Brandon Fusco made the switch from right guard to left guard for the Minnesota Vikings last season, and his transition was as smooth as Adrian Peterson trying to hold onto the football in a playoff game. In simpler terms, he struggled throughout 2015, and his difficulty shifting to the opposite side of the line has raised questions about the unit as a whole.
Specifically, the Vikings must decide what to do with three players this offseason: center John Sullivan, right tackle Phil Loadholt, and right guard Mike Harris. The first two will make their return from injuries in 2016, but an instant rebound isn’t guaranteed for either player. And given their large salary cap hits, general manager Rick Spielman may decide to move forward without them next season.
That leaves Harris, who is set to become a free agent. The four-year veteran should garner a healthy contract from the Vikings or another suitor in March. Letting Harris, Loadholt, and Sullivan walk would allow Spielman to spend more money in free agency. It’s a strategy he rarely employs, but a strategy that potentially makes sense with the rare talent hitting the market next month.
Meet Kelechi Osemele, a free agent guard-tackle hybrid who immediately patches a hole on the Vikings’ offensive line.
Osemele began his career with the Baltimore Ravens, when he was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Iowa State. The Cyclones standout started 38 games at left tackle in college, but was immediately challenged to flip sides his rookie season. It’s a trait that’s defined Osemele’s four-year career in the league, per the Ravens’ official website:
2012: (16/16, 4/4) Started all 16 games at right tackle during the regular season and moved to left guard during Baltimore’s four-game Super Bowl run.
2013: (7/7) Started seven games at left guard before being placed on Injured Reserve (back) on 11/8/13
2014: (14/14, 2/2) Started all 16 games at left guard.
2015: (16/16) Started 12 games at left guard before moving to left tackle for the final four weeks of the season.
The 26 year-old’s standout performance came in 2014. It was then that he was given the chance to start all 16 regular season games in one spot — left guard. The continuity earned Osemele praise and recognition. Pro Football Focus named him the sixth-best guard that season, awarding him the fourth-highest run-blocking grade of the year. According to the analytics website, Osemele allowed just two sacks in 2014 while simultaneously building on his reputation as a notorious “road grading” run blocker.
At the time, offensive line coach Juan Castillo marveled at Osemele’s ability to finish plays . “The way ‘K.O’ finishes every play is incredible,” he said in an interview with ESPN. “I don’t know that there’s anybody in the NFL that finishes better than he does.” Osemele’s “finisher” mentality was on full display in one of the team’s most important 2014 games. Late in the Ravens’ playoff matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Osemele obliterated linebacker James Harrison, giving Joe Flacco enough time to find Torrey Smith for a touchdown pass.
Plays like the one above highlight the strength and physicality that made Osemele such a highly-regarded prospect in 2012. The NFL’s draft experts called Osemele an “extremely strong, natural run blocker” with the power to “visibly jolt defenders back.” Despite his raw ability and limited value at tackle, the Ravens brought Osemele in, and their gamble paid off. Osemele not only proved Mike Mayock wrong — shedding his label as a “phone-booth guard” — but proved to be one of Baltimore’s most prized additions in recent draft classes.
Heading into the 2015 season, ESPN ranked Osemele as the Ravens’ 10th-best player, specifically focusing on his limited future in Baltimore. Like so many Ravens before him, including Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones, Osemele has played well enough to price himself out of Baltimore. It’s a situation that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome understands and has seemingly embraced.
“When [Kelechi Osemele] agreed to move to left tackle, we thought it was a good thing for us to get a chance to watch him over the course of four games, and then also improve his value to the National Football League,” he said, per ESPN. Newsome was forced to move Osemele outside, as former starter Eugene Monroe battled through injuries in 2015. And in doing so, he created a difficult situation for the Ravens, who recently signed right guard Marshal Yanda to a lucrative contract extension.
If Osemele is a guard in Newsome’s eyes, then it’d make little sense to invest millions of dollars in two players next season. But if he’s Joe Flacco’s long-term blindside protector, the Ravens have to view Osemele as a must re-sign, no matter the price. Unfortunately, the conundrum is a losing battle for the Ravens. By cutting Monroe and signing Osemele in 2016, Newsome would add at least $6.6 million in dead money to the salary cap, setting his team’s development back further.
The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec agrees, making it clear that Osemele will be too expensive for the Ravens this offseason. “I saw five or six playoff teams over the past month that would benefit from having Osemele, and there are countless other teams that didn’t make the playoffs that need offensive line help,” he said. Those teams include the Vikings, who may be the most offensive line-needy playoff contender of all.
Pro Football Focus believes that Osemele is entering the “prime of his career.” He used his diverse experience in 2015 to repeatedly establish himself as one of “the best run blockers in the entire league.” His play in 2015 at left guard vaulted him to the top of the website’s rankings. Through Week 14, Osemele had allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and 10 hurries all year. At the time, his pass blocking efficiency of 97.6 was the ninth-best among all guards, and he finished 2015 with an overall grade of 93.0 at the position; good enough to earn him a spot on PFF’s “top unrestricted free agents” list.
Numbers-wise, the Vikings have plenty of cap space to make an offer for Osemele in free agency. Spielman’s non-history of making “splash” signings in March will play a major factor, though.
If he’s willing to shell out anywhere from $7 million to $9.5 million per year for a top-flight left guard, the Vikings can immediately address a major position of need. Osemele has the range of experience to play multiple positions, from right tackle to left guard. His addition would give Tony Sparano options along the offensive line, regardless of who the team releases or keeps this offseason.
If not, the game of musical chairs along the offensive line will continue in 2016. And if it does, Teddy Bridgewater will continue to dance for his life in the pocket.