Center was probably the best position along the Minnesota Vikings offensive line throughout the regular season, even without starter John Sullivan. Joe Berger, an 11-year veteran, was able to fill in for the injured Sullivan and not miss a beat, especially in the running game. Pro Football Focus named Berger the best run-blocking center in the NFL for the 2015 regular season, and rightfully so.
Even though the center position was one of the only spots to play at a high level along the Vikings offensive line, there are still a few questions surrounding that position this offseason. First of all, how is Sullivan going to play after missing an entire season because of two surgeries he had on a herniated disc in his back?
The issue first popped up during the preseason and the team tried to let it heal on it’s own, but eventually saw surgery as the best option. Then a little before he was set to return to practice with the team Sullivan had a setback in the weight room and was forced to have a second procedure done on his back, in late October.
Sullivan will be turning 31 in early August and it is justified to wonder how he will look after having to miss an entire season.
If he cannot go at the start of the season or he isn’t playing at a high enough level and the Vikings decide to make a change, Berger has proved he can step in and play well, but he will be 34 in May, so it is not likely that he will be in the NFL for to many more years.
The Vikings are likely going to start looking toward the future sooner rather than later and prepare for their next long-term center. Right now there seems to be two options for them already on their roster, Brandon Fusco and Nick Easton.
Fusco has played guard his entire NFL career and has done a decent job there, except for last season when he struggled moving from the right side over to the left. But the Vikings could end up moving him to the center position sometime in the future, which is where he actually played in college. This would give them a player who is still in the prime of his career and well-versed in the offense in the middle of the line, which would be important when relaying the blocking schemes to the rest of the linemen.
Easton arrived in Minnesota after the start of the regular season when the Vikings traded Gerald Hodges to the San Francisco 49ers for the young center and a sixth-round pick. Last year was just Easton’s rookie season and he didn’t see any snaps on the field, so it is safe to assume there is still a lot of work for him to do. But it is also clear that the Vikings are high on him if they were willing to trade away their starting middle linebacker for him and a late-round pick and it could be possible that they already see him as their center for the future.
But let’s say the Vikings do not feel comfortable with the options they have at center right now and want to either bring in a player that could compete for a starting spot or one they could hope to develop to replace Sullivan after his contract is up in two years. What is available in free agency?
Stefen Wisniewski – The truth of the matter is that there is not much along the lines of top-tier, starting talent at the center position in free agency this offseason. The best available center would be Jacksonville’s Stefen Wisniewski.
His strength is in pass protection, which would be very appealing to the Vikings since their offensive line played so poorly in pass protection in 2015. He is also just 27 years old, so they would be able to sign him to a long-term deal and feel confident that he would be able to play out the entirety of his contract.
The biggest problem surrounding Wisniewski, though, is injuries. He has had some problems staying healthy in his short NFL career, which include injuries to both his shoulder and knee.
The Jaguars signed him to a one-year deal last offseason and it is likely that they plan on trying to re-sign him this offseason. There is a chance, though, that a team could convince him to move elsewhere.
Patrick Lewis – The only other real option that the Vikings would have any real interest in would be Seattle’s Patrick Lewis. He did not begin the season as the Seahawks’ starting center, but was placed in the starting lineup later in the season when it was clear something needed to be done to fix their struggling line.
While Lewis did not play great, he did do well enough to improve the play of the line and help improve his team’s rushing attack, even without Marshawn Lynch running the ball behind him.
At the age of 25, Lewis is just a restricted free agent this offseason, which would make it more difficult for the Vikings to obtain him if they wished to do so. Even if they did wish to bring him in, they might have to have him sit and learn for a year or two, which would not look that appealing to a player who would likely get some offers to start, or compete for a starting spot somewhere else in the league.
The truth of the matter is that if the Vikings are not happy with what they have at center for the long-term future, they aren’t likely to find much there in free agency.
The most likely scenario is that the team rolls with the players they have this season and then starts to look toward the future next offseason when Berger’s contract is up and Sullivan only has one season left on his, and with less than $1 million in dead money.