Friday, May 6, 2016

joe berger

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Out with the old, in with the new

Vikings' starting offensive line
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Competition is the name of the game for the Minnesota Vikings, who completely revamped the look of their offensive line this offseason. Last year’s unit, which featured rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings and reserve center Joe Berger, was a ramshackle bunch of pieces playing out of position.

Mike Harris, traditionally a tackle, was thrust into the lineup as a right guard. Brandon Fusco, the right guard of old, was forced to move to the left side of the line. And Clemmings, no matter how much of a “steal” he was in the draft, clearly wasn’t ready to take the reigns from an injured Phil Loadholt.

Heading into 2016, a pivotal year for the Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman took measures to prevent another disaster up front. His free agent signings — an re-signings — signal an emphasis on protecting third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and solidifying one of the team’s weakest links from 2015:

  • Re-structuring right tackle Phil Loadholt and retaining left tackle Matt Kalil — consistency and continuity at the tackle position can’t hurt, right?
  • Re-signing right guard Mike Harris, who is expected to compete with Brandon Fusco for starting duties next season
  • Signing free agent left guard Alex Boone, who will step in immediately next to Matt Kalil
  • Bringing in free agent right tackle Andre Smith for a visit — the former Cincinnati Bengal is reportedly deciding between Arizona and Minnesota for his next contract

With all of these changes, moves, and potential signings, Spielman is fostering a competitive environment in Minnesota. Presumed starters today may end up on the bench tomorrow; it’s a guessing game at this point of the offseason. And that’s why I asked the VT team to make their best guess and predict the Vikings’ starting offensive line come Week 1. Who will rise and solidify a spot as one of the top-five?

It’s Week 1 of the 2016 regular season. Who is starting on the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings?

Vikings free agency targets
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The NFL League Year officially begins on March 9th, but there really are no timeouts when it comes to professional football. Once the final whistle blows at the end of the Super Bowl, front offices ramp up their efforts to improve rosters by making cuts, trades, and adding new talent.

That starts during Free Agency, which coincides with the beginning of the “new” year. Top-tier players, journeymen, and sleepers become available to the highest-bidding, and at times, most desperate teams. The Minnesota Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman generally take a cautious approach to the free-for-all extravaganza, finding value in lesser-known names who don’t dominate the headlines.

It’s an approach that recently brought players like Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota; free agency additions that make an impact at a reasonable price. This year’s crop of players is filled with a few high-profile names, many of whom fans would like to see in purple and gold. But who would the VT Team like to see in Minnesota next year? I asked, and they answered!

Who is one player you’d like to see the Vikings sign in Free Agency?

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Kelechi Osemele's free agent fit
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

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.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Although the Minnesota Vikings field a top-five defense and a number of different playmakers on offense, just one player was selected to the 2016 Pro Bowl — running back Adrian Peterson. His selection, the first since 2013, was an obvious choice, as Peterson leads the league with 1,314 rushing yards and has often been the cog in Vikings victories this season.

This marks Peterson’s seventh Pro Bowl appearance and ties him with Ron Yary for fourth-most all-time in franchise history. While Peterson was the easiest choice among voting fans, players, and coaches, others could definitely be considered snubs, including center Joe Berger, nose tackle Linval Joseph, free safety Harrison Smith, and linebacker Anthony Barr. According to Pro Football Focus’s recent mock Pro Bowl roster, those four made the list, with Cordarrelle Patterson (leads the league with 31.1 yards/return) joining them as one of two kick returners.

Berger is the analytics website’s second-highest ranked center,  while Smith misses the Pro Bowl for the second straight year despite playing at an All-Pro level. Like Joseph and Barr, Smith has missed significant time with injuries, which may have hurt his case for the January 31 showcase. Barr is Pro Football Focus’s top-ranked outside linebacker, with 21 total pressures, a batted pass, and 35 defensive stops. While any of these players may be added at a later date — due to injuries or declined invites — they’re more-than-deserving at this point of the season.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

At 8-3, the Minnesota Vikings are the surprise team in the NFC and a legitimate threat to claim the NFC North division title. With the league’s second-best scoring defense and Mike Zimmer’s steady hand leading the ship, Minnesota has — at the very least — a 90 percent probability to reach the postseason.

When the Vikings lost to the San Francisco 49ers to open the season, a playoff berth appeared unlikely. The defense couldn’t stop the run, Adrian Peterson ran like a 30-year-old running back, and the offensive line looked lost without John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Mike Zimmer’s team lacked an identity early on, but they’ve slowly established themselves as one of the NFL’s most physical, technically sound teams on both sides of the ball.

As I’ve written these “What Went Right” pieces, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern. When the Vikings win, it’s because of the defense and the legs of Adrian Peterson. Specifically, the defense plays with discipline, filling run gaps correctly, tackling in space, and preventing big plays down the field. On offense, Minnesota wins when they unleash Peterson, who has at least 19 carries in every Vikings victory this season. Any less, and they’ve gone on to lose.

While the defense created turnovers against Atlanta in Week 12, it was Peterson who powered Minnesota to victory. This Sunday, when the Vikings host the Seattle Seahawks, he’ll need to do the same against an aggressive, stout run defense that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.

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