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The future of the Vikings, part 4: Tight ends

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part 4, tight ends…

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Wide receivers 

Kyle Rudolph

What worked

Rudolph has been remarkably consistent.

In each of the last four years, quarterbacks have finished with over a 100 quarterback rating when targeting their long-time tight end. He has averaged between 9.3 and 10.4 yards per reception in every season of his career and has only dropped two passes total since the beginning of the 2017 season.

Overall he finished the year with 64 receptions on just 76 targets, good for an impressive 84.2 percent completion percentage on passes in his direction. Per Pro Football Focus, Kirk Cousins had a 113.5 rating when targeting Rudolph and solid 7.8 yards per attempt.

Football Outsiders ranked him the ninth best tight end in the NFL by Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement.

The veteran tight end was particularly effective on third down, catching 16 of 20 passes and picking up 12 first downs while averaging 12.4 yards per catch.

Rudolph was fantastic on throws between 0-10 yards through the air. He caught 45 of 49 underneath throws for 7.3 yards per attempt.

The 2012 and 2017 Pro Bowler was not a deep target for Cousins, but did have success when targeted beyond 10 yards. On throws between 10-19 yards, Rudolph caught 11 passes on 17 attempts and nabbed four of six attempts traveling over 20 yards.

In 85 snaps as a pass protector, he allowed just two pressures, which was the best mark of his career during a full season.

He was used as a chess piece at times, lining up for 523 plays as a traditional tight end, 324 times in the slot and 68 times as an outside wide receiver.

What didn’t work

At the beginning of the season, it appeared John DeFilippo’s offense would be a good fit for Rudolph. Over the first five weeks of the year he caught 27 passes on 29 targets and scored two touchdowns. From the Vikings’ sixth game until DeFilippo was let go after a Week 14 loss to Seattle — a seven-game span — Rudolph made just 21 grabs on 27 targets and did not score a touchdown.

It’s unclear why Cousins stopped looking to his tight end, especially since the Vikings’ top two receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were routinely getting double teamed. At one point, head coach Mike Zimmer went as far as to mention meeting with Rudolph about his usage.

Rudolph had his biggest game — nine catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns — after the Vikings moved on from DeFilippo.

As has been the case for the majority of Rudolph’s career, run blocking was an issue. PFF ranked him 24th of 28 tight ends with at least 200 run blocking snaps. In 2017, he was 27th of 38 and in 2016 he rated 25th of 26. It might make sense for Stefanski to adapt what the team asks of Rudolph in run blocking.

Best case scenario for 2019

Rudolph’s contract situation will be worth watching. He is currently set to carry a $7.7 million cap hit in 2019. The Vikings could release him without any dead money. Usually that makes for a formula to restructure. However, he is set to hold the ninth highest cap hit among NFL tight ends, which isn’t a far cry from where he ranks talent wise. It could cause friction between Rudolph and the Vikings’ brass if he doesn’t want to re-work the deal. Signing him to an extension would also be dicy considering Rudolph is going to be 30 this year.

Best case for his contract might be a one-year extension that nets him more cash for this year but lowers his cap hit.

Base case on the field is that Rudolph continues to be exactly who he is. There have been few players who are more reliable when the ball is thrown their way.

The Vikings could use an extra weapon at tight end to create mismatches, but they have been hunting for that type of player for years to no avail.

Worst case scenario for 2019

There is a wide range of scenarios that could be problematic. If the Vikings are forced to cut Rudolph to create cap space, he might prove hard to replace. If they do keep him, at 30, injuries and the potential for a lost step are always in play. Or if Rudolph and Cousins can’t find consistent chemistry, there may be some head butting over targets. If they do not find a No. 2 receiving threat, Rudolph will be forced to play 90 percent of plays again and put into the same run blocking situations that have been an issue in the past.

David Morgan

In 2017, Morgan was regularly used by Pat Shurmur and ranked as PFF’s No. 1 run blocking tight end. He did not have the same type of success in 2018. The Vikings’ 2016 sixth-round pick was banged up and missed weeks 10-14 and only played 231 total snaps. On the 1-100 PFF scale, he dropped from an 81.5 to 51.5 from his sophomore season to Year 3.

Morgan has shown the ability to be a weapon in the run game and an occasional outlet in passing situations. Stefanski should make it a priority to use him to the best of is abilities.

Tyler Conklin

Conklin was the latest iteration of Vikings Late-Round, Receiving-First Tight End Club. In Year 1, it was about as effective as such other members of the Late-Round, Receiving-First Tight End Club as MyCole Pruitt and Bucky Hodges. The 2018 fifth-round pick caught five passes for 77 yards in 146 snaps. Without top-notch athleticism, there may be a limited ceiling

Options

This isn’t a bad year for the Vikings to be in need of another tight end. They chased after Jared Cook in free agency last year, but he ultimately signed with the Oakland Raiders. Coming off a 68-catch season with 13.2 yards per reception, Cook is a free agent again. He will be expensive, but maybe not quite as much so as the top receivers on the market. When Cousins was at his peak, Washington had two strong receiving tight ends in Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed.

Baltimore’s Maxx Williams is a younger option. He’s just 25 years old — though his production has been disappointing since a solid rookie year. At one time, Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert would have been a top name, now he’d be worth taking a flier after a rash of injuries. The Bengals’ replacement for Eifert C.J. Uzomah caught 43 passes and is also a free agent.

There are a number of quality prospects in the draft, so the Vikings could go a similar route as the Eagles in 2018 when they drafted Dallas Goedert despite already having Zach Ertz. CBS Sports has six tight ends in their top 100 prospects, including likely first-round pick Noah Fant, who caught 39 passes for the Hawkeyes last year. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. has a second-round grade.





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