Countdown to ‘Kato (Sullivan or Berger?)

Who will Bridgewater line up under next season? (Photo credit: Cumulus Media)

Of the Minnesota Vikings’ three battles for starting spots on the offensive line, the competition for center might be the most compelling and unpredictable.

In one corner is John Sullivan, the longtime starter who inked a three-year extension in April of last year, only to miss the entire season with a nagging back injury that required surgery.

In the other corner is Sullivan’s older and cheaper backup, Joe Berger, who excelled as the full-time center in his age 33 season.

The determining factor in this big decision may be the answer to the following question: How much does equity play a role in the team’s decision?

Sullivan certainly has more of it, and until a lumbar microdiscectomy set him back in 2015, he’d started all but three games for the team since 2009. The Notre Dame grad was considered the best center in football by Pro Football Focus in 2012 and was ranked in the analytics website’s Top 101 heading into the 2014 season.

Sullivan was the fifth-highest paid center in the league last year after signing a fresh contract with a heavily-compensated first year. This season, he’ll be the eighth-highest paid with a $5.8 million cap hit.

And a bad back.

The 30-year-old veteran may carry the burden of a bad back for the rest of his career in addition to the stigma of being out of his 20s.

But Sullivan’s health issues shouldn’t impair his ability to return to play at a high level, according to academic studies on the matter. The American Journal of Sports Medicine reported in 2011 that players who received surgery on disc herniation (which Sullivan did) returned at a higher level than those who rehabbed non-operatively. In addition, over 63 percent of those treated surgically started for their respective team after their return, and over 80 percent came back and played in some fashion. This is also a five-year-old report, so rehab protocol should be even more effective in 2016.

The bigger obstacle for Sullivan may be his teammate’s play. Berger clocked in as Pro Football Focus’s second-ranked center by the end of 2015, as well as the website’s best-ranked run blocker. Somehow, on a beyond-shoddy offensive line, Berger was able to stand out and separate himself from the below-average play to his right and left (especially the left).

Incredibly, it was the first time Berger had ever started 16 games and only the second time he’d started double-digit games. The former Miami Dolphin had been a lifelong swingman, making his 2015 gem all the more surprising for the 10-year vet.

There is a definite fork in the road for the Vikings. Neither option is necessarily the future. One has given them everything for over half a dozen years. The other has found new life in the twilight of his career.

Logically, if Sullivan’s back heals properly – and thus far there haven’t been any setbacks that would indicate otherwise – it makes sense to slide him back into his traditional role as a starter and Berger in his traditional role as a reserve. Even if Sullivan struggles to return to his old self, a slight drop in play could be mitigated by improvement from the guards, who should be better this season with the addition of Alex Boone. Plus, why gamble that the aging Berger won’t begin to decline?

But there is an alternate option – albeit an unlikely one – where Sullivan and Berger could play together with Berger at guard. Throughout OTAs and minicamp the Vikings experimented with new personnel combinations on the offensive line virtually every practice, pairing Berger and Sullivan up at one point when Alex Boone was absent. For Berger to start at guard, however, it would probably require the release of Brandon Fusco, who hasn’t had a good season since 2013, and a drop-off in play from Mike Harris, who was solid at right guard last season.

All eyes will be on Sullivan. It was during training camp last year when Sullivan hurt his back and never returned. Now after a grueling rehab, he’ll head back to the scene of the crime trying to reclaim his job.

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