In a typical training camp, the battle for the Minnesota Vikings’ starting guard spots would bust out of the usual offensive line anonymity to become one of the preseason’s hottest talkers.
After all, the tackles are locked down with young, athletic Day 2 draft picks and Riley Reiff’s contract. And first-rounder Garrett Bradbury is expected to make a big leap forward in his second season as the starting center.
Meanwhile, Minnesota cut arguably their most consistent interior lineman last year in right guard Josh Kline while adding only late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents to compete for either guard slot.
And much to the chagrin of fans who bemoan that he spent almost as much time in the Vikings backfield as Kirk Cousins, that leaves Pat Elflein as the starting left guard heading into whatever a COVID-altered training camp looks like.
WHY DON’T VIKINGS FANS LIKE PAT ELFLEIN?
As the Vikings’ offensive line has clawed its way to up mediocrity over the past three seasons, Elflein has fallen from third-round savior of a line ravaged by injury to the unfortunate target of most fingers pointed at the offensive line’s shortcomings. Heck, we’ve already made him the poster boy for disappointment in a season that hasn’t even started yet.
Is it fair? The old adage about linemen going unnoticed unless they do something wrong is largely true, and perhaps the reason Elflein draws so much ire is that one of his greatest flaws is his struggle to anchor against larger defensive tackles — a flaw on stark display for even the most casual of fan as Elflein gets pushed back into Kirk Cousins’ lap.
Using Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades, the Vikings’ line made significant improvements in pass blocking during Elflein’s rookie season but has backslid in that area over the past two years. The team’s run-blocking grade has yet to match its 66.5 grade in 2016, though that mark ranked 30th in the league; last year Minnesota ranked 12th in the NFL despite a 63.3 team grade.
Elflein wasn’t even the lowest-graded Vikings starting lineman last season; that dubious honor falls on the rookie center Bradbury. And yet most Vikings fans are giddy with the prospect of Bradbury taking a big step forward in his sophomore NFL season, while they can’t wait to plug anyone with a pulse into Elflein’s left guard slot.
It must be noted that while PFF’s grades are a useful way to quantify performance that’s otherwise extremely difficult to measure on an objective scale, it should be taken with a grain of salt.
For example, Elflein received a brutal 9.5 pass-blocking grade in Minnesota’s playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Over 37 pass-blocking snaps in that game Elflein surrendered two sacks and was pushed back noticeably towards the quarterback on five other plays. Meanwhile, Brian O’Neill was also beaten badly for a pair of sacks yet registered a 39.4 PFF grade — hardly a good mark, but also not four times better than Elflein. Rewatching the line’s performance in that game makes it tough to understand how any Viking received an above-average grade in pass protection — which both Josh Kline (87.5) and Bradbury (58.0) received.
So why is Elflein singled out? Process of elimination. Despite the bad game against San Francisco, O’Neill is a rising star at right tackle. Kline was quietly solid and now is gone. Bradbury still has potential and a first-round pedigree after suffering through typical rookie growing pains. And Riley Reiff takes his share of heat at left tackle, but he too has been solid — and could be granted a fresh start at left guard if rookie Ezra Cleveland (carrying high-pick potential and the blessing of never having whiffed a block as a Viking… yet) takes over sooner rather than later at left tackle.
That leaves Elflein, three years removed from his rookie promise and prone to getting pushed back into the middle of Minnesota passing plays. Scapegoat found.
That’s the TL:DR version. For a deeper dive into what Elflein brings to the table, check out this Zone Coverage article from last month.
ELFLEIN’S TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO THE FANS’ GOOD GRACES
Despite the constantly moving target that is the penal code, possession remains nine-tenths of the law.
In any other training camp we might have front-row seats to an old school knock-down, drag-out battle royale at the position, lacking only Mean Gene Okerlund interviewing the combatants between sessions. But right now NFL teams will have at most two preseason games to evaluate how players fare in the crucible of competition — and that’s being optimistic.
So it will be that much more difficult for an unproven player like seventh-round pick Kyle Hinton to unseat Elflein. It will be that much more difficult for Cleveland to prove he can hold up as a Day 1 starter at left tackle, allowing the Vikings to kick Reiff inside. And it will be that much more difficult for inexperienced players to pick up the scheme and develop a level of comfort with their teammates.
So this year possession might be even more than nine-tenths of the law, though it was my understanding that there would be no math. And that means until someone takes it from him, left guard belongs to Elflein.
What could possibly go wrong?
In a worst-case scenario Elflein regresses even further than last season. The pocket continues to be blown up from the inside out, Cousins has no time to throw, and the Vikings are forced to go to the bullpen — or maybe even outside the current roster — to find a viable replacement.
Despite the general perception of Elflein’s performance, this is actually the least likely scenario in 2020. Even in a down year, Elflein ranked in the middle of the pack, 42nd out of 83 qualifying guards in overall PFF grade, and an impressive 18th in run blocking where his mobility is a natural fit for Gary Kubiak‘s beloved zone blocking system. Elflein’s pass-blocking grade, higher than just 10 other qualifying guards, was the anchor to his overall score.
But consider that 2019 was Elflein’s first as an NFL guard after two seasons at center. As the season progressed, improvement was apparent in his PFF grades, as four of his top five pass-protecting grades came in the Vikings’ final eight games (including playoffs). It wouldn’t be out of line to expect a continued uptick in his performance — not unlike that anticipated from Bradbury this season.
There’s also the continuity factor. Even without Kline, if Elflein keeps his gig the Vikings will return four of five offensive line starters for the first time in six years. The potential positive impact of O-line continuity on the 2020 Vikings was spelled out in more detail earlier this offseason, and it’s not lost on either the players or the coaches.
“We could probably line up today and go right back to work,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said in a published report earlier this offseason. “I’m hoping that carryover helps us make a quick transition into this season.”
“I think that’s where the Vikings have an advantage because we return pretty much the same offensive line room,” added Bradbury in a published report. “Chemistry is everything with offensive line. There is a lot of communication involved, and I think when you have that chemistry you can have that nonverbal communication where guys know what’s happening.”
So with a year of experience at guard under his belt, familiarity with his linemates, and another season removed from dual offseason surgeries following his rookie campaign, all indicators are spinning the arrow in a positive direction for Elflein. On top of that, more scheming — specifically play action and rollouts — can help offset any lingering issues Elflein might have with anchoring against tougher interior defenders.
And there’s your blueprint for an improved Elflein. If it adds up to status quo in the running game and improved work in pass protection, you won’t have your Sundays blown up by Elflein getting shoved rump-first into the quarterback — and the domino effect bodes well for the Vikings’ offense.