Minnesota Vikings fans are falling all over themselves in the race to replace left guard Pat Elflein. The ever-growing list of potential starters includes incumbent left tackle Riley Reiff, second-round pick Ezra Cleveland, holdover Dakota Dozier, maybe a yet-to-be-signed free agent we haven’t even heard of. Seems like every lineman with a pulse who doesn’t already have a gig is being considered at left guard — except Elflein.
The Vikings were even more desperate for offensive line help than they are now when they selected Elflein out of Ohio State in the 2017 draft. After using their second-round selection on Dalvin Cook the Vikings snapped up Elflein six picks into Round 3, ready to re-establish the run.
Having converted to center for his final season in Columbus, Elflein offered position flexibility and Big Ten experience for a line coming off a year in which they ranked 30th in adjusted line yards, a Football Outsiders stat that measure’s the offensive line’s contribution to the team’s yards per carry average.
Elflein’s scouting report credited him with average athleticism, solid run-blocking skills that would be best served in a zone scheme, and pass-blocking deficiencies that would need to be schemed to cover. In a thin offensive line class, however, he was considered a shrewd pick by the Purple, a good “get” at 70 overall and an upgrade to what the Vikings had put on the field the previous season.
After two seasons as the Vikings’ starting center, Elflein slid over to left guard for the 2019 campaign. He posted an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 62.3, ranking 42nd among qualifying NFL guards. His 46.8 pass-blocking grade was the worst among all qualifying guards, while his 66.2 run-blocking grade ranked 16th. Among Vikings offensive linemen Elflein’s overall grade ranked fourth, his run-blocking grade second, and his pass-blocking grade ninth.
And now, with three NFL seasons and almost 3,000 snaps under his belt, Elflein is looking at a prove-it season to earn a second pro contract. Using examples from a pair of his most disparately-graded games from last season — two games that according to PFF demonstrate the best and worst of Elflein’s 2019 season — let’s examine what he brings to the table and what he needs to do better if he plans on keeping his starting job in Minnesota.
Week 8 vs. Washington
The Washington game saw Elflein record his best run-blocking grade (80.3) of the year while also posting his worst pass-blocking mark (28.5) of the regular season and second-worst overall. Elflein frequently butted heads with a pair of former first-round picks in Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen, and his sterling run grade was unquestionably helped by a game script that saw the Vikings run the ball even more frequently than usual — including 17 straight times to end the contest.
- Elflein was frequently tasked with reaching Allen on running plays, and more often than not he used quickness to wall off Allen and prevent him from making a play. He had even more success when tangling with backup Treyvon Hester. Elflein consistently engaged the defender long enough to allow his running back to find a crease and gain positive yardage. Considered perhaps the least athletic of Minnesota’s front five, Elflein showed more than enough athleticism to succeed in the Vikings’ zone scheme.
- That same athleticism was on display at the second level as Elflein got out in front of screen passes and pulled to lead a back through the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions.
- However, too frequently when Elflein reached the second level, he failed to stay with his block. Twice during the Vikings’ run-heavy conclusion to the game Elflein whiffed on downfield blocks that could have turned short runs into longer gains. On one he overran linebacker Jon Bostic, who ducked behind Elflein to blow up the play; on another he engaged Bostic but didn’t finish and again Bostic stopped the running back after a short gain.
- Three times Elflein was unable to contain an Allen bull rush — highlighting the single biggest critique of Elflein’s performance last season. The first resulted in a drive-ending second-quarter sack; the second in a holding penalty as Elflein hit Allen with a takedown that would make Gable Steveson proud. On the third Elflein caught Allen’s oncoming rush and was pushed back into Kirk Cousins, though not before Cousins was able to deliver the pass.
For what PFF considered Elflein’s best run-blocking effort of the season, this wasn’t a particularly overwhelming performance. That said, I noted a positive for Elflein on 24 of the Vikings’ 40 rushing plays, compared to negative flags on just 12. Elflein will never match Quenton Nelson’s stack of pancakes, but for the most part he’s efficient and effective in the Vikings’ zone-blocking scheme.
And while Elflein’s pass protection wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, it did showcase his struggles against more powerful interior rushers, as well as issues he has when trying to block downfield on screens — a staple of the Vikings’ attack.
Week 11 vs. Denver
By virtue of a lousy first half, this tilt against the Broncos flipped the script for the Vikings. Trailing 20-0 at the break, Minnesota played catch-up all game long and threw more than twice as frequently as they ran. As a result, Elflein’s low run grade was less relevant than usual while his pass-blocking effort more necessary — and appreciated.
Elflein squared off with multiple Broncos over the course of this game, among them Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Adam Gotsis and Mike Purcell. He also found himself helping out on linebackers Von Miller, Justin Hollins and Alexander Johnson during various loops, stunts, pulls and other reindeer games.
- The Broncos threw a variety of blitzes at the Vikings and, befitting his reputation as a smart player not easily fooled by such shenanigans, only once did Elflein fail to pick up on the stunt and respond accordingly. Unfortunately, on that play he was late to slide outside and help Reiff with Harris, who split the double team as Elflein turned (again, too late) back inside to pick up the blitzing Johnson. Harris made the sack, forcing a fumble recovered by Johnson.
- On two more occasions Elflein was driven back into Cousins’ lap, once by Harris and once by Gotsis. However, Cousins was able to get the pass off both times, and given the number of passes the Vikings threw in this game just two failed anchors has to be considered a more than minor victory for Elflein.
- Elflein’s low run-blocking grade can be largely attributed to his struggles at the second level. Getting downfield wasn’t a problem, but twice he failed to remain locked onto Johnson as the linebacker made tackles down the field. Elflein also whiffed on linebacker Todd Davis twice, and on one particularly awful short-yardage rep he fired out to the second level and completely missed everyone as the Broncos stuffed the third-down play for no gain.
The Final Verdict
With preseason reps likely to be limited heading into the 2020 season, continuity is working in Elflein’s favor. As noted earlier this offseason, if Elflein maintains his starting gig the Vikings will return four starters for the first time in six years. Such continuity has proven to be a harbinger of good things: Every team to take the field in each of the last four Super Bowls has returned at least four starting offensive linemen from the previous season.
Also keep in mind that this is just Elflein’s second season at guard; in addition, he’ll benefit from whatever gains center Garrett Bradbury makes from his rookie campaign to his sophomore season.
Elflein will certainly need to anchor more consistently, keeping the interior of the pocket intact. He also needs to improve his success rate down the field — not just getting there, but hitting and more importantly locking onto defenders to help create home runs on a more frequent basis.
Finally, Elflein needs to spend less time on the ground. Between failed chop blocks and flat-out misses his knees were getting far too dirty — a no-no for offensive linemen.
The good news is, those are all fixable flaws. But with players queueing up to take his job and the Vikings’ Super Bowl window closing, corrections will need to come quickly lest Elflein follow Matt Kalil out of town as a one-time O-line savior who failed to deliver on his draft day promise.