The Vikings returned their top three tight ends from a season ago and added another in the draft in addition to a pair of prospects. Minnesota has long been searching for another offensive weapon to pair with Kyle Rudolph at tight end. Is he in this group? Let’s take a look.

PRESUMED STARTER

KYLE RUDOLPH

In 2015, Kyle Rudolph was targeted 73 times and caught 59 passes for 495 yards and 1.22 yards per route run. In 2016, he exploded for 840 receiving yards on an incredible 132 targets – 1.56 yards per route run. Last year, he fell back down to 1.33 yards per route run but broke 500 yards yet again, with 532 yards on 81 targets. While many think that the addition of Kirk Cousins and John DeFilippo will result in a resurgence of tight end targets, it’ll ultimately be on Kyle Rudolph to earn those.

Strengths: Savvy route-runner with a variety of capable routes and a slew of available techniques. Good hand technique against press and excellent deception through route, often wrong-shouldering the linebackers and safeties he’s lined up against. Maintains route depth and timing against contact. High-points the ball well. Improved drop rate – has been low from 2015 to 2017 (fifth of 30 tight ends with at least 80 catchable balls). Extends outside of his frame and generates good catch radius. Has created explosion at the break that gives him an extra bit of separation that he’d been missing for a long time. Great upper-body strength.

Weaknesses: Inconsistent run blocker, but has been worse every year since 2014 – 66th of 72 tight ends in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades in 2017. His strength and size gives him a lot of tools to work with, but he cannot manage leverage well and plays too high. Has issues getting his hands inside the defender, exacerbating leverage issues. Blocking angles also cause problems, allowing defenders to slip by at the line of scrimmage or at the second level. Limited downfield speed, and very poor production outside of the red zone.

LIKELY BACKUPS

DAVID MORGAN II

Having only taken 60-odd snaps in 2016, Morgan was poised for a significant role in 2017. The Vikings asked a lot of him – 431 snaps – and he remains the Vikings’ top option as a blocking tight end heading into the next season. There isn’t much depth on the roster, and the Vikings may ask even more of Morgan this year as a result, especially given the tight end tendencies many have identified in Cousins and DeFilippo.

Strengths: Experienced route-runner with an excellent repertoire of routes—has run traditional routes for outside receivers, slot receivers and in-line tight ends. Phenomenal hands catcher who rarely, if ever, dropped the ball in college and attacks the ball with good technique and aggressiveness. He moves smoothly through his routes. Comfortable shielding the ball and taking hits in the passing game. Understands blocking angles well, and is equally comfortable sealing the edge as he is driving a defensive end off the ball. Demonstrates good timing and handfighting ability. Hand placement is on point. Astounding special teams player with an excellent understanding of assignment and role. Surprising upper body strength.

Weaknesses: Extremely slow for a tight end, having run a 5.02 40. On tape, looks possibly even more sluggish. Difficult to evaluate route-running because the speed is such an issue. Doesn’t create space with arms through the route or use other advanced route-running techniques to make up for speed issues. Does not demonstrate agility or significant YAC ability. Can be slow to fire after the snap; might be missing snap counts. Can lose balance at times. Sometimes doesn’t uncoil hips and loses lower body drive; can be squeezed into lanes.

TYLER CONKLIN

Every biography of Tyler Conklin mentions his basketball background, which is pretty en vogue for tight ends. He was unrecruited out of high school as a football player but earned a Division II basketball scholarship. He left basketball to be a walk-on in football and that paid dividends, earning 15 percent of his team’s receiving yards despite missing the first few weeks because of an injury (an astounding 26 percent in games he played).

Strengths: Basketball background comes through with short-area quickness, footwork and body positioning. Great at the catch point and does a good job looking the ball in, framing the catch and generally demonstrating good catch technique. Given his ball-tracking, he should be a red zone threat. Played a variety of roles for Central Michigan – slot, outside and in-line. Solid route-runner with technique to sink hips and wherewithal to tell a good story and deceive linebackers to get open. Good use of arms to generate separation on the release, at the stem and at the catch point. Can power through tackles. Knows how to set up blocks and blocking angles.

Weaknesses: Suffered Jones fracture before the 2017 season that clearly impacted his speed. Speed is probably always going to be an issue and won’t likely get open deep except in specific scenarios. Despite inherent quickness, can get caught up on 90-degree-or-larger turns on routes, taking too many steps or taking too long to set up his break. Not a technically sound or successful blocker. Needs to improve punch timing, hip coil and grip strength. Though he has a good head for preventing catches from becoming contested, he will often lose the contested catches themselves.

DEPTH

BLAKE BELL

A converted quarterback, Blake Bell has transitioned to being a tight end and occasional trick-play specialist. In college, was a multicapable threat who was an alright college passer but carried with him the added dimension of his athleticism. In the NFL, he’s mostly had to focus on learning the difficult dynamics of his new position – something he started in his final year of college but clearly needed more work.

Strengths: Much stronger than one would expect given his original position. Can turn defensive players with his grip and upper-body torque. Good runner after the catch with solid balance. Great lateral movement ability. Fast learner through a tough development curve in college and the NFL. Has a good feel for catching the ball and positioning for the catch.

Weaknesses: Incredibly raw. Takes poor angles to blocks. Doesn’t uncoil into blocks. Poor hand placement and punch timing – an issue he actually dealt well with in college. Doesn’t deal well with secondary moves. Was often the point of failure on run plays. “Very athletic for a quarterback” doesn’t always translate to “athletic for a tight end” – ran a 4.80 40-yard dash and jumped 33” in the vert.

JOSIAH PRICE

(UPDATE: Price was waived Tuesday afternoon when the team signed C J.P. Quinn.)

It’s somewhat surprising that Price was invited back to the roster; he only had 24 snaps in the preseason and they weren’t particularly successful snaps – 0 receiving yards and a poor blocking performance. Still, his performance as a blocking tight end at Michigan State was exemplary and he accounted for about 15 percent of his team’s receiving yards – about average for a receiving tight end, and fantastic for a blocking end. He also did some backup long-snapping for the Vikings in camp.

Strengths: At Michigan State, demonstrated powerful blocking and did a good job hitting his marks at the second level and clearing the way. Should be able to translate his overall hand placement and lower body strength. Punch timing in college was good. Most of his production at MSU was in the red zone, and he presents a big target. Excellent catching technique and big hands, giving him a very low drop rate (5.0 percent in 2016) despite difficult assignments. Creates a frame for the quarterback and attacks the ball. Purported high football intelligence, including a complex understanding of blocking assignments, run lanes and blocking angles.

Weaknesses: Not much of an open-field threat. Limited downfield speed, quickness issues and problems maintaining the route path through contact make him unreliable for more than being an outlet pass. Doesn’t demonstrate many yards after the catch despite adequate vision. Displays some technical understanding as a route-runner, but doesn’t possess the deceptive capability of many tight ends or the inherent quickness necessary to generate separation.


NEXT POSITION –> Offensive Tackles
ALL POSITIONS

Check out the rest of the training camp guide:

Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
How to Watch Training Camp Drills
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)


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