For 13 years, Jim Kleinsasser was considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.
But with Kleinsasser's retirement earlier this year, the Vikings were looking for a replacement. What they have concluded is that it may take more than one person to replace his blocking prowess. In addition, because there is no tight end on the roster with Kleinsasser's blocking abilities, the Vikings made some revisions to the playbook, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave admitted.
"We do. We talked about Jim a bunch this offseason and it may take two players to replace Jim, because he could do a bunch of great fullback jobs as well as do a superior job on the line of scrimmage controlling a big run-stuffing defensive end (while) playing the tight end position," Musgrave said. "So we will want to make sure to do the schemes that fit our personnel and aren't just our favorite plays because Jim made them successful in the past."
That's a lot of impact for a nationally underrated but locally appreciated tight end from North Dakota. As part of his replacement package, the Vikings signed another regional product – Litchfield, Minnesota's John Carlson, who became available in free agency.
While the Vikings were willing to spend $25 million on a five-year contract to entice Carlson out of a free-agent visit with the Kansas City Chiefs and into signing mode with his home-state team, Carlson has consistently admitted that he is no Jim Kleinsasser when it comes to blocking.
Carlson's forte, as the coaching staff knows, is his receiving ability. As a rookie, he caught more passes, 55, than any other tight end in Seattle Seahawks history. The following year, he put his name in second place on that list, as well, with a 51-catch season. He also has the top two yardage marks by a Seahawks tight end, with 627 as a rookie and 574 in 2009.
Even with those accomplishments, he might end up finishing second in tight end production this year, as second-year pro Kyle Rudolph is flashing some big potential as a pass-catcher, too.
"So far we have had limited exposure to John, we haven't put the pads on yet, but John is a little bit quicker and smaller in stature, where Kyle is taller and has a longer strides," Musgrave said. "Both of them are extremely smart and extremely competitive. We are so glad that we can devise some things with both of them on the field at once."
Kleinsasser's value came in his versatility. Although he was never as fast or elusive as Rudolph or Carlson, he would usually catch the limited number of passes thrown his way and could play tight end, fullback or H-back. That's where the multiple replacement players are needed.
Fourth-round draft pick Rhett Ellison might eventually bulk up and become a valued blocker, but for now his body appears to need some time to mature, leaving the blocking duties in assisting the offensive line up to a few different options at fullback.
Jerome Felton has the upper hand at the outset, taking the first-team reps. Behind him are convert college linebacker Ryan D'Imperio and a developing second-year player in Matt Asiata. Likely only one will be kept on the active roster.
While Kleinsasser filled several different roles for the Vikings, he was on the field the least of the three main tight ends – Visanthe Shiancoe, Rudolph and Kleinsasser. Shiancoe, who left for New England via free agency, dominated the snap count for the tight ends last year, with Rudolph finishing a distant second but still ahead of Kleinsasser.
"Last year was a different team and a different dynamic. This year we definitely want to maximize their potential without wearing them down to a nub," Musgrave said when asked about getting Rudolph more involved.
Quarterback Christian Ponder called his pass-catching tight ends "a quarterback's best friend" when under pressure, but he may need them to pick up some blocking assignments along the way in the absence of Kleinsasser.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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