Our Secret Superstar series continues as we cover the last remaining team from the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings. As a team, the Vikings had their fair share of struggles on both sides of the ball last year. However, there were several individuals that still put forth great seasons despite the lack of success as a whole.
The performance by the Vikings’ offensive line was among those highlights from last season and the group ranked sixth in our offensive line rankings. With big name, early-round picks at both tackles and one of the top centers in the middle, the emergence of right guard Brandon Fusco went overlooked by many last year.
The Vikings took Fusco from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. At the time, the team was set at guard with Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, so Fusco appeared in just two games for 26 snaps as a rookie. With both starters leaving after the 2011 season, Fusco was quickly written in as the starter at right guard and he put up a stellar run blocking performance in his first start while not allowing a single pressure in pass blocking.
His play, however, dipped from there and the Week 1 game turned out to be his only game of the season with ‘green’ grades in both pass and run blocking. Fusco lost some snaps to free agent acquisition Geoff Schwartz during the middle of the season, but he still started all 17 games including the postseason. Schwartz looked like the better player (+5.8 overall grade in 160 snaps) though, and it seemed curious that he was not given more of an opportunity than he received.
Fusco finished the season with a -11.9 overall grade that ranked 48th out of the 54 guards that played at least 600 regular season snaps. The majority of his struggles came in pass protection where he allowed 32 total pressures en route to earning the second-lowest pass block grade (-13.6) at the position, and last in Pass Blocking Efficiency (94.8%). He was better as a run blocker, especially early in the season when he earned a +2.8 run block grade with three ‘green’ games through Week 7. He couldn’t sustain his success though and graded at -6.9 over the final 10 games to finish with a below-average -4.1 run block grade for the season.
Improvement in 2013
The 2013 season got off to a rocky start for Fusco in Week 1 against the Lions. He allowed three pressures and one sack to earn a -5.1 pass block grade, lower than any game in the year prior. His play quickly recovered though as he followed that game with the best game of his career (+4.9 overall) against the Bears. With that game began a stretch of much improved play from Fusco as he earned positive overall grades in eight of the next nine games. Unfortunately, Fusco suffered a knee injury early against the Ravens in Week 14 that forced him to miss the rest of the game and also the following week. He played well in his return to the field for the final two weeks, although not quite to the level he was at earlier in the season.
When the season came to a close, Fusco’s +14.5 overall grade was bested only by Louis Vasquez and Larry Warford at right guard, and Fusco’s +11.6 run block grade ranked fifth among all guards. He was an average pass blocker (+0.9), but he showed significant growth from 2012. His Pass Blocking Efficiency jumped to 15th out of 59 guards and he gave up one or zero pressures in ten of the 15 games. Fusco may not have had many big blocks that stood out, but his solid play was quite consistent throughout the year.
Many players regress at various points in their careers and it’s possible that Fusco could be one of those players after a big jump in 2013. Yet with the amount of growth shown through just two seasons as a starter, it is reasonable to expect Fusco to continue developing as he enters his fourth season in the league. One key aspect of next season will be how Fusco and the rest of the group adjust to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offensive scheme change. If Turner can help left tackle Matt Kalil bounce back after a down sophomore year, the Vikings’ offensive line could easily challenge as the best in the league.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @PFF_MattC