When the Minnesota Vikings released guard Brandon Fusco, they immediately shot to the top of everyone’s list to sign the best free agent guards – players like Kevin Zeitler, Ronald Leary and TJ Lang. But the Vikings didn’t make a big splash at guard, instead they signed two starting tackles.
The Vikings chose to address the interior offensive line in the draft, selecting Ohio State’s Pat Elflein in the third round. Speaking with the media on Saturday, head coach Mike Zimmer said Elflein will begin his career at center, which means that starter Joe Berger could move to the open right guard position.
Berger moved to guard in Weeks 15 and 16 when Fusco went down with an injury and was an instant upgrade in both pass protection and the running game.
Against the Green Bay Packers, Berger often went toe-to-toe with Mike Daniels, a dominant defensive tackle, and handled him well. Here is one example of Berger packing a punch off the snap to create a hole for Jerick McKinnon.
With Berger at guard, McKinnon carried the ball 14 times for 62 yards and Matt Asiata added six rushes for 34 yards for an average of 5.1 Yards Per Carry between the two backs. For the entire season, the Vikings averaged 3.2 YPC, dead last in the NFL. Certainly there are many factors that affect a stat like that over just two games, but a review of the game film revealed that Berger was effective in mitigating Daniels’ ability to stuff runs and pressure the quarterback.
Shuffling the 34-year-old linemen to guard would call upon the Vikings to either stick with Easton at center in 2017 or find a replacement in the draft or free agency. Easton was serviceable as a fill-in, but struggled with run blocking according to Pro Football Focus’s metrics, ranking 36th out of 38 qualifying centers.
Risk is involved in placing a rookie into the starting lineup of a team desperate to fix its offensive line, but the reward comes in the form of salary cap space. With both left and right tackle taking up big chunks of cap space, moving Berger to guard and starting Easton or drafting Elflein is much cheaper than it would have been to pay a top guard.
Because of Berger’s age, the Vikings should still add a just-in-case guard, someone like veteran Evan Mathis, a once-great lineman whose skills have faded, but was still solid in Arizona.