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Updated: August 15th, 2012 6:25pm
Notebook: Healthy John Sullivan becoming leader for Vikings offense

Notebook: Healthy John Sullivan becoming leader for Vikings offense

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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MANKATO, Minn. -- The more John Sullivan played last season, the more the price went up.

By the time the Minnesota Vikings locked up their starting center on Dec. 17, the cost was $25.1 million on a five-year contract that included a $5 million signing bonus and $10 million in guarantees.

That deal could end up being a bargain, though, if Sullivan continues on the trajectory of performance and health he charted in his fourth NFL season.

A sixth-round draft pick (No. 187 overall) out of Notre Dame in 2008, Sullivan has missed only three starts in three seasons since replacing Matt Birk as the starter despite a litany of injuries that often have left him at less than full strength.

"I'm definitely past the ankle surgeries and the lower-leg issues with the calves and obviously the appendectomy and all that stuff," Sullivan said this week. "That's all well in the past. I'm sure other things will pop up. Everybody gets sore, everybody gets dinged up, but for now, I've been lucky."

Sullivan did drop out of two games last season with knee and ankle issues and missed one start following a concussion. But when he was on the field, he played the best football of his young career.

The website ProFootballFocus.com rated Sullivan as the No. 3 center in the NFL last season, behind only Houston's Chris Myers and the New York Jets' Nick Mangold. He showed improved technique and was no longer overpowered by bigger nose tackles.

"Well, yeah, if you compare it to 2010, it's pretty difficult to block 350-pounders with two torn calves," Sullivan said. "Last year was a lot better."

The Vikings' offseason roster overhaul included the releases of veteran guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, who both were in steep decline.

They'll field one of the NFL's youngest rosters this season, with a rookie left tackle (Matt Kalil), a likely first-time starter at right guard (Brandon Fusco) and a 26-year-old right tackle (Phil Loadholt) whose career has been marked by inconsistency.

Asked on Wednesday to name a leader at any position who has emerged in training camp, coach Leslie Frazier didn't say quarterback Christian Ponder, but the guy who snaps him the ball.

"I really like the way he's stepping up," Frazier said of Sullivan, "and I don't want to put the bright light on him, but he's kind of been in the shadow of the veteran players that lined up with him in the past and all of the sudden he finds himself in a leadership role. He's really beginning to take that mantle and we need that."

Said Ponder, "He's not afraid to get in someone's face and correct something. We have a good relationship. We're able to communicate with each other about what he sees on the field and what I see. He's so smart, he's able to pick things up really quickly and he's doing a great job."

That Sullivan is still only 27 years old makes that five-year contract extension look even more prudent, especially given the way the market for older centers unfolded in March.

Myers, 30, got a four-year, $25 million deal from the Houston Texans that included $14 million in guarantees. Former Green Bay center Scott Wells, 31, got a four-year, $24 million contract from the St. Louis Rams with $13 million guaranteed. The Packers replaced Wells with Jeff Saturday, who signed a two-year, $7.75 million deal at age 37.

None of those contracts compare to Mangold's seven-year, $50 million deal, which made him the NFL's highest-paid center in August 2010 until Carolina signed Ryan Kalil for six years and $49 million a year later. But Sullivan can't complain, considering a year ago he was entering a contract year with no certainty the Vikings would keep him around.

He credits offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and assistant Ryan Silverfield for helping him become a better technician. He's focusing this camp on bending his knees to lower his pad level, smoothing out communication along the line and adjusting to changes the Vikings have made in their protection.

"Your game is constantly changing," Sullivan said. "You fix one thing and another thing goes wrong. It's fluid."

Taking off the reins

Frazier said his no-contact order on halfback Adrian Peterson could be lifted as soon as next week.

"It depends on how he is feeling and where he is," Frazier said of Peterson, who practiced in pads on Tuesday for the first time since undergoing left knee reconstruction on Dec. 30.

"We are going to get him a few more reps today and increase that as we go along. As far as the contact, we will have to make a decision on that as time goes on."

On Wednesday, Peterson played 13 snaps in team (11-on-11) drills and four more in a 7-on-7 period. He got four carries, caught a pass in 7-on-7 and dropped another in a team drill after bobbling it in front of linebacker Chad Greenway, who said he "can't wait" to give Peterson a little shot the next time that happens.

Defensive players had some fun with Frazier's order on Tuesday, lying down on the first of Peterson's two carries in 10 snaps.

"He was mad about that," Greenway said. "He doesn't want to have anybody let up on him. You know how he is, his mentality. But he looks good. Even (Wednesday), he's out there.

"To me, having gone through the ACL twice, it's pretty amazing to see how he's moving around and how he looks and his attitude, how he's been through the whole process. He's one of the best players in the NFL and he's one of our team leaders, so we'd like to have him back."

Finishing strong

Wednesday's practice was the Vikings' last here, and the tempo was as high as it has been at any point in camp.

The offense had one of its best days, with Ponder in team drills completing 8 of 9 passes, including a remarkable connection up the seam to tight end Kyle Rudolph with backup linebacker Marvin Mitchell hanging on Rudolph's back.

The defense also had its share of highlights -- most notable, an interception of a Joe Webb pass by rookie cornerback Josh Robinson, who appears to be over his hamstring issue and worked with the second-string nickel defense.

"You just want to come out and just finish," Greenway said. "You don't want to have to go in and have it be a labor. You don't want to go in (Wednesday night) to the team meeting like, 'Well, we didn't want to have a practice like that. We're going into the second (preseason game on Friday against Buffalo), we didn't perform that well in the first game' and have this whole bad feeling going to Winter Park."

The Vikings were scheduled to hold a closed walkthrough on Thursday morning before departing for the Twin Cities.

Health watch

Receiver Percy Harvin briefly went to the medical tent during practice, but early indications are he merely was dealing with cramps.

Harvin walked back onto the field a short time later without his helmet, grabbing at the back of his right thigh and seemingly trying to stretch it out.

Tight end John Carlson (knee) said he hopes to return before the preseason is over, but categorized his status as "a day-to-day thing." He hasn't practiced since July 31, when he suffered a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

Peterson, Carlson, defensive tackle Letroy Guion (knee), tackle DeMarcus Love (pectoral), guard Geoff Schwartz (sports hernia surgery) and receiver Kamar Jorden (hand) won't play on Friday.

Halfback Jordan Todman (ankle) figures to miss a second straight game as well after limping through practice again on Wednesday.

Quick hits

• Frazier said all healthy starters will play through the first quarter and probably in the second on Friday against the Bills. What's the most important thing for the No. 1 offense to accomplish? "Touchdowns," Ponder said. "We had two field goals on two drives (in Friday's exhibition opener at San Francisco. "Obviously, we like points, but we need touchdowns to win in the NFL. So, we want to obviously continue scoring every day drive, but we would rather take seven than three."

• Webb was 6-of-11 passing in team drills on Wednesday. Sage Rosenfels was 4-of-5 and McLeod Bethel-Thompson 1-of-3.

• Rosenfels will take the third-string reps on Friday night. Frazier wouldn't rule out Bethel-Thompson pushing for the No. 3 job. "We like having Sage," Frazier said. "That is the reason he brought him back, because of his veteran experience. We will see how it all shakes out. There is competition all across the board, even in that third quarterback spot."

• Rookie PK Blair Walsh made 8 of 8 field-goal attempts from between 38 and 48 yards in a team setting.

• CB Marcus Sherels intercepted a pass in 7-on-7 and dropped another in a team drill.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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