Vikings vs. NFC North: Tight ends

The Vikings are hoping for a rebound season from Kyle Rudolph, but they don’t rank at the top of the division for tight ends.

1. Chicago Bears
Starter: Martellus Bennett
Key Backups: Dante Rosario
At the beginning of last season, Bennett may have been one of the best tight ends in the NFL, not just the NFC North. In the first four games of 2014 he had recorded 29 receptions for 295 yards and four touchdowns. He was not able to keep that pace and his performance dropped off a bit, but he still had big games from time to time.

By the end of the regular season, Bennett had recorded 90 receptions for 916 yards and six touchdowns. It was by far the best season he has had in his seven years in the league, setting career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. At the end of the season he had set a team record for most receptions by a tight end and was named to the Pro Bowl, replacing Rob Gronkowski, who could not participate because of his involvement in the Super Bowl.

At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, Bennett creates matchup problems for defenses down the middle of the field and especially in the red zone. His height gives him the ability to get to the ball at it’s highest point easier than most other players, and it also gives him the ability to go up and get passes that other players just cannot reach.

He was originally a second-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, and after spending four years with them and a year with the New York Giants he has seemingly found a good fit in Chicago. At the age of 28 he should still have a few good years left in him to further help his team.

Rosario has been an NFL journeyman throughout his career, spending time in Carolina, Denver, San Diego and now Chicago. He has never been the type of player to produce big numbers – 16 receptions for 116 yards in 2014 – and is used more as a blocking tight end.

2. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Kyle Rudolph
Key Backups: Rhett Ellison, MyCole Pruitt
When Rudolph is healthy he has the ability to be a top-tier tight end in the NFL. The problem, though, is that in his four years as a pro he has played in all 16 games once. And the last two seasons he has played in a total of 17 games. If he is ever going to be considered one of the best tight ends in the league, he is going to have to figure out how to remain on the field.

Rudolph creates matchup problems for opponents’ defenses. He is athletic, a good route runner, and comes in at 6-6, 259 pounds, which makes him difficult for defenders to cover. He also has good hands and can catch balls in traffic and away from his body.

Rudolph was originally a second-round draft pick in 2011 and will turn 26 years old during the regular season. If he is able to stay healthy and remain on the field he will continue to be a weapon for the Vikings for years to come, especially since the team gave him a five-year extension in 2014.

Ellison was a fourth-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2012 and is not the kind of player who will put up big numbers or make flashy plays. He is a hard-working, blue-collar type of player that is going to do whatever he is asked. He is primarily used as a blocking tight end, but will go out for passes on occasion and fight for extra yards every time he touches the ball.

The Vikings drafted another tight end in 2015, which has given them plenty of youth at the position and should give them a solid base for years to come. The versatility that Pruitt provides the team should make an impact at some point during the season.

3. Detroit Lions
Starter: Eric Ebron
Key Backups: Brandon Pettigrew
When it comes to the Lions, it is hard to tell who their No. 1 tight end is going to be at the start of the season. Pettigrew was a first-round draft pick back in 2009, but he has underperformed since being drafted. His best season came in 2011 when we recorded 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns, but since then his performance has significantly decreased.

It reached an all-time low last season when he recorded 10 receptions for 70 yards and no touchdowns in 14 games. With his amount of targets decreasing since the 2011 season, it seems as though the Lions are beginning to move away from Pettigrew.

Enter Ebron. The Lions selected Ebron in the first round of the 2014 draft, much like they did with Pettigrew in 2009. It was expected that Ebron would come in, work hard, eventually win the starting job and make an impact on the team. But as the season continued to roll on, it was clear that was not happening.

He recorded 25 receptions for 248 yards and one touchdown in 13 games, clearly not the type of production the Lions were looking for when they spent a first-round pick on him. They are going to look for him to make a big turnaround in 2015 or they might be looking for a new tight end once again.

Ebron showed in college that he has the ability to be a playmaker, and at the ripe old age of 22 he still has plenty of time to figure things out and make an impact for years to come. What he does not have going for him, however, is that the NFL has become a win now type of league and if you don’t produce quickly teams are often quick to find your replacement.

4. Green Bay Packers
Starter: Andrew Quarless
Key Backups: Richard Rodgers
The Packers have a very dynamic passing attack with their wide receivers and their quarterback, so there is not a big need to have their tight end be a playmaker. Instead they need a player who is reliable, able to block well and can make a play in short-yardage situations or in the red zone when they are asked to.

Clearly the team feels comfortable with the job that Quarless has been doing because they have not sought out a replacement for him. In 2014 he recorded career highs in receiving yards (323) and touchdowns (3), all coming off 29 receptions in 16 games. The fact that he was on the field in all 16 games shows that he is being used and the lack of receiving stats suggests that he is being used more as a blocking tight end.

Rodgers seems to be a younger version of Quarless and a player that the Packers could be hoping will take over the starting role one day. Both players are 6-4 and there are only a couple pounds separating them from being the same weight. The big difference is that Quarless is 26, will be 27 in October, and Rodgers is 23, will be 24 in January.

Rodgers also played in all 16 games in 2014 and recorded 20 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns.

Having two players who are very similar to one another does not give the Packers very many options with what they can do at the tight end position. But that clearly does not affect them very much because they continue to win games – and the division – and their passing attack continues to be one of the best in the NFL.

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