The Minnesota Vikings currently have two centers on their roster that are very capable of starting for any team in the NFL. John Sullivan has been the team’s starter since his second season and Joe Berger has been his backup since arriving in Minnesota for the 2011 season.
Berger has seen action from time to time throughout his career as either a center or a guard, but last season was the first time that the starting center job belonged to him in Minnesota. Sullivan was forced to miss the entirety of the 2015 season after undergoing surgery on his back and then having a setback when he was trying to come back from it.
It was not an ideal situation, but Berger was able to take advantage of it and played well over the course of the season. Pro Football Focus, a sports analytics website that grades players based on their performance during games, gave Berger a grade of 89.1 following the season, which was the second-highest grade given out to any center.
Where Berger really excelled was as a run blocker, receiving a grade of 91.6, which was the highest grade given out to a center in that category.
The success that Berger had last season has put the Vikings in a position where they want to give both him and Sullivan a chance to win the starting job. Sullivan has been getting a majority of the first-team reps throughout organized team activities and minicamp, while also taking those reps during the team’s first training camp practice. But it was Berger receiving the first-team reps during their second practice of training camp.
“I think Tony (Sparano) is rolling those guys around and we are going to work everybody,” said offensive coordinator Norv Turner. “What we are working hard to do in this next month is come up with the best combination of five. On game day you have seven or eight dress, so obviously you start thinking about games, the next best three guys, then you usually keep nine linemen. We are going through that process right now. We are going to move some guys around. Sully is off to a good start and Berger has had a really good year. That’s a bonus for us.”
The coaching staff hasn’t told Berger what they envision his role with the team being this year yet, but he is OK with that. He isn’t expecting them to tell him anything like that until after training camp is wrapped up. For now, he is just trying to go out onto the field and play his best every day.
Even though Sullivan and Berger are currently competing with one another for a starting job along the offensive line, the two have remained really close. They have worked together for a number of years, wish the best for one another and aren’t going to let a little competition come between them.
“John’s great,” Berger said. “I’ve been his backup for four years, filled in for him last year. He’s probably one of the guys I’m closest to on the team.”
It’s unclear how the first-team reps are going to get split up between the two players for the remainder of training camp. The two of them really do not know how it’s going to play out either since the coaches usually don’t tell them who’s working where until a little before the start of practice, but that doesn’t really seem to bother either of them.
“They let us know at some point before practice,” Berger explained. “I don’t think it’s something that either of us are concerned with, so just we’re ready to play when it’s time to go.”
There is still quite a bit of time until the regular season rolls around and it is time for the two of them to get going for real, but until then there could very well be a lot of back and forth between them. One would think that the starting job should go right back to Sullivan if he is able to remain healthy, but Berger played well enough last season to get some consideration.