What to Make of Vikings’ Tight Ends

Dec 17, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (82) celebrates his touchdown with tight end David Morgan II (89) in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Wave of two of free agency is in full force, and many contenders are staying active post-draft. While the Vikings are essentially out of the running for any acquisitions, they managed to make the rumor mill rounds anyway. The weekend began with an Ian Rapoport report that they and Kyle Rudolph have broken off extension talks.

That revelation throws quite the wrench into projections for the Vikings 53-man roster. It does not necessarily mean Rudolph is out and the three young guys are in. But it does open up a can of worms with regards to Rudolph’s future in Minnesota. Suddenly, it appears he could be a trade target in order to open up cap space to finish rookie signings. Or it could simply mean the Vikings go full speed ahead with the veteran roster this year, and then let him walk next season to start the era of Irv Smith.

The Vikings’ possibilities at tight end this season are vast. Smith seems to be the only lock to make the roster out of camp, given his recent draft position and his potential value as a downfield threat. Aside from Smith and Rudolph, there is David Morgan, a 2016 sixth-round pick that has thrived as the primary blocking tight end, and Tyler Conklin, a 2018 fifth-round pick. Neither have provided substantial help in the passing game, but both have flashed enough to suggest they could take on an expanded role. Morgan is an especially good short area route runner who ran a sub-seven three-cone drill at the combine in 2016. Conklin, meanwhile, progressed substantially as a blocker and made a handful of plays downfield in year one.

But the real question is what would the Vikings lose if any of these guys are traded or cut? And then in turn, can Irv Smith replace those losses adequately?

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First, let’s look at blocking. Rudolph has not been a particularly good blocker in Minnesota, while Morgan has been exceptional. Conklin is developing but improving in that area, and has good power and explosion from a three-point stance. At Alabama, Smith’s blocking came more from the wing or as a fullback than in-line. His quickness and technique made him effective in this role, but his relative lack of size could be a concern as he is forced to engage bigger linemen without a head of steam.

Then there is the receiving aspect. Rudolph and Morgan each provide very different strengths and styles to the passing game. Rudolph has obviously been a mainstay as a receiving threat, particularly in the red zone. He has 41 touchdowns since the Vikings drafted him in 2011, after all. But between the 20s, he has his games where he disappears. His last three seasons have been his best statistically, as he has fallen more in line with what the modern day tight end is as a consistent safety net. At the same time, however, Rudolph is at his best when he can use his 6-foot-6 frame to high point smaller linebackers and safeties.

Morgan and Conklin have far less production under the belt, but are also young enough to project further steps. Morgan has been virtually a non-factor downfield in three seasons with just 8.4 yards per reception on 16 catches. Most of his receptions come from leaking underneath on bootlegs and throw backs, while occasionally working the quick, intermediate level. Conklin brings more as a downfield target, recording 15.4 yards per reception on five catches his rookie season. But as the third tight end last year, his reps were limited and it is to be seen exactly what he can provide as a consistent pass catcher.

The downfield game is where Smith will set himself a part. None of the other Vikings tight ends bring that on a consistent basis. Last season, Smith finished with 44 catches and seven touchdowns with 16.1 yards per reception as a part of an explosive Alabama offense. While his shorter frame and modest short area quickness may limit him early on in the red zone and as a first level target, Smith’s ability to burn and track the deep ball should make him a mismatch right away.

So in essence, all four tight ends bring vastly different skill sets to the table. Should any one of them leave, it could be tough to replace their game, even if Smith brings excitement to the position.

–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.

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