Vikings’ deep pre-camp preview: Tight ends

The Vikings will have to make a decision on Kyle Rudolph’s future in the next nine months, but he is already easily the best-paid tight end in a group that doesn’t carry much salary relative to the rest of the NFL’s tight end groups. But using metrics shows another winner among the Vikings’ tight ends.

The players: Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, A.C. Leonard, Allen Reisner.

Positional spending: With Rudolph in the final year of his rookie contract, and the rest of the group either in low-level free-agent deals or also in their rookie contracts, the Vikings rank 30th in tight end spending, according to overthecap.com, with only $3.03 million in cap space committed to the position in 2014. That will change, as Rudolph is likely to double that number on his own if he can work out a long-term deal with the Vikings, which he has consistently said throughout this offseason would be the ideal circumstance for him.

When the Vikings were still in their offseason camp mode, nothing significant had been happening with working out an extension for Rudolph, and he admitted early in the process that the Vikings understandably would want to be sure he has healed from foot injury and how he fits into the new offensive scheme being implemented by coordinator Norv Turner.

Rudolph only has a cap number of $1.47 million and has averaged $1.57 million on his rookie deal, which doesn’t even rank him in the top 32 tight ends in the league when it comes to money.

With John Carlson released, no other Vikings tight end besides Rudolph has a cap number above $700,000.

Last year: With Rudolph missing the final eight games because of a fractured foot, Carlson was asked to take on a bigger role and ended up edging Rudolph for the receptions lead among tight ends, 32 to 30. Carlson ended with 344 yards and Rudolph 313, but Rudolph had three touchdowns to Carlson’s one. Ford and Ellison had only bit roles in the receiving game, with Ford catching 11 passes and Ellison five.

The outlook: The roster security and playing time of any of the tight ends not named Rudolph will depend on the roster numbers with fullbacks and maybe even running backs. Ellison’s ability to shift into the backfield and be a lead blocker increases his value and potentially decreases the need for a pure fullback. Ford and Leonard could be left to battle for the pass-catching role opposite Rudolph.

Deep stats: Although he didn’t catch more than a handful of passes during the season, Ellison was one of the most effective Vikings in helping the passing game and running game with his blocking. His 1.0 Net Yards over Average (NYoA) was the best among the tight ends and the best among Vikings with significant playing time. That stat measures the net yardage gained by the team while the player was on the field over a rolling six-year league average, factoring in field position, down and distance. Ellison played in just over 28 percent of the offensive snaps.

While Carlson ended up being the most-used tight end, playing in 47 percent of the snaps because of Rudolph’s midseason injury, he was the least effective using the NYoA statistics, with the Vikings gaining minus-0.15 yards per play with him than the six-year league average. Rudolph was only slightly better.

Ellison was easily the best in rushing differential, with the Vikings gaining 0.64 yards more per rush with him on the field versus him off the field. All other tight ends were either nearly neutral in that stat (Ford) or decidedly negative (Rudolph and Carlson).

Surprisingly, Rudolph was the only tight end that had a negative passing differential, with Carlson just above neutral and Ellison (1.45 yards more per pass play) and Ford (0.86) both showing well.

Breakout possibility: Rudolph was on his way to another solid season before fracturing his foot in the eighth game of 2013. A 750-yard season should not only be a hope, rather an expectation, for the good-hands tight end that is in a contract year.

Sleeper potential: Leonard went undrafted, likely because of off-the-field issues in college, but has 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash and showed loads of pass-catching talent in practices from April through June. If he extends that into the preseason, he will be awfully hard to cut.


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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