Vikings rookie Garrett Bradbury won't have to look far for guidance

EAGAN, Minn. -- Pat Elflein's eyes widened as he recalled one of his first gut-check moments as a Viking. In front of a near sell-out crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium during Minnesota’s Week 6 game against Green Bay in 2017, the then-rookie was drawing a blank.

Elflein stared out at the defense and noticed the Green Bay Packers lining up in a look he didn’t recognize from the hours of film he scoured on his opponent. The center’s job was to be precise with the directions he’d give his four lineman teammates as the play was about to unfold.

But right now, Elflein found himself in a precious situation, unsure of what to do with the game in his hands. That’s when he looked to his left and yelled out to Nick Easton.

“I got down on the ball and I didn’t know what to call,” Elflein said. “I was like ‘Hey Nick, what do I call?’ and he made the call for me.

“It was intense. It kind of catches you off guard because I felt like I was so prepared for that game, and the game of football – that’s what it’s like. It was a learning experience for me that this is what the NFL is. You’re going to get unscouted looks a lot so you have to have tools in your toolbox to adjust.”

As a rookie, Elflein was positioned between two linemen who had previously played center: Easton at left guard and Joe Berger, a 12-year NFL veteran, at right guard. It was an invaluable asset that helped him gain confidence in his ability to call a game by knowing he wouldn’t have to fend for himself when he wasn’t sure what to do.

The situation is similar to the one Garrett Bradbury finds himself in now with Elflein moving to left guard after spending the last two seasons at center.

When Bradbury lines up on Sept. 8, he’ll be the third rookie in Vikings history to start at center in a season opener. The other two? Elflein and Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff in the 1960s.

There’s a lot riding on an improved season from the Vikings' offensive line. Many of those high expectations revolve around Bradbury, whom Minnesota drafted with its first-round pick in April. Characterized as "brilliant" by coach Mike Zimmer and a grinder by his teammates, Bradbury is shouldering a big load as the line begins to fortify in camp. His athleticism and experience in an outside zone blocking scheme is what drew Minnesota to draft him 18th overall in hopes of rebuilding the interior of the O-line.

But despite how gifted an athlete and cerebral a player he is, the confidence Bradbury needs to call a game – when the speed of the NFL is faster and the coverages better disguised – will build over time. Leaning on Elflein for guidance has been Bradbury’s priority since he arrived in May.

“Pat has been awesome,” Bradbury said. “He's obviously played the position and played guard and understands offensive line play. He was a rookie two years ago, so he kind of can mentor me in things that helped him and what didn't help him.”

Think about all the things a center is responsible for. From setting the protection and possibly having to alter it based on how the defense shifts at the last second to helping identify the mike linebacker, reading how deep the safety is to determine what kind of front the defense is showing and snapping the ball in accordance to the quarterback’s cadence/snap count, a lot will rest on Bradbury’s shoulders.

The rookie’s objective over the next month will be to master all of those skills while the entire offense learns a new scheme. Mastering that transition from the college game requires reps and the confidence to orchestrate what the rest of the O-line needs to be doing.

“If I’m kind of hesitant with the call, if I’m late with the call, it just screws the other guys I’m playing with,” Bradbury said. “I need to get up to the line, trust what I’m seeing and what I’m seeing at the moment and just make a call and go with it.”

Backup center Brett Jones believes Bradbury is progressing quickly.

“The more and more he gets comfortable, the more vocal the calls are," Jones said. "I think it’s been great for all those guys starting to hear him. He’s getting more and more comfortable each and every day. He’s going to be the leader of this offensive line, and he’s doing a lot of great things.”