In most cities, centers are nameless. In Minnesota, centers are famous.
In fact, if you ask most NFL fans who their favorite team’s last five centers were, you would get shrugs and sideways looks. In Minnesota, that trivia question would be just as easy as naming the team’s last five quarterbacks.
When former center Matt Birk, who hasn’t suited up for the Vikings since 2008, spent a day at training camp in Mankato, onlookers shouted his name and the team’s digital media crew pulled him aside for an exclusive interview.
In the minds of older fans, Birk probably ranks second among all-time great Vikings centers to Mick Tingelhoff, who started all 259 Vikings games between 1963 and 1977 and made six Pro Bowls.
There’s also Jeff Christy, center for the ‘98 team that reached the NFC title game, and John Sullivan, who was in the middle of all sorts of Adrian Peterson highlight runs. You regularly see these guys’ replica jerseys at training camp.
This year, the Vikings are looking to Pat Elflein to step into this non-traditional spotlight.
When Teddy Bridgewater suffered a severe knee injury prior to the start of the 2016 season, the Vikings were thrown into a mad panic to find a replacement. General manager Rick Spielman and the front office decided that they couldn’t throw away a talented roster that featured the league’s leading rusher from 2015 and the fifth best defense in points allowed, so they went all-in.
At that moment, the move made sense, but by the time the draft came around, it appeared that dealing a first-round pick for Sam Bradford might do more long-term harm than good. The Vikings’ offensive line was a shipwreck and it seemed far fetched to believe they would land a starter without a first-round pick – unless that starter was Pat Elflein.
No matter where you looked, whether it was NFL.com or ESPN or Joe’s Drafty Draft Site, Elflein was listed as a second-rounder. The unanimous All-American, and Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center was the consensus top rated player at his position. Since centers don’t usually go in the first round, there was a chance the Vikings would have a shot at him with their first pick, the 48th overall selection.
While the Ohio State star didn’t have elite “measurables,” he ranked in the top 20 in the nation in the Pro Football Focus stat Run Block Success Percentage and scored as one of PFF’s best run blockers three years in a row. Elflein’s NFL.com profile cited an NFC scout who compared his ability in the run game to that of Dallas Cowboys star guard Zach Martin and called him “great for your locker room.”
Elflein was still on the board as the Vikings’ second-round pick approached, but instead of picking him, they traded up to grab Dalvin Cook, the all-time leading rusher at Florida State and a clear-cut first-round talent.
The Vikings couldn’t have dreamed that they would still be able to land the Big Ten O-lineman of the Year.
After trading two picks to the Jets to move up in the third round, Elflein was a Viking with the 70th overall pick. Mike Zimmer declared soon after that Elflein would play center and 2016 center Joe Berger would move to right guard. Spielman grinned as he described Elflein as “nasty.”
Somewhere in Denver, Colorado, Brandon Thorn was a happy man.
Thorn, who is content manager for The Scouting Academy, an organization that teaches people how to scout football, had been banging the Elflein drum for months leading up to the draft. On draft day, he tweeted about how badly the Vikings needed the Ohio State standout.
Shortly after the draft, the Air Force veteran-slash-football-writer penned a long, detailed piece about the Vikings’ new lineman, concluding, “Elflein has a good chance at excelling sooner rather than later as a starter.”
On Friday, a few hours before Elflein would head out to the practice field in Mankato, Thorn was on the phone in front of his computer with Ohio State vs. Michigan film ready to go.
“There’s nothing I love more than going through game tape with somebody,” he said.
Thorn’s appreciation for Elflein comes from his obsession with studying the details of playing offensive line. Teams are often cautious with their scouting language in the media, so they’ll focus on things like leadership or toughness – both of which you’ll hear a lot when talking to Vikings personnel about Elflein. But Thorn digs deeper.
“He resets his base at the snap and it gives him leverage on the shaded nose tackle that’s over him and he does a nice job of creating torque with his body,” Thorn says as he replays the play below over and over.
“You see him kind of rotate to the right and use the left side of his body to turn that guy out of the hole and just drive him uphill a little bit,” Thorn says, analyzing No. 65 in red.
This play gives us an idea of how Elflein uses his strength and technique to get underneath giant men and drive them away from the line of scrimmage.
“The pad level is awesome,” Thorn says.
Of the half dozen Vikings interviewed for this story, each one referred to Elflein as a “smart player.” Thorn, who prefers the term “mental processing.” Looking through 52 minutes of Buckeyes/Wolverines game film, he found multiple examples of Elflein’s impressive mental processing skills – ones that most football watchers wouldn’t notice at all, like in the play below.
To the untrained eye, it looks like he just stood there. To Thorn, he “maintained special awareness, kept his head on a swivel and found work.”
Michigan runs a tackle-tackle stunt, which means that the tackles cross after the snap. Elflein uses his hand to sense if one side needs help and his eyes to look at the other side. He sinks to the proper depth of the rest of the line so he’ll be able to double team if needed. Then Elflein pops a guy at the end for good measure.
Later on in the film session, Thorn catches Elflein recognizing and eliminating the Wolverines’ attempts at misdirection on the defensive line, allowing for quarterback JT Barrett to see cleanly down the field.
“It’s cool to see a guy be able to pick up those stunts as quickly as he did,” Thorn says.
Vikings linebacker Ben Gedeon, a fourth-round draft pick this year, faced off with Elflein in this game and several other times during his career.
“I remember the scouting report,” Gedeon said in Mankato. “Pat Elflein: Super athletic center, guy that can move around, tough nosed, played multiple years at Ohio State so we saw him multiple times. Just a really good football player.”
As an Academic All-American, Gedeon was lauded for his Football IQ and leadership. He saw the same in his counterpart.
“We knew he was kind of the bell leader of that O-line,” Gedeon said. “Smart guy as well. It’s something we always talked about. We had a lot of respect for him.”
As you might expect, Elflein’s matchup with the super-talented Wolverine defense was not all roses.
On this play, the Buckeyes’ center attacks his man and whiffs, allowing No. 99 to tackle Barrett before the Ohio State quarterback can reach the end zone. This play came late in the game and it was apparent that the Michigan D-lineman had enough of being pushed around by Elflein.
“His head gets out in front of his feet,” Thorn said. “He lunges and you can’t do that. If he blocks that guy, that’s a touchdown.”
Thorn also notices an issue that could crop up when Elflein faces off with NFL competition.
“With the center, their snap hand is the most vulnerable,” he said. “Defensive linemen try to attack that hand and that arm. Elflein is not quick enough getting the hand back up and the D-lineman collapses the shoulder.”
Pass protection is clearly an area the young center will have to improve. Pro Football Focus recorded three sacks and 11 hurries in 2016, ranking him 41st in Pass Blocking Efficiency.
The Vikings and Thorn have the same expectation: That Elflein’s mental makeup and work ethic will allow him to get up to speed and correct some of the shortcomings in his game.
“I think he will adjust well not just because of the competition he faced in college but how he handled that competition,” Thorn said. “I saw a lot of him generating movement at the point of attack. You don’t see a lot of that, especially 1-on-1 situations that he was in, just simply driving a guy off the ball. He did that a lot. He had good strength at the college level and I think that will translate well.”
Tom Johnson gets pretty excited when talking about facing off with an inexperienced center.
“I’m going to attack them,” Johnson says happily after practice in Mankato.
Like many three-technique defensive tackles, Johnson makes a living off finding ways to either overpower or deceive interior offensive linemen.
“I’m going to make sure he’s the one that’s going to have to take on everything I’m giving him,” Johnson said. “I’m going to be very physical with him instead of going to the guard and letting the center help.”
Johnson says the role of the center is often to provide support to guards in pass protection, but the league’s best interior D-linemen aren’t going to allow Elflein to get off easy.
“I’m going to make him sit down and do things that don’t allow him to be the helper,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 32, took the long road to the NFL, playing in NFL Europe, the Canadian Football League and the Arena League before finally catching on. He brings a combination of savvy and desperation to his game that rookie centers have never seen before.
And there are many pass rushing DTs with Johnson’s smarts and edge that centers face on a weekly basis. Either that, or they face nose guards like Linval Joseph – a former state champion weight lifter.
Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, a right-hand man to head coach Mike Zimmer and football savant with a neighborly disposition, sees training camp as a perfect opportunity for Elflein to work against players that make up one of the league’s best defensive lines.
“I was standing there the other day and I’m like, ‘Hey, this is great for you because you’re going up against one of the best nose guards in the league every single day,” Patterson said. “You’re not going to go up against a guy like him every Sunday. So if you find a way that you can handle him, it’s going to help you when you start playing games for real.’”
Patterson says he likes the attributes that he’s seen from Elflein, but points out that young centers normally need time to adjust to slowing down Pro Bowlers like Joseph while also focusing on the complex mental elements of the position.
“The center has the hardest job on the offensive line,” Patterson said. “He’s calling out protection, he’s calling out what they’re going to do on their blocking, all those kinds of things. Sometimes when you’re a rookie, it’s too overwhelming. You’re thinking about handling the guy that’s lined up in front of you.”
Patterson points out that college defensive linemen don’t show anywhere near the amount of deception as Elflein will see in the NFL.
“Just because a guy lines up on your outside shoulder doesn’t mean he’s going to stay there, Patterson said. “He’s able to move out, he’s able to move across your face, sometimes he takes you on with his hands, sometimes he goes full-throttle through your shoulder. There’s all sorts of different things that a guy that’s lined up on you can do.”
That may explain why offensive linemen have different age curves as compared to skill positions. According to Pro-Football Reference data, quarterbacks peak at age 26, receivers 25 and running backs 23. Centers steadily improve until hitting their best years at 27 or 28.
And when centers are at their best, they make life difficult on defenses. Johnson said the best centers in the NFL can shut down blitzes by quickly identifying them. If the center is powerful enough to block a big man in the middle, Patterson said, it can be problematic for linebackers.
“When you have a center that’s strong enough and quick enough to handle a nose guard by himself, then that’s an issue on our defense because he’s able to single-block the nose by himself,” Patterson said. “That means one of the guards can go get on one of our linebackers.”
Elflein is smart enough to learn how to identify blitzes and powerful enough to handle nose guards. But can he do it right away?
The Vikings aren’t handing their third-round pick a starting gig. He’s going to have to beat out Nick Easton, a Harvard grad who started five games last year. The two have switched in and out nearly every day in Mankato and each has occasionally seen time at guard.
Whether Elflein starts from Day 1 will depend on how quickly he adapts. And that applies to all sorts of areas. Head coach Mike Zimmer talked about his rookie getting quicker with calls.
“He’s pretty sharp at it,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes he tries to change it too late in the down and it messes up everybody else. He’s just gotta make sure that once he makes it, we go and live with it.”
Alex Boone pointed out the adjustment to viewing football as a career.
“You’re not playing against 18-year-olds anymore,” Boone said. “You’re playing against grown men, they’re out here to hurt you and everyone has a job to do…at the end of the day, he has to know this is for real now. This is your job, this is your life. If you want to do this for the next 20 years, you gotta go. And he’s doing a good job of that so far.”
Patterson mentioned the tempo of play in the NFL.
“It’s just like every other rookie, he’s gotta get used to the speed and the pace of the game, every rookie has that,” Patterson said.
Whether he starts against the New Orleans Saints on September 11 does not have a bearing on where the Vikings believe Elflein can be long term, which is on the level of Birk, Christy or Sullivan. It’s just a matter of how long it will take for him to get there.
“The thing I can say from watching him: He looks like he belongs,” Patterson said.