Three years after trading up in the third round to select Pat Elflein as their center of the future, the Vikings finally said goodbye to the player who disappointed them at all three interior line positions.
"We just felt like we had some better options," coach Mike Zimmer said Saturday.
The Vikings released Elflein one day after activating him from injured reserve, where he had been since tearing a ligament in his thumb before the second game of the season.
Elflein's best season was his rookie campaign, when he started 16 games, including both playoff games as they reached the NFC Championship Game.
Injuries derailed his effectiveness in 2018 and led to the Vikings selecting center Garrett Bradbury in the first round in 2019. A move to left guard last year and then to right guard this season proved futile as the Vikings hoped to jump-start Elflein's career.
"It's always tough," Zimmer said. "These guys come in and compete and work real hard. But at times, you just got to make those decisions."
Elflein became expendable once rookie second-round draft pick Ezra Cleveland proved he could handle moving from his natural position at left tackle to right guard. Cleveland replaced Dru Samia, who was abysmal in four starts, three games ago and has helped the Vikings win their past two games with Dalvin Cook amassing 478 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
Veteran right tackle Brian O'Neill has been impressed by the rookie lining up next to him.
"He's done a really good job of developing," O'Neill said. "He's really dialed into the things we're doing in the weight room and off the field in order to prepare. Plus, he's opening up, which is great. And he's playing with a lot more confidence."
Yet O'Neill couldn't help but feel for the 26-year-old Elflein, who became a free agent after 48 games, 47 of them starts, including playoffs.
"I love Pat," O'Neill said. "He was a great help to me. He's been a friend of mine for a long time. That's part of the business. That's the world we live in, and we all understand that."
Smith Jr. out with injury
Drafted as a pass-catching tight end, Irv Smith Jr. will be missed Monday night for his blossoming run-blocking skills as well as his receiving skills after grabbing two touchdown passes in the red zone in last week's win over the Lions.
Smith missed practice all week and was listed as out because of a groin injury. Many of his assignments will be assumed by No. 3 tight end Tyler Conklin.
"Irv is a really good player, and we can use him so many different ways," Zimmer said. "But Tyler has done a great job. Really, he's done a great job all year. You probably haven't noticed it in the games as much, but you see it a lot in practice every single day.
"He's a great kid, hard worker, does a lot of different things for us. So we're anticipating that he'll go in and the rest of us will have to take up a little bit of the slack with Irv not being there."
Meanwhile, cornerback Cameron Dantzler (concussion) appears set to return Monday night. He practiced all three days this week and was listed as questionable.
Fullback C.J. Ham, who is on the injury report as "shoulder/not injury related," practiced Saturday and will play Monday.
Secret snapper is Kendricks
Maybe Zim's getting soft during his two-game winning streak. He revealed a team secret on Saturday.
After long snapper Austin Cutting was removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list and practiced, Zimmer was asked who his emergency long snapper is. And, by gosh, he didn't even hesitate calling out All-Pro middle linebacker Eric Kendricks' name.
A day earlier, special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf wouldn't tell reporters who was taking the long snapping duties with Cutting on the list. Lo and behold, it was the guy leading the Vikings in tackles for the sixth straight year.
"It was nice having [Cutting] back," Zimmer said. "But our backup did a nice job during the week. [Kendricks] is a pretty good football player."