As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Offensive line
Current starters: Matt Kalil, Phil Loadholt, John Sullivan, Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco
Reserves under contract: Joe Berger, Troy Kropog, Tyler Holmes, Kevin Murphy, DeMarcus Love, Seth Olsen
Biggest offseason move: The Vikings were determined to not let Loadholt get away via free agency. And while the 27-year-old right tackle also desired to stay put, the negotiation stage of the game required the Vikings’ front office to dig deep for a four-year extension worth up to $25 million. That was signed, sealed and delivered shortly before Loadholt would have hit the open market.
Level of draft need: Moderate. The Vikings started the same five players up front for all 16 games plus the playoffs last season. And that quintet returns intact with growing confidence and chemistry after a stellar 2012. But more quality depth is needed across the board. Day 3 of the draft could be the place to find some.
You should know: Retaining continuity on the offensive line was a big deal to General Manager Rick Spielman. And it was clear even before last season ended that the organization was going to do everything it could to keep Loadholt around. Succeeding in that mission triggered great relief and celebration at Winter Park.
Loadholt, too, was thrilled about the final resolution of his contract talks. As he noted shortly after signing that lucrative extension: “I was thinking about coming in in ’09, being drafted here. Just the season we had last year. Adrian running for as many yards as he did last year, getting close to that (single-season) record. The continuity that I have with the guys here on the offensive line. I love playing for Coach [Jeff] Davidson, Coach [Leslie] Frazier. My family loves Minnesota. I could just keep going down the line. It was a great situation for me. I’m glad I’m back.”
So, too, is Frazier, who has been effusive with his praise of Loadholt.
“It sends a message to our team,” the Vikings coach said. “When I sat down with our players and did our exit interviews after the season, I can’t tell you the number of guys who came into my office and said, ‘Coach, we’ve got to get Phil re-signed.’ And not just offensive guys. Defensive guys too. I’m listening to this and I’m saying, ‘Man, Phil has some real influence on our team.’ Which I knew because he works hard and always plays hurt and never bucks the system. He not only does everything we ask him to do, but his work resonates with the rest of the team. … So why let him go somewhere else with all we’ve invested?”
One more thing: If the Vikings o-line is to take another step forward in 2013, that will require continued development from right guard Brandon Fusco. Drafted in the sixth round out of Slipper Rock in 2011, Fusco had a rocky first year as a starter. In early October, as his technique got sloppier and his confidence dipped, Fusco ceded reps to back-up Geoff Schwartz, a platoon system that lasted for nine games.
The Vikings coaching staff challenged Fusco to step up his play, to be more physical, to play with more confidence, to continue working on polishing his technique. By season’s end, the eager 24-year-old guard wrapped his arms around the opportunity and regained full control of the reps there.
“It adds confidence heading for next season,” Fusco said in the week after the Vikings’ playoff loss in Green Bay. “Those reps getting taken away from me opened my eyes. That was the coaches’ decision. But I think it helped me as a player to push myself. I put myself in that position to lose those reps. And so I knew I had to get refocused, play my game, be physical and get my reps back.”
Frazier continues to laud Fusco’s agility and ability to control three-technique tackles. The Vikings still believe he has a very bright future. Heading into 2013, Fusco is the undisputed starter at right guard. That’s a vote of confidence from the coaching staff. But Fusco also knows prolonged struggles won’t be accepted. The loss of playing time last season is a strong reminder.
Said Frazier: "I think Jeff Davidson did a great job of just challenging him to play at a high level every week and to stop looking at himself as a first-year starter. You are a starter in the NFL. You've got to play like it every week and not just a few plays here and there. He accepted that challenge as the season went on and he got better, which is what we need. Now we need to build on that in this offseason and going into the next season." 

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