The center to consider

While the Vikings might prefer to sign younger free agents, they could find an ideal veteran in free agency to attempt to replace Matt Birk (if he doesn't re-sign) while continuing to develop their younger prospects at the position. Will he be available? See what his current coach said.

The Vikings are meeting with the agents for their own unrestricted free agents starting Thursday and running through the weekend, and maybe the biggest of those free agents is center Matt Birk.

"We'd love to get all our free agents back but, again, there is always the issue of finances that come into play," said Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel. "But the guys that are unrestricted free agents had a major part to do with where we are at as a football team right now. If there is a deal that we think is fair and they think is fair, we'll try to get everybody back. But that's not always realistic. Never is."

Birk isn't expected to re-sign with the Vikings, which would leave a big hole to fill in the middle of the offensive line. He has entered each season since 2000 expecting to be the Vikings' starting center (and he was with the exception of 2005), when he was placed on injured reserve after training camp with hip and sports hernia injuries.

So what if the Vikings lose Birk? Might 2008 sixth-round draft choice John Sullivan be ready for action? Or how about moving college center Ryan Cook, who played almost exclusively at right tackle for the Vikings since being drafted, back to center?

"I'd rather not get into what we would do or not do from that standpoint. We were very excited about how John Sullivan came along too – we got him in the sixth round last year – and his development," Spielman said. "Would you like to keep developing him and have Birk back? Sure, you would love to have that if that's possible. Again, you just continue to try and work and see the guys you can keep and can't keep. If not, then you have a plan in place. If Plan A doesn't work out, what's your Plan B?"

That's something that the Vikings have already discussed.

"You go through all those scenarios and all those discussions when you have your internal meetings and we spent the last four weeks – a week on our roster with our coaches and scouts and then a week on free agency with our coaches and scouts," Spielman said. "Last week, it was myself and the scouts and we spent the whole time on this upcoming draft. Now I have a pretty good picture of where the strengths and weaknesses are on our team, where the strengths and weaknesses are in free agency and where the strengths and weaknesses are in the draft. There could be a guy that is potentially a very good player there that's an unrestricted free agent, but we also know that it may be a very strong draft class at that particular position and we can say, ‘Hey, we can hold back and go ahead and be able to address that need in the draft?'"

Free agency holds a few intriguing options. The top center scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency on Feb. 27, according to, is Baltimore's Jason Brown, who is the only other center besides Birk to earn five stars for free agency.

After that, the Indianapolis Colts could lose four-star center Jeff Saturday to free agency. The Colts are believed to only have a few million dollars under the salary cap, according to a league source.

New Colts coach Jim Caldwell was asked about how tough it would be to move forward without Saturday.

"That's a bit premature, just in terms that you begin to act as if he's already gone. I look at it from a different perspective. He's with us until otherwise indicated. He's been and we certainly anticipate him to continue to be a very, very important part of our offense," Caldwell said.

Asked if he was optimistic Saturday would come back, Caldwell said, "My mindset is what I know – he's still with us. That's what I go by day-to-day as we look at our plan. Until further notice that's the approach we're going to take."

Saturday will turn 34 before the 2009 season, but he has missed only six regular-season starts in the last nine years and has started every game in seven of those seasons.

The Colts might be willing to part with him if they are confident they have the players behind him ready to step up.

"You look at our overall team historically. What we've been able to do regardless of what position we're dealing with, there have been young people that have been able to step up," Caldwell said. "Obviously you look at it due to injury – week-in, week-out we've always had young guys that have learned and developed within the system and been able to step up and do a great job, and we don't anticipate that changing."

While Brown might be the best option at center in free agency, signing Saturday would give the Vikings a veteran that could bridge the position while either Sullivan or Cook develops their center skills and knowledge at the NFL level.

He may not fit the team's ideal free-agent mold – "Most of the guys that we have gone out and spent money on are guys that are younger guys that are 26, 27 years old, coming out of their rookie contracts. That's kind of the philosophy we have followed," Spielman said – he would be a player that fills a need.

Last year, Birk's cap value was just over $6 million while Saturday's was under $5.2 million.

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