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Vikings appear to have a battle for the starting center spot

Coaches to decide in practice this week whether incumbent Garrett Bradbury or Mason Cole will start against Packers

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Garrett Bradbury has missed the past two games at center for quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings. TNS file photo
Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- Suddenly, the Minnesota Vikings have a battle for the starting center job.

Two weeks ago, Garrett Bradbury had started 39 straight games over three seasons and despite his up-and-down play did not seem to be in danger of losing his spot. Then Bradbury went on the COVID-19 reserve list on Nov. 4, and now the job might be wide open. With Bradbury out the past two games, Mason Cole shined as his replacement.

According to Pro Football Focus, Cole had a 68.8 rating during starts against the Ravens and Chargers, compared to Bradbury’s 56.2 in the first six games of the season. With no snap-count minimums considered, Cole, with 137 snaps, is rated by Pro Football Focus as the No. 11 center in the NFL. Bradbury, with 508 snaps, is ranked 30th.

Head coach Mike Zimmer wouldn’t commit Monday to a starting center for Sunday’s game against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium. He said Bradbury returned to the TCO Performance Center on Monday and all indications are he will practice this week.

“We’ve had a conversation,” Zimmer said. “We’ll just have to see this week in practice. Bradbury hasn’t been here in two weeks. We’re just going to try to sort it out this week, but Mason’s done a really nice job. He’s done a terrific job, and so we’ll just try to figure this out. It’s better than having no options.”

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With Bradbury out, Cole started in a 34-31 overtime loss to Baltimore on Nov. 7 and in a 27-20 win at the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Bradbury was taken with the No. 18 pick in the 2019 draft but has yet to develop into the top-flight NFL center the Vikings hope he will become.

Cole, who also plays guard, was acquired from the Arizona Cardinals last March to provide depth on the line. In his fourth season, Cole started 32 of the 46 games he played for the Cardinals, 30 at center and two at guard. He started all 14 games he played last season at center.

“It’s obviously good to be back out there, be with the guys,” Cole said Monday. “I feel that’s why I was brought here, to help this team win in any way possible. But it’s been good.”

Against the Chargers, Cole helped an offense that rolled up 381 yards. The Vikings had 103 yards on the ground, including 94 by Dalvin Cook, and 278 team passing yards. Kirk Cousins threw for 294 yards and lost 16 on two sacks.

When the outcome was still in doubt, the offensive line helped the Vikings run out the final 4:36 of the game by driving from their 25 to the Chargers’ 32 before Cousins lost seven yards on three kneel-downs.

“We’ve been talking about that all year, just having to finish games,” Cole said. “To get the ball back with four and a half minutes left, we’ve been talking about it all week, just keeping our foot on the gas pedal. … As an offensive lineman, that’s what you like, you want to get the ball back with four minutes and put it in our hands to win the game.”

The Vikings have lost leads in games throughout the season, including in Cole’s first start, when they blew a 14-point, third-quarter lead in Baltimore. But offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak did rave about Cole’s performance in that game.

“I was impressed, just not surprised,’’ Kubiak said. “That’s how he’s practiced this entire time with us, the same guy we saw on film in Arizona. We have a ton of confidence in him.”

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While it remains to be seen whether Cole will become Minnesota’s starting center, he believes his performance the past two weeks has demonstrated he has what it takes to play a key role on the line. He also is the Vikings’ top reserve guard.

“I feel pretty confident at any of those three interior spots,’’ he said. “So, whenever there’s an opportunity, if they want to put me in, I feel I can be successful.”

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Center Mason Cole (52) was signed in the off season from the Arizona Cardinals. Minnesota Vikings photo

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