolute beating down the stretch of the season, suffering a hip pointer in Week 13 against Denver, missing most of the second half the following week against Detroit, suffering a concussion in Week 16 at Washington and aggravating that hip pointer in the season finale against Chicago. If Ponder is everything Spielman and the coaching staff thinks he can be, he will need far better protection in 2012. Which could well push the Vikings toward putting left tackle Matt Kalil of Southern Cal at the top of their draft board for April.