MINNEAPOLIS -- For the first time since 2012, the Minnesota Vikings will head into OTAs with an open spot on their offensive line. Their left guard position is up for grabs after the Vikings released veteran Charlie Johnson this spring following a disappointing 2014 season. From the sixth round of the draft on Saturday, when the Vikings took Oklahoma offensive lineman Tyrus Thompson, to the completion of their undrafted free-agent class on Tuesday afternoon, the Vikings added four players they believe can play guard. There'll be competition at the spot, but little in the way of proven commodities.
That's where veteran Joe Berger comes in -- and the idea of the 32-year-old being the starting left guard in September probably isn't as odd as you might think. Berger played well in nine starts for the Vikings last year at right guard after Brandon Fusco got hurt -- remember, center John Sullivan essentially stumped for Berger to start after Berger filled in for him in Buffalo -- and the Vikings struck a new two-year deal with him right at the start of free agency in March.
"He was one of the priorities that we definitely wanted to sign back because of his versatility, because of his experience and we are going to have a very young group of guys coming up behind him," general manager Rick Spielman said. "But the one guy that we really wanted to target to keep on our roster from our own [unrestricted free agents] was Joe Berger."
The Vikings are also counting on more from second-year guard David Yankey after what amounted to a redshirt season, when Yankey was inactive for 15 games while he tried to build enough strength to succeed in the NFL. Yankey worked out in Atlanta this offseason with Ryan Goldin, who also trains the Bengals' Clint Boling and the Chargers' D.J. Fluker. If Berger doesn't claim the job, Yankey could be next in line, over a quartet of draft picks and undrafted free agents.
"We’re very excited about how David came back and I think we’re going to have great competition up front on that offensive line," Spielman said. "We added some guys at the end of the season, we had some guys at the end of last year that we’re excited about that were on our practice squad or didn’t play."
There could be another wave of veteran players available next week; teams can now reportedly cut players on May 12, not June 1 and spread any cap charges over two years. Players signed after that date also wouldn't factor into the equation for compensatory picks next year, and though it's questionable whether the Vikings would get a compensatory pick based on their losses in free agency, Spielman has pointed to that as a reason the Vikings wanted to be judicious with their use of the open market. That concern would be gone as of Tuesday, so the Vikings could add a veteran lineman if a good one becomes available.
Otherwise, it appears there'll be a competition for the left guard spot, with Berger the early leader ahead of Yankey, Thompson, seventh-rounder Austin Shepherd and undrafted free agents Jesse Somsel and Bobby Vardaro. It's also possible that fourth-rounder T.J. Clemmings, who's projected to play tackle right now, could shift inside. There's not necessarily a lock at the position, but the Vikings are comfortable enough with Berger -- and are big enough believers in competition -- that they might go with what they have.
"The best thing you can do is continue to add players at every position and the best guys are going to come out and surface at the top," Spielman said on Saturday. "You’re never going to not take players to create competition at a spot."