For the second time in three seasons, the Minnesota Vikings were breaking in a rookie center who had some growing pains in his first year.
Elflein, the Vikings’ 2017 third-round pick, was far from perfect in his first year but gradually improved as a pass protector for Case Keenum and anchored the offensive line on a 13-3 team. He ranked 24th out of 39 qualified centers, per Pro Football Focus.
But Elflein’s first season ended badly in an NFC Championship Game loss at Philadelphia where the Vikings got shellacked and he broke his ankle. The center had the ankle surgically repaired, as well as a second offseason surgery on his shoulder. The dual upper- and lower-body surgeries put Elflein on the shelf for the bulk of the offseason and affected his strength and conditioning. In Elflein’s 14 games in 2018 he graded out as the third-worst pass blocker and the second-worst run blocker of qualified centers — a drastic enough regression that the Vikings felt compelled to move him to guard and draft Bradbury in the first round.
Bradbury was then a pass-blocking liability in his first year, grading out lower than Elflein’s 2018, while starting all 18 games including playoffs. The first-round pick was adequate in the run game but posted the lowest pass-blocking grade of all NFL centers. Facing a pivotal second season, Bradbury has had the benefit of a healthy and productive offseason of individual workouts; one that a mending Elflein didn’t have two offseasons ago.
“This is the longest time that I’ve had just to train straight,” Bradbury said, “so when you practice and you have spring ball or OTAs, it’s hard to stay in a training regimen. You’re obviously working out while you’re playing, but it’s more of a maintaining workout protocol, so since late January I’ve been working out, grinding, so I feel as good as I’ve ever felt strength-wise, conditioning-wise, so it’s actually been really good for me individually.”
Such is the one thing NFL players can control during the pandemic while the league continues to keep its facilities’ doors closed: Their fitness. Bradbury utilized a one-on-one workout facility in Denver until mid-April when he and his fiancee Carson returned to the Twin Cities. From there he started working out at the Adam Thielen-owned ETS Performance with offensive line teammates Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins.
Whenever training camp occurs, there’s a good chance that more players than ever will be reporting to camp ‘in the best shape of their life,’ as the cliche goes.
“Two days a week we’re getting on the field and doing football work, and we’re going through whatever we would be doing for individual period with Coach Dennison,” Bradbury said. “That’s the beauty of being up here and being with some linemen, and I know that the guys in other cities are doing the same thing. Coach Kubiak keeps going back to, ‘Guys, we would be in Week 2 of OTAs right now, what would you all be doing right now to prepare for the season?’ I know that everyone’s doing that.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins praised Bradbury last season for his ability to diagnose defenses and communicate with his linemates. The trouble came, however, after the snap, when the 305-pound Bradbury ran up against stronger defensive linemen. The rookie posted five individual PFF grades of 36.6 or lower — four of those coming in divisional games where the Vikings went 1-3. He tied for the fifth-most pressures allowed last season with 26, and he tied fellow rookie Erik McCoy with the fourth-most penalties (8).
Bradbury’s goal in 2019 is for the physical part of his game to match his progress on the mental side.
“Now that we’re in meetings getting to go back and rewatch all the games and critique everything from the season as a whole, I think during the season you’re just so week to week, different gameplans,” Bradbury said, reflecting on his rookie year. “I think in terms of improvement, consistency is kind of the biggest thing for me. It’s such a long season, so you watch a few stretches where you have a few good games and you kind of don’t have such a good game, and so with all this time you’re able to reflect on what was I doing, what was I not doing that was kind of prohibiting me from having the consistency? And something I pride myself in is being able to get better from year to year, from game to game, and so that’s kind of my goal this offseason.
“Starting in January, I’ve understood what I need to work on. I’ve just been getting after it, and I feel great. There is a lot of craziness in that rookie year, and a lot of unknowns, but like I said, Year 2, I feel so good right now. I feel so much more comfortable with the system, much more comfortable with expectations and routines.”
Bradbury also has the perk of continuity. Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison will carry on the same offensive scheme as 2019, whereas Elflein dealt with two coordinator changes and the untimely death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano in 2018. Conversely, right tackle Brian O’Neill enjoyed a full offseason under Kubiak’s system in 2019 before demonstrating dramatic improvement.
“Chemistry is everything with offensive line,” said Bradbury. “There’s a lot of communication involved and when there’s chemistry you can have that non-verbal communication where you guys know what’s happening, you know the system. … That’s the beauty of having the same room and the same system, which is a very underrated thing. We have the same playbook. Coach Kubiak has stepped into the OC role, but it’s essentially the same system, and though we all know it we’re still learning and we’re still going back through it all.”