In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected Irv Smith Jr. to be their tight end of the future. Many have waited for Smith to take over Kyle Rudolph‘s starting role as an athletic tight end and become a prominent player in the Vikings’ offense.
While Smith is certain to have a bigger role in 2021, he may not have been the player the Vikings were searching for. Instead, that guy was selected three rounds after Smith and ascended during the final weeks of the 2020 season.
That player was Tyler Conklin.
At 6’3”, 254 lbs, Conklin is smaller than Rudolph but has plenty of athleticism. While his 40-yard dash ranked in the 44th percentile of the 2018 draft class, his MockDraftable profile out of Central Michigan matched other successful tight ends, including Detroit’s T.J. Hockenson and Tennessee’s Jonnu Smith.
While the fifth-round pick (157th overall) had the athleticism to play a big role, he never got the opportunity. He had 13 receptions for 135 yards during his first two years in the NFL and recorded nine catches for 66 yards in the first 12 games of 2020. Things were not looking great for Conklin early in the season, but an opportunity opened for him in Week 14 when Rudolph went down with a foot injury.
Conklin teamed with Smith to form a viable tight end tandem for next season in the final four games. While Smith put up a solid line with 15 receptions, 183 yards, and three touchdowns, Conklin put up comparable numbers.
His 168 yards were ninth among NFL tight ends in the final four games. He tied Smith and ranked seventh in the NFL with 15 receptions. With 1.58 yards per route run, he was more effective than Smith in the passing game (1.55 YPRR), becoming a trusted target for Kirk Cousins.
That production seems insignificant, but it is an upgrade compared to Rudolph over the past two seasons. Last season, Rudolph recorded 1.35 yards per route run, which ranked 23rd among qualifying tight ends — and that is an improvement of Rudolph’s 2019 season, where he averaged 1.09 yards per route run.
His 2019 rate was 32nd among qualifiers and contradicts Rudolph’s theory that he’s been utilized wrong as a blocker. His poor yards per route run suggests Rudolph wasn’t effective when getting the opportunity, which Conklin was down the stretch.
With Rudolph recording 28 catches, 334 yards, and one touchdown in an offense that was begging for a third option, it’s weird that he didn’t have an impact similar to Conklin’s. If we extrapolated Conklin’s final quarter run over a 16-game season, he would have wound up with 60 catches for 672 yards and four touchdowns, which would have dwarfed Rudolph’s production in the final season.
Smith’s and Conklin’s ability to generate offense together should mean good things for the Vikings. Smith can play the athletic-move tight end role and act as a third receiver, while Conklin can replace Rudolph’s contributions. This would require improvement from Conklin as a blocker but would let the team clear $8 million in salary cap space by making Rudolph a post-June 1 cut.
Conklin isn’t a player who will take the league by storm in 2021, but if he can replace Rudolph, it’s another positive development for the Vikings.