What Are Reasonable Expectations For Tyler Conklin?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings entered the season with a solid plan at the tight end position. Kyle Rudolph left a significant void. Contract issues and declining play sent him to the New York Giants, and the Vikings’ offense was ready to make some seismic adjustments at the position.

Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak built an air attack based around two of the league’s best wide receivers, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Hybrid tight end Irv Smith Jr. would fill both the run-blocking and WR3 roles. Smith was a promising prospect coming out of the draft, and fans were excited to see him blossom after two years of development.

While the power air offense was a solid plan that many teams use (see: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, etc.), the Vikings still had to prove they could piece together the same winning gameplan. However, that changed when Smith went out with a meniscus injury that required surgery, leaving the Vikings with an inexperienced depth chart and uncertainty about who would step in.

The first choice was Tyler Conklin.

Minnesota took Conklin in the sixth round of the 2018 draft, and he has seen sporadic play over the past three seasons. While his stats aren’t gonna top any analyst’s charts, his experience with the team was enough to push him into the starting role. Did the Vikings set up Conklin for success in the best way they could have? Not necessarily. Conklin is a big guy who plays his position more traditionally than a hybrid wide receiver like Smith. However, he is meshing in with the team and only needs to clean up some minor errors here and there.

Other options for the Vikings include Hawley, Minn. native Ben Ellefson, a recent addition to the team. After being undrafted, he spent a year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, gaining minimal on-the-field experience, and was looking for another shot. Spielman traded a sixth-round pick to the New York Jets for Chris Herndon and a fourth-round pick. After starting 25 games in three seasons, Herndon always showed high upside as a physical player who can shine in the receiving game. However, as with most players who cycle through the Jets’ organization, Herndon still had some things to work out to become an impact player. Moving forward with Conklin was the safe play for the Vikings.

Conklin has been solid through the first few games. There are some penalties and some inability to break away from coverage, but replacing Smith Jr. on short notice is no easy task. With Conklin assignments, fans can be satisfied an occasional catch and efficient run-blocking. It’s fair to say that we can disregard blocking when matched up against the league’s top defensive ends like Myles Garrett because even the best left tackles in the game can struggle to keep him in front of them. What we are getting is a serviceable backup who is filling in for somebody else’s role, and he is doing it at half the price of Smith.

Conkin’s goal this year should be to stay consistent. While the options below him at tight end have significant downsides, he is not immune to competition. I’m sure Herndon would love a shot to take the starting role, seeing as his resumé is arguably better than Conklin’s. Conklin should also keep his off-field work ethic at an all-time high. Any potential opportunity for scrutiny is dangerous for the chances of a second-stringer to maintain his playing time. One major way that Conklin could stay relevant is to reduce the number of penalties he commits. If there is a defensive end he can’t block, he should start communicating this with the team to make adjustments as the game goes on.

A little competition might bring out the best in Conklin. If Herndon or Ellefson were to get some additional playing time, it would force Conklin to elevate his play. As Conklin improves, his involvement in the scheme should become more apparent. The Vikings would love to see improvements to get more bang for their buck from a second-stringer.

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