The most interesting battle of Vikings training camp is, to me, at center. You know the story; John Sullivan, while never a Pro Bowler, was widely considered one of the top centers in football before the two back surgeries that sidelined him for all of 2015. In his stead, Joe Berger—to that point a utility lineman, used mostly as a backup and spot starter—played not only admirably but at times dominantly, and was (if I may) the lone bright spot on the offensive line last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest rated center, grading significantly better than household names like Mike Pouncey, Alex Mack, and Max Unger.
So now the dilemma: assuming Sullivan is healthy (and signs point to “yes” in that regard), who starts?
Thus far, both have been sharing first-team snaps in training camp.
Zim on centers: we're going to keep rotating them this week and figure it out later on next week
— Luke Inman (@Luke_Spinman) August 3, 2016
C Sullivan on battling Berger to start "Each 1 of us is with the 1s every other day If you want comments on the competition ask the coaches
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) August 4, 2016
This isn’t surprising; a lot of unsettled positions have been rotating starters through camp so far. As many have pointed out, that’s what training camp is for. But this tells us two things. One, Sullivan’s back is healthy, for now. And two, both players are being considered as the starter.
I find the Sullivan/Berger battle more intriguing than others for two reasons:
1. They’re both good.
So often, position battles arise because there’s no clear-cut starter, and there’s not clear-cut starter because no one has played well enough to take hold of the job. (Take…I don’t know…the Vikings strong safety job, for example). The “position battle” is actually two or three unqualified guys vying for a job that one of them will end up getting out of necessity.
This one is different. Sullivan and Berger have both played well enough (for entire seasons, not just spot starts) to show they’re worthy starters, at the least. And that’s a conservative statement; honestly, they’ve both shown they’re high-end players. So now, rather than scraping the barrel to find someone who can perform the job competently, we see an embarrassment of riches. It’s a nice problem to have.
2. This has to work.
The assumption is the offensive line will be improved in 2016, perhaps dramatically. If the Vikings are to reach their lofty expectations, it will have to be. As mentioned before, center was the only position on the line with any stability last season—now, with uncertainty about who will start, that stability is (temporarily) gone. This is fine; there’s no need to name a starter a week into training camp. But the team needs to get this right. With all the perceived improvements on the offensive line, they’re still just perceived, and we’ve yet to find out if Andre Smith is truly the answer at right tackle and if Alex Boone is truly as good as we’re expecting. Center is the one position where the Vikings have proven results, so picking the best man for the job, and not creating needless instability, is imperative.
In my opinion, the best case scenario is Sullivan returning as the full-time starter. His back proves to be fine, he returns to pre-injury form, and Berger serves as a backup at center and both guard spots. Berger’s 2015 emergence makes him one of the better backups in the league, and he provides desperately-needed depth at three of the five spots on the line. He can push Brandon Fusco at right guard and step in if he struggles.
If Sullivan doesn’t return to form or Berger flat beats him out, Sullivan becomes the backup at center and the guard depth takes a hit. Theoretically, if there was an injury to either starting guard, Berger could slide over and Sullivan could step in at center, but now two positions are being replaced, rather than one. Less than ideal for a unit that relies so heavily on continuity.
If Sullivan can regain his starting job, the interior of the Vikings’ offensive line will—along with the addition of Boone—be significantly improved from last season. The team has a chance to turn a 2015 weakness into a strength.