On guard: Vikings continue OL shuffle; Elflein on right side

Published 6:50 am Wednesday, August 19, 2020

EAGAN — The interior of Minnesota’s offensive line has been in frequent flux throughout the tenure of coach Mike Zimmer that has started a seventh season.

Pat Elflein has now taken the full tour.

After another year of mostly middling blocking in the middle, the Vikings have made more changes. Elflein, the starting center in his first two seasons and the left guard in 2019, has moved to right guard. That’s actually where he played at Ohio State, before a switch to center for his senior year preceded his winning the Rimington Trophy for the best player in the country at that position.

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“It was a group decision, between myself and the coaches and how everything was playing out. We’re just trying to get the best five guys on the field. That’s why versatility is important,” Elflein said on Monday, before the Vikings held their first full-pads practice.

Garrett Bradbury, the 2019 first-round draft pick, has returned at center to provide some stability. Aviante Collins and Dakota Dozier have been competing for the starting spot at left guard. Ezra Cleveland and Dru Samia have been in the evaluation mix, too, but the coaching staff has expressed a desire to settle on the lineup as soon as possible to accelerate a jelling process that was significantly altered by the virus that forced the NFL into an all-virtual offseason program.

“The more people work together the better they play together,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said, adding: “We’re just trying to create a really competitive environment up front and see who steps to the forefront.”

Elflein, who has entered the final year of his contract, missed the first two games of the 2018 season after offseason ankle and shoulder surgeries that set him back that spring and summer. He was healthier last year, missing just one game because of a knee injury, but at times was overwhelmed by bigger and stronger opposing defensive tackles.

So now he’s on the other side, on track to be the sixth primary right guard in seven seasons. The only repeat at that position during that span was Joe Berger, but even he didn’t take consecutive years. He was the starting center in 2015 and 2016, between right guard stints in 2014 and 2017.

Last year, Josh Kline played there, but he was released for salary cap savings. That’s what happened to Mike Remmers after the 2018 season, too.

Left guard has been an even more evolving door. Prior to Elflein’s year on the job, the Vikings used Tom Compton (2018), Nick Easton (2017), Alex Boone (2016), Brandon Fusco (2015) and Charlie Johnson (2014) as the starters at that spot.

“We’re all cross-trained,” said left tackle Riley Reiff, who was at one point considered for a move to guard. He added: “I’m comfortable with whoever I’m playing next to. Our coaches do a great job of getting us ready for game week.”

Said right tackle Brian O’Neill of the turnover: “These are the cards you’re dealt, and who’s going to make the most of them? People don’t really care who you’re playing next to or what the situation was in the offseason.

“If I do my job, I can trust the guy next to me to do his, and we’ll all be in a better place.”