It will be nowhere near the top of the marquee this week, in the lead-up to a game that includes Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota and Randy Moss’ induction to the Vikings Ring of Honor.
But when the Vikings’ starting offensive line plays its first snap against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, it will be the first time the group of five — left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Nick Easton, center Pat Elflein, right guard Joe Berger and right tackle Mike Remmers — has worked together in a game.
All five players have practiced together, and as injuries necessitated different line combinations during the preseason, the Vikings’ linemen got plenty of experience with a rotating set of players. A position group the team spent the better part of the offseason trying to improve, though, will head into the regular season still trying to jell.
“I’ve sat in that room a lot, and these guys have good conversation. They’ve worked good together, and we’ve been mixing around the rotations quite a bit anyway,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s basically being on the same page.”
The Vikings’ line configuration changed again over the weekend when Alex Boone — who’d started two of the team’s first three preseason games — was released as the team cut its roster down to 53 players. The Vikings, who will use Elflein at center and Easton at left guard, played with both of them in those positions Aug. 18 against Seattle, but Reiff was still out that night because of a back injury.
Easton and Berger are the only two starters who return from last year, but Easton is at a new position, having shifted from the center spot where he started at the end of last season, and Berger only started five games at right guard. The two tackles are new, and Elflein will step in to direct the group as a rookie.
The third-round pick played well enough in training camp for the Vikings to feel they could part ways with Boone and move Easton to guard. He’ll become the second Ohio State center in four years to start his NFL career as a rookie in a prime-time game, following the Packers’ Corey Linsley’s debut against the Seahawks in 2014.
In this case, Elflein will get to do it at home — not as the road center in one of the league’s harshest environments — and he’ll have the advantage of playing next to the past two players who had the keys to the offensive line.
“It helps a lot,” Elflein said of playing between Easton and Berger. “Half the time, they know the call just as you know it, and they could make it as fast as you make it. When everyone’s on the same page like that, it helps your offensive line.”
Elflein played two years of guard at Ohio State, and the flexibility of the Vikings’ interior line is such that they could move Easton, Elfein and Berger around to the center position or either guard spot without much concern. In the end, concern over the lack of time the Vikings’ five starting linemen have logged together could turn out to be much ado about nothing.
They’ll have to prove that Monday night, though, against a Saints defense that blitzes more frequently than almost any team in the NFL. The Vikings figure to be tested early and often, as the Saints try to stress a protection unit that allowed Sam Bradford to be sacked five times in 12 drives during the preseason.
After letting Boone go, the Vikings have two young starters in the middle of their line, two tackles who were paid a combined $36.8 million in guaranteed money during free agency and a 35-year-old starter who has played a handful of different roles in the past three years alone.
If the group can coalesce quickly, the Vikings will get a chance to show that after years of attempts to patch up the line, they’ve finally got a solid foundation in front of Bradford and second-round pick Dalvin Cook.
The nation will be watching their first attempt to make such a statement.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything, and we’ve been preparing for this moment for a while,” Remmers said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”