The period immediately after the draft, right before rookie minicamp, is usually when most of us have our highest expectations for the incoming crop of draft picks and UDFAs.
Is Kellen Mond a franchise-caliber quarterback? Will Ihmir Smith-Marsette sure up both the return and WR3 slot? Could Wyatt Davis turn into an All-Pro level guard who can help fix the interior offensive line?
These are some of the popular headline-grabbing questions that have been surrounding the Minnesota Vikings since the draft. While it is fair to focus on the 11 players selected through the draft because they are most likely to make an early impact on the team, I want to focus on one key UDFA pickup who could compete for a roster spot.
If the name Shane Zylstra sounds familiar, it should.
His older brother Brandon played on for the Vikings in 2018 before being claimed off waivers by the Carolina Panthers, where he has featured prominently as a special teams player.
Shane is following in his brother’s footsteps by inking his first-ever NFL contract with his hometown team. He is also following Adam Thielen‘s path, becoming the second pass-catcher to sign with the Vikings out of Minnesota State Mankato.
Shane Zylstra shattered records during his time with the Mavericks. Two years ago, he set multiple single-season records, hauling in 81 catches for 1,676 yards and 18 touchdowns while playing in 15 games. He had 227 catches, 4,297 yards, and 54 touchdowns in his career, all individual records, on his way to a spot on the second-team all-decade squad for Division II football.
While these numbers from the Spicer-born receiver are impressive, the Vikings have more interest in him as a tight end, announcing their plans to move him to that position for the season. While this move might be a surprise, it offers him the best chance to crack Minnesota’s roster.
At 6’5”, he already has the height to play the position, but he is looking to add to his 215-pound frame that might be a bit undersized for the position.
The Vikings have an opening at the WR3 spot for this upcoming season, but the competition looks to be a bit chaotic, with players like Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe and Smith-Marsette all set to compete for playing time. Conversely, the competition for the third tight end spot is far more open.
Since Kyle Rudolph‘s departure to the New York Giants in the offseason, Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin are set to inherit more prominent roles in an offense that operates its base personnel out of a two-tight end set. Conklin and Smith proved to be useful offensive weapons down the stretch last season, but there is no solidified third option who could step in if one of them gets injured.
Zylstra will compete with this year’s fifth-round pick Zach Davidson and 2019 UDFA pickup Brandon Dillon. While Davidson probably has the inside track to get the job and has more upside with his 6’7″, 245 lbs. frame, Zylstra has far more experience as a pass-catcher. Davidson has only played the position for two years and only had one season with meaningful production.
While the transition for Zylstra will be tough, he has already taken the initiative to learn the position, working out with former University of Minnesota and NFL tight end MarQueis Gray to further his knowledge of the position.
If there is a franchise that believes that they can turn a 33-year-old quarterback who hasn’t played football in nine years into a third tight end, why can’t the Vikings do the same with a 22-year-old wideout with record-breaking college production?
While yes, there will be a significant discrepancy in the level of competition in the NFL, Zylstra was so dominant in college that he will be able to adapt quickly and adjust once he gets to camp.
If Zylstra can impress in Eagan and the preseason, it is reasonable to say that the Vikings could look to keep him on the roster as a third tight end while he continues to learn the position and develop as a player.