Vikings

A Look Into the Vikings' Decade-Long Struggle to Find Long-Term Guards

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA Today Sports)

As a member of the 2020 Hall of Fame class, Steve Hutchinson will have his Minnesota Vikings jersey immortalized in Canton this summer. The left guard played for 12 years — six in purple — as one of the steadiest blockers of the 2000s.

Overlapping with Hutchinson in Minnesota from 2006-11 was former undrafted free agent Anthony Herrera, a gem that the Vikings found in 2005 and ultimately made 70 starts in Minnesota.

It’s been nearly a decade since the Vikings released Hutchinson and Herrera in 2012, and they’re still seeking a player remotely close to their caliber or longevity. The closest they’ve come is discovering the late-blooming Joe Berger, who started 46 games at all three interior positions from 2015-17 before retiring.

The Vikings’ revolving door at guard has been ever-spinning. Management has attempted numerous free agent swings since the Hutchinson-Herrera pairing that have failed to pan out, while their efforts to cultivate young guards through the draft have fallen flat. And once again in 2020, the Vikings find themselves in need of guard help after a failed position switch and a curious veteran cut.

Minnesota’s 2017 third-round pick Pat Elflein attempted to move from center to left guard a year ago, but the third-year pro ranked 72nd in pass-blocking grade out of 87 qualified guards, per Pro Football Focus. Elflein enters his contract year with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, the Vikings released right guard Josh Kline one year into his three-year, $16.5 million deal after a serviceable first season — an odd move in the eyes of some pundits, considering the minimal financial gain.

Minnesota was presented with a free agent guard class rich with talent, but also expensive. Joe Thuney, Brandon Scherff and Graham Glasgow were thought to be available heading into March. But hamstrung by a tight cap situation, the Vikings were only able to retain veteran backups Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier to bolster their interior offensive line depth, presumably leaving both starting guard spots up for grabs entering the draft, which is weak at the guard position.

On top of that, Minnesota has more pressing needs to address first.

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If the Vikings can stabilize their guard spots, it would be a refreshing change for the franchise, which has a mounting pile of evidence incriminating its ability to do so. Only once in the last decade have the same two guards logged the majority of starts in back-to-back seasons: Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson in 2012-13.

Let’s examine the reasons why the Vikings are continually in this predicament.

DRAFTING LOW; FAILING TO HIT

The Vikings have not drafted a guard in the first three rounds of the draft since Marcus Johnson in the second round in 2005. In the 15 years since the Vikings have taken seven Day 3 fliers on guards, few of which have come to fruition.

Fusco, a sixth-round find from Division-II Slippery Rock, certainly stands as the biggest hit. Fusco performed well enough in two years as a starter to merit a contract extension in 2014, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury early that season and never seemed to regain his form. Per PFF, Fusco finished 66th of 87 qualified guards in 2015 and 65th of 85th a year later before his release. He wound up making 64 starts for the Vikings and starting in the playoffs twice.

Then there is the litany of misses.

Fifth-round pick Chris DeGeare in 2010 started five games that year but never appeared in the league again, 2013 selections Jeff Baca (sixth round) and Travis Bond (seventh round) played a combined six games in the league and David Yankey (fifth round, 2014) never appeared on the field for the Vikings. Danny Isidora (fifth round, 2017) made just three starts over two seasons, and sixth-rounder in 2018, Colby Gossett, never made the team. Dru Samia, the latest attempt in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, remains on the roster, but he was not viewed as a viable option as a rookie. The jury is out on his future.

In a decade of Day 3 guard selections, the Vikings found one guard who turned into a full-time starter. Worse yet, only one other managed to hang on the roster multiple seasons as a depth option. The type of process that requires a team to nail late-round picks is bound to have a high bust rate, but the Vikings were unable to squeeze even moderate outcomes from the majority of their guard prospects.

FREE AGENT FOIBLES 

One might assume, based on the Vikings’ draft-low philosophy at guard, that they aren’t prioritizing the position. But their free agency strategy would indicate otherwise. Minnesota hasn’t been shy awarding moderate to large contracts at guard, but few of those moves have ended well.

After signing a long-term deal in 2011, Charlie Johnson moved to guard at the start of the decade to be the man next to rookie Matt Kalil. But in 2014, Mike Zimmer’s first at the helm, the head coach was displeased with Johnson’s play at guard — he allowed the fourth-most pressures in the league — and the Vikings cut ties with him before the final year of his contract. Two years later the Vikings ponied up a four-year, $26.8 million deal for former 49ers guard Alex Boone to play the left guard spot. It lasted one year. Boone’s play was adequate, but his brash personality may have clashed with the coaching staff. He was released before the 2017 season and replaced by Easton.

Kline is the latest example of a contract going unfulfilled. The Vikings inked him to a three-year commitment but only kept Kline for one season. He missed three games with concussions in 2019 but was seemingly not a liability when on the field, making the decision all the more confounding.

POSITIONAL TRANSITIONS

The Vikings have attempted to get creative over the years to solve their offensive line woes, including transitioning players from other positions to play guard. But teams are often asking for trouble in circumstances like that when a player already proved they were subpar playing elsewhere.

The most high-profile examples are Mike Remmers switching from right tackle to right guard before the 2018 season and tying for the third-most pressures allowed in football. The year after, Elflein moved from center to left guard, allowed the 10th-most pressures and committed the third-most penalties amongst guards. Back in 2017, though, the man he displaced at center, Nick Easton, was moved to left guard, where he graded out 59th of 92 guards in 12 games played.

(Minnesota failing to find consistent center play since John Sullivan is also a problematic theme, especially considering the resources they’ve poured into finding centers in the draft and via trade.)

Over time the Vikings have had mixed results drafting tackles, whiffing on Kalil but also hitting on long-term starters like Bryant McKinnie, Phil Loadholt and, ostensibly, current right tackle Brian O’Neill. Some of their mid-round attempts at tackle, however, have gone by the wayside and usually ended with a last-ditch attempt to transition them to guard. Former fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings was forced to start 30 games at tackle between 2015-16 due to injuries, but he struggled with lunging and overall balance. The Vikings tried to make him a guard in 2017, but he never made the roster. Willie Beavers, a fourth-round pick in 2016, was sampled at all four tackle and guard spots but was released by the Vikings multiple times without making a start.

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

Could the Vikings have another transition in store in 2020? Speculation continues that Riley Reiff could make the switch from left tackle to left guard if the Vikings draft a franchise left tackle. That would raise further questions, however, of Reiff’s capability to play inside, as well as Elflein’s future.

INJURY BUG

The Vikings have also been struck by bad luck at guard, including the 2014 injury to Fusco that cost him a season and seemed to set his career back.

Think back also to 2015, where right guard Mike Harris, a former UDFA, graded out as the 21st-best pass-blocking guard on a division title-winning team. Harris was thought to be a potential long-term solution at guard, but a health scare the following offseason led to the discovery of a congenital brain condition that ended his career.

What about Easton? He was tabbed as the starting left guard in 2018, only to miss the year with a neck injury and depart in free agency the following spring. Tom Compton filled in for Easton, but his pass-blocking ranked 59th out of 88 guards.

Even depth piece Aviante Collins, a swing tackle/guard option, has missed most or all of the last two seasons with lower-body injuries. Collins was a well-liked acquisition in undrafted free agency back in 2017 but has yet to get a foothold on the roster.

If the Vikings are to change their fortunes at guard in 2020, they’ll have to do it with keen player development and overall scheme. The league’s top plug-and-play free agent guards were quickly soaked up or franchised, and any rookie guard from this year’s class would likely require some seasoning. Zimmer and Spielman were vocal this offseason about their desire to improve the offensive line around Kirk Cousins, but as of draft week, they’ve yet to take those steps. The draft will surely tip their hand as to what the 2020 plan will be.

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