In the world of the NFL, drama isn't a good thing. It is often associated with hard feelings between an organization and a player. In terms of the center position with the franchise, the Vikings have considerably more drama than they would prefer.
Since taking over as the team's starting center in 2000, Matt Birk has been a fixture at the position for this decade. He has been an annual visitor to Hawaii at the Pro Bowl and has been acknowledged as one of the top centers in the league – with a resume that is bordering on Hall of Fame credentials. But his future with the Vikings is far from certain.
Birk, who has played through injuries, is no stranger to salary cap controversy with the Vikings. In 2005, Birk was willing to play through excruciating pain from a sports hernia if the Vikings would guarantee his salary for 2006. The team declined and Birk spent the season on injured reserve.
He returned to health in '06 and was once again a Pro Bowler. He regained the form that made him an all-star and reasserted his position at the top of the game among NFL centers. But, entering the final year of his current contract, he and the Vikings appear to be at an impasse in terms of where his future will be. Birk still has the ability and the drawing power to be one of the highest-paid centers in the league. But the Vikings have yet to make any kind of legitimate offer in terms of a contract extension. While a new deal may end up being in the offing, as of now, the team is holding firm and Birk is holding out of the team's offseason workout program.
The Vikings have shown the willingness not to pay top dollar for a center on the wrong side of 30. Birk got his starting job after the team balked at paying a huge salary to incumbent Jeff Christy. At the time, Christy was viewed as one of the top centers in the league, but the Vikings were confident in Birk's ability to take over the position at a fraction of the cost. It would seem the team is facing a similar crossroads once again.
It came as a surprise of few that, despite having just five draft picks due to trades, the Vikings used one of them to take center John Sullivan out of Notre Dame with one of those picks. A four-year starter for the Fighting Irish, Sullivan is a hard-nosed player who is excited about the prospect of learning from Birk, but the indication is that he could be the plan for the future. With Ryan Cook also having a wealth of collegiate experience at center and undrafted rookie Tim Mattran looking to make an impression, the Vikings have three young linemen that can try to fill the void if Birk is gone.
Therein lies the drama. Finding a Pro Bowl center is never easy. Just ask anyone else in the NFC. The position in the Pro Bowl has been almost the private domain of Birk and Chicago center Olin Kreutz. The Vikings have given themselves an option in the event things don't work out with Birk and a new contract, but even if one if signed, the Vikings would prefer to make it a short-term deal. With his skill level showing few signs of deterioration, Birk could easily get a long-term deal from someone else at the end of the season for more money than the Vikings will be willing to spend.
For years, the center position has been one that has been as steady as any on the roster. Birk has been the man – pure and simple. Those days, however, may be over after the 2008 season – making the center position one to watch during training camp and throughout the 2008 season. All good things must come to an end and, for the last remaining player from the Vikings' magical 1998 season, Birk may well be coming to the end of the line as far as his Vikings career is concerned.
Positional Analysis: Center
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