Matt Birk came to the Vikings as a sixth-round draft pick in 1998 and didn’t start a game for two years. By the time his 14-year NFL career ended, Birk had started 187 of 210 games played, including starting every game for 11 of 12 years once he was elevated to a starter in 2000. He finished with six Pro Bowl seasons and a championship with the Baltimore Ravens.
When John Sullivan was selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, he didn’t start a single game his rookie year, either. But once he replaced Birk in 2009, Sullivan missed only three starts over the next six years with the Vikings.
Drafted in the third round, Elflein was selected three rounds earlier than Birk and Sullivan, but the heady position of center requires a combination of strength and quick-thinking diagnostic skills that make it difficult for a rookie.
“It’s challenging, but I made the calls at Ohio State. It’s definitely harder than at Ohio State. It’s a learning curve and you’ve got to adapt and you’ve got to spend extra time in the playbook, extra time meeting with coach,” Elflein said after getting his first extensive taste of the Vikings playbook last weekend. “You’ve got to get it down because when you’re out there, the center runs it. So, you’ve got to be able to do that and do it with confidence. So, I’ve just got to spend extra time working on it.”
He first got a look at the playbook when he arrived in Minnesota the day before rookie minicamp started.
“It’s not too much different. It’s just all the terminology is a little different, a few different wrinkles here and there,” he said of his first impressions. “You just kind of have to re-learn an offense. So, that takes time.”
It will, and it has.
When Birk arrived to the Vikings, they had Jeff Christy firmly implanted as the starter, allowing Birk to watch and learn for two years. When Sullivan arrived, Birk was that entrenched veteran, allowing Sullivan an observational season.
Now, with Joe Berger returning for at least one more year, the Vikings don’t have to rush Elflein, but it might be best if he can take over at center and allow Berger to be the backup interior swingman and also compete for the starting spot at right guard.
If that happens, it would place Elflein in the position of being a rookie and telling veterans like Alex Boone what to do on each play.
“That’s the job of the center and if that’s what it is then that’s what it is. I’m sure the older veterans will help, help make the call,” Elflein said. “That’s a long ways down the road. I just have to keep getting better and keep learning, being a part of this team.”
Fortunately, Elflein has plenty of time spent with Boone. They are both Ohio State alumni and spent time together before the draft working out under former star NFL center LeCharles Bentley in Arizona. They have kept in contact since Elflein was drafted.
“He kind of gave me a run-down of what’s going on. I know he’s one of the leaders of the team. I’m excited to play with him and learn from him,” Elflein said of Boone. “He’s a one-of-a-kind guy, great person, someone I’m excited to be under and learn from.”
But if Boone isn’t intense enough (he should be) for Elflein, there is offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who will undoubtedly be spending countless hours with the rookie center, explaining to him the ins and outs of the blocking schemes.
“He’s awesome. I love being in the room with him. He’s a great teacher,” Elflein said. “Some good guys in the room right now. So, just trying to learn everything I can from him.”
Bentley sent Elflein to the Vikings a more sculpted man. He leaned out and got stronger, thanks to a “pretty strict diet” that “changed my body,” the rookie said.
He has seen former offensive linemates at Ohio State enter the NFL and become immediate starters – just last year, Taylor Decker started at left tackle for Detroit – so Elflein knows it’s possible.
“There’s a lot of my former teammates that have done that. Hats off to them; those guys are great players,” he said. “They went into a good situation and played well all year. I’m just coming in and trying to give this team everything I’ve got and whatever happens, if it’s on the field or whatever, that’s why I’m here is to help this team.”