The last time the Vikings had a question mark at the center position was a decade ago when Matt Birk, then in his second season, took over for Jeff Christy. The circumstances are eerily similar 10 years later. Birk has signed a free-agent contract with the Ravens and the Vikings have what many fans believe is a huge hole in the middle of the offensive line. That was pretty much the exact same feeling that permeated in 1999 as Birk emerged from the unknown to take over at center.
Birk was a sixth-round draft pick in 1998 and, despite apprehension from fans, then-offensive line coach Mike Tice said the Vikings would be fine with Christy’s replacement. Christy had been allowed to leave via free agency and signed a deal with Tampa Bay. Fast forward 10 years and the same scenario appears to be playing itself out. Birk is gone, the fans are dismayed and another sixth-round draft pick, John Sullivan, who is a relative unknown to the hometown fans is ready to step into the spotlight.
"That’s why when guys do leave or retire or whatever happens, you have to have young guys eventually those guys have to step up and play,” said Rick Spielman, Vikings vice president of player personnel, on Friday. “And we thought Sullivan was a very good player last year in the preseason, felt for where we drafted him in the sixth round he was a great value pick. He came in, a very smart kid, understands the scheme, understands what’s going on. And, again, just like any rookie or first-year guy who has been playing, I’m sure there will be some growing pains but eventually they have to play, they have to get out there and learn and do it. And that doesn’t preclude us from saying that we bring in a player there or a player like we would at any other position. We’re always going to bring in the best players and I think when you do bring in the best players you let them compete. It makes your team that much better when everybody is trying to push each other."
John Sullivan didn’t see any action as a rookie and spent most of his time on the scout team. He was just the second of only three centers drafted in 2008 and, after just one season on the bench, it would appear the Vikings are going to go with him as their new center.
While center is a critical position, history has taught us that a solid technician can fill that role without a significant drop-off in production. While we will have to wait and see whether Sullivan or former college center Ryan Cook can get the job done, there is confidence that Birk’s role on the offensive line can be replaced. When Birk’s career started, there were many of the same apprehensions fans and media are having now about replacing him. He did just fine as Christy’s replacement and the expectation is that Sullivan will repeat that part of the equation as well.
“First of all, Matt Birk not only was an excellent player here for the Vikings, but even a better person out in the community in what he did. Those are tough decisions,” Spielman said. “I’m sure Matt and his family had to go through a decision. But I know he will always be a part of the Viking family here. Matt made his decision based on what he felt was best for him and his family at the time and I know our organization wishes him nothing but the best.”
The Vikings have reached a contract agreement with linebacker Heath Farwell. Earlier this week, Farwell met with the Patriots and Browns, but there is no word whether either team offered him a contract. Farwell’s contention heading into free agency was that he wanted to go to a team that would give him an opportunity to start or play a significant amount on defense. Farwell’s duties with the Vikings have primarily been special teams assignments, but he could see an increased role as backup linebacker this year.
Darren Sharper and his agent Joel Segal are weighing an offer made to him by the Saints. He was scheduled to meet with the Bears, but has yet to visit Chicago to meet with team officials. Segal has reportedly been in contact with the Bears and Sharper said the possibility exists that he could sign with the Bears without personally meeting with coach Lovie Smith or team officials.
Fullback Naufahu Tahi met with the Bengals Thursday. Tahi, a restricted free agent, was tendered a one-year contract worth $1.01 million by the Vikings. If the Bengals opt to sign him, the Vikings will have one week to match the offer or allow him to accept the deal with the Bengals.
A pretrial hearing for Bryant McKinnie in Miami was cancelled by the courts Thursday. His trial is scheduled to get underway March 16. McKinnie was suspended the first four games of last season for his role in the fight that led to the current court case.