Tyler Conklin Has Found His Niche

Photo Credit: Raj Mehta (USA TODAY Sports)

There weren’t many expectations for Tyler Conklin when the Minnesota Vikings took him in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Rick Spielman had a habit of selecting late-round tight ends who were viewed as raw prospects that needed time to develop. Bucky Hodges and MyCole Pruitt come to mind.

Conklin was no different, spending most of his early career sitting on the bench behind players who had already carved out roles on the team. Like most players drafted in the later rounds, Conklin needed to improve certain aspects of his game before coaches would consider trotting him out onto the field. His routes weren’t as sharp as Kyle Rudolph’s. His blocking ability wasn’t at the level of someone like David Morgan. And he needed to add bulk to his frame before seeing significant minutes at the professional level.

Despite his flaws, Conklin possessed a lot of the skills necessary to make a living on an NFL roster. He knew how to run routes even if they weren’t the most precise, he was a willing blocker even if his technique could’ve used improvement, and his slight frame didn’t affect his ability to grab 50/50 balls because of his above-average leaping ability. It seemed as though his positive traits canceled out any major weaknesses that would’ve prevented him from making an impact in the NFL. 

Conklin was an overlooked player who could excel in the right situation, and the Vikings were the perfect fit. In addition to having the benefit of not being rushed into the starting lineup, he got to sit behind a player who shared many of the same strengths and weaknesses — Kyle Rudolph.

Like Conklin, Rudolph was a multi-sport athlete who played basketball in high school. With that come skills like good hands and body control. Both players were lacking in top speed and weren’t the most efficient blockers. Granted, Rudolph entered the draft at a higher pedigree and was selected in the second round, but the similarities are evident. 

A big reason why I think the Vikings took a chance on Conklin is because he showed shades of Rudolph, whose skill set translated well at the NFL level. When a team is drafting in the later rounds, they’re looking for traits and intangibles that increase the likelihood of a player making it onto an NFL roster. Rudolph and Conklin fit that mold because of their versatility; both can be considered jacks of all trades but masters of none.

It took three years before Conklin moved up the Vikings’ depth chart. Rudolph was released and Irv Smith Jr was set to be his replacement. Fans were excited to see what Smith could do in an expanded role, which prompted Zimmer to clarify how Rudolph’s departure would affect the offense. Turns out, it would be Conklin who saw his role increase, filling the gap Rudolph left.

It’s still early in the season, but the Vikings’ offense has been performing well. Conklin deserves some of the credit for that. He has performed so well that it’s easy to forget that Rudolph ever left. That could be partly due to how similar their styles are, but filling the shoes of a former first-rounder who also happens to be one of the best tight ends in franchise history is no easy task.

When Smith suffered a season-ending injury, the Vikings traded for former New York Jets TE Chris Herndon and a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fourth-rounder. The Vikings paid a fair amount in draft capital to acquire him for a player who only had one promising season in the Meadowlands before losing the starting job. 

Usually, that would spell doom for a player like Conklin trying to prove his worth to the team. However, through three weeks of regular season play, Herndon has yet to make much of an impact. That could change as he learns the playbook, but only time will tell.

A former fifth-round pick out of Central Michigan, Conklin has already exceeded fans’ expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised if he solidifies himself as the team’s go-to target at tight end for the remainder of the season. Either way, Conklin seems to have found his niche in the Vikings’ offense.

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