This does not indicate that John Sullivan is not healthy. The nature of his back injury was more of a yes/no for his ability to play than it was something that necessarily degraded his play. The Vikings would not be able to trade him if he was unhealthy, and he of course passed the Vikings’ physical before he could practice in training camp.
Not only that, he performed in training camp and in the preseason as a healthy player. He’s not as strong as before, but that is more likely because he couldn’t lift weights in the offseason, not because the back itself saps his strength. Again, if the back was an issue, it would inhibit his ability to go at all.
The Vikings are not trading a player at a position of weakness. The offensive line is a problem, but center specifically is not. The Vikings not only have Joe Berger there and believe in Nick Easton, but Zac Kerin could play at center and did so in the preseason last year as well as in college. At the very worst, Brandon Fusco played center for four years at Slippery Rock, too.
Joe Berger is not “clearly” a better center, but definitely fit what the Vikings wanted for this team, this year. If Berger was clearly the better center, the Vikings would not have spent all offseason alternating reps and wasting valuable time to build chemistry. Berger is stronger than Sullivan and did a better job one-on-one against nose tackles, which provides unique advantages, but I don’t think head coach Mike Zimmer was lying during training camp when he said it was a close race between the two that came down to physicality vs. intellect.
Money likely plays a role, but probably not a large one. Yes, John Sullivan is owed over five million dollars in base salary, while Joe Berger takes a fourth of the cap space. But the Vikings are not going to do anything with the extra cap space that they would get this year.
The Vikings have about six million in cap space this year and are not likely to trade for an expensive player and definitely won’t sign one. Sullivan’s contract runs through 2017, but the Vikings have $16 million of extra cap space for 2017, assuming there’s no increase in the cap.
In addition to that, there is no likely need to sign the majority of the players whose contracts will run out. The players (ordered by 2016 cap hit) that will hit free agency in 2017 are: Matt Kalil, Captain Munnerlyn, Andre Smith, Shaun Hill, Terence Newman, Chad Greenway, Michael Griffin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Line, Joe Berger, Matt Asiata, Jeff Locke, Audie Cole, Justin Trattou and Kenrick Ellis.
In all likelihood, the only players receiving another contract will be Zach Line, Joe Berger and Justin Trattou, though an optimist would also add Matt Asiata and Jeff Locke. Those are not very expensive re-signings. In addition, Adrian Peterson’s cap hit of $18 million will either be off the books entirely or restructured. The Vikings can also currently roll over their $6 million of current cap space into 2017, which means that they will have $22 million in cap space before accounting for a cap increase.
While teams have to pay attention to cash flow (hello San Diego), Sullivan’s salary is not a hugely pressing concern.
Instead, the fact that Sullivan is a well-regarded center may mean more in terms of the compensation the Vikings could get in a trade than it does as a backup, especially given the performance of Nick Easton throughout the preseason.
Also important: the Vikings may be shopping John Sullivan as a favor to Sullivan, who may not want to sit on the bench.
All of those things play a role.
Joe Berger’s excellent PFF grade doesn’t mean anything. The Vikings don’t use it, and for grading centers, PFF falls a little short, because they essentially grade centers as a third guard. Sullivan was much better about setting protections and line communication in general, and it’s been confirmed that Bridgewater had to take over all of those responsibilities with Sullivan out, not Berger.
Also, John Sullivan is a PFF favorite, and graded out well for them for several years.
I don’t think it makes sense to label Sullivan as “injury prone” or that this is a move to get younger. Not only is Berger an older player (by three years!), but Sullivan had only missed three games from 2009 to 2014.
The compensation will drive my reaction. Most people think it will be a late-round pick, but teams are a little desperate right now and Washington just saw the player they tried to trade for either forcibly retire or fail a physical on his own merits.
Aside from Washington, other interested teams could include Chicago, San Diego and Houston.
At the same time, the Vikings might be signalling that they are about to cut Sullivan and that could lower his price, not to mention his recent surgeries. Seattle may have lowered the Vikings’ potential asking price by putting another center on the market, Patrick Lewis.
I suppose I’m hoping for a fifth, but I do think he’s worth more than that. We’ll see, I suppose. I don’t think they will trade for a player as they hone in on cuts to get down to 53 players.
Those are my thoughts.