EAGAN, Minn. — Welcome back, Pat Elflein.
The Vikings center fully practiced this week and will suit up for his first game of the 2018 season this Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Elflein, who was inactive the first two games of the season, rehabbed from shoulder and ankle injuries all offseason. Brett Jones is expect to start, but Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Friday that Elflein will make his season debut.
"The coaches have a role for me. I don't know exactly what it is," Elflein said. "I'll probably know more on Sunday, but I trust the plan that they have for me. I'm feeling good."
Added Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo: "We are ready for him to be back out there."
It's been a long road back for the former third-round pick who excelled as a rookie in 2017.
He started 14 games but missed two over the final month of the regular season due to a shoulder injury. He then suffered an ankle-injury in the NFC title game against Philadelphia.
But Elflein, a selection on the 2017 All-Rookie Team by PFWA, said this is the "best that I've felt since last season" when he helped the Vikings win the NFC North title.
"I've been going full-go at practice all week and feeling good," said Elflein, who added he has only worked at center in practice. "Just getting back in the rhythm of what it's like to play football out here at the highest level.
"Injuries, unfortunately, are a part of this game. They come with everything else … you don't want it to happen, but sometimes unfortunately it does," Elflein added. "It's frustrating. You want it to go as fast as possible, but there's certain protocols you have to follow, doctors and all that. I'm feeling great now."
Elflein did not participate in spring practices or training camp and was activated off the PUP list at the beginning of the 2018 season. He said he focused on 'day-to-day' improvements as he worked his way back.
He practiced on a limited basis for the first two weeks of the season but handled a jump in action this week.
Elflein said part of his comeback was practicing in full and mixing it up in practice this week.
"I haven't been in a game yet, but you try to simulate as much as you can in practice," Elflein said. "I've been trying to do extra reps to almost stimulate a game.
"Obviously, I didn't go through training camp as well, so you have some ground to make up. When you lose that, you have to revert back to the experience you've had, which luckily I got some last year and I can lean on that a little bit," Elflein added. "Everyone kind of gets roped into a game, whether it's them against the 49ers [In Week 1] … it'll be me this game. I'm trying to get broken in."
Of course, it's helped Elflein that he's gone up against the Vikings stout defensive line in practice, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
"Just like it was last year. He's a beast, and it was good," Elflein said with a laugh. "It's the NFL, but there's not many guys like him.
"It's the level of football, but it felt good to go against him and get a rep against an outstanding player," Elflein added. "They're across this league, so that's what you have to do."
When Elflein does his make his return to the field, he'll have a new quarterback under center in Kirk Cousins.
While the two have worked some in practice, Elflein said he has mentally prepared for months for what it's like to play with Cousins.
"We're all in the same meetings together, so that's one big part that I focused on when I can't physically be out there … it's mentally being engaged and being a student of the game," Elflein said. "Instead of putting all my focus on that and the physical part, I turned everything to my rehab and the mental part of the game. We all communicate well and we're all on the same page, so it's been good with Kirk.
"There were times where I wasn't able to physically snap the ball to him [but] I was right there get the mental rep of listening to him," Elflein said. "Then when I got out there and put my hand on the ball, I can revert back to all those mental reps I got. Then the physical reps just kind of come together."
Elflein helped the Vikings rank seventh in the NFL in rushing in 2017 while allowing 27 sacks, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
The Vikings are 1-0-1 in Elflein's absence as Minnesota prepares to host Buffalo on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I wish I was out there, obviously," Elflein said. "But it's been awesome to watch my teammates go to battle and do well.
"I've watched all the hard work they've put in, so seeing it on the field … it felt like I was in it, you know," Elflein added. "It was awesome."