Minnesota Vikings positional breakdown: Tight ends

The Vikings have plenty of questions at tight end with Rhett Ellison trying to return from injury and a numbers game for roster spots at the position.

The Minnesota Vikings have drafted a tight end each of the past two seasons, which has added a lot of depth to an already talented group. There are some questions surrounding the position heading into training camp, but it shouldn’t be too long before they all get sorted out.

On the roster: Kyle Carter, Rhett Ellison, Brian Leonhardt, David Morgan, MyCole Pruitt, Kyle Rudolph

Projected starter: Kyle Rudolph

When healthy, Rudolph has the ability to be one of the top tight ends in the NFL. He is 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, which makes him a nightmare for anyone trying to cover him over the middle, and having such a big target to throw to makes him a favorite among his quarterbacks.

The problem is that he has struggled staying healthy over the course of his career. In his five NFL seasons, he has only played in all 16 regular season games twice. The worst of it came in 2013, when he only played in eight regular season games, and then in 2014, when he only played in nine. He seemed to be able to turn things around last season, though, as he played in all 16.

Not only did Rudolph play in every game last season, but he also became one of Teddy Bridgewater’s favorite targets late in the year, recording a total of 49 receptions for 495 yards and five touchdowns. The two built a good rapport after head coach Mike Zimmer told Bridgewater to trust his tight end more. He listened to the coach and now they will be looking to carry that success over into the 2016 season.

Even though he started to turn things around later in the season in terms of catching the ball, he seemed to struggle with blocking throughout the year. This has always been a work in progress in his game, which is a little surprising given his size. Pro Football Focus gave Rudolph a grade of 45.7 in run blocking and 44.9 in pass blocking, both some of the lowest grades in the NFL.

Since blocking has never been a strength of Rudolph’s game, they like to utilize some of their other tight ends to help out. Ellison is often viewed as their best blocking tight end, receiving a grade of 60.5 for run blocking and 78.9 for pass blocking from PFF. The issue with him this year is he is trying to come back from a torn patellar tendon, which he suffered in the final regular season game last season.

Keep an eye on

Vikings’ young tight ends: Last year, the Vikings drafted Pruitt in the fifth round. He was a very versatile player in college and set the Missouri Valley Football Conference record for career receptions (211), receiving yards (2,601) and receiving touchdowns (25) for tight ends. Despite that production in college, he did not make much of an impact as a rookie. He primarily only worked in three-tight end sets, recording 10 receptions for 89 yards.

Despite having Rudolph, Ellison and Pruitt already on the roster, the Vikings decided to draft Morgan this spring. Morgan became a go-to pass-catching option for his college quarterbacks, but his real strength was as a run blocker. PFF even graded him as the best run blocking tight end in the nation last season.

It is going to be interesting to see how the Vikings utilize these two young players this season and in years to come. There is a lot of depth at the tight end position and it’s going to be difficult for everyone to get equal playing time, but if the young players take advantage of their limited snaps they could begin to see their roles increase.

Ellison bouncing back: Ellison’s primary role in the Vikings offense is that of a blocking tight end, which means that leg strength and leverage is an important part of his game. A knee injury can be a tricky thing to come back from for that reason and he will need to learn how to trust his knee again once he gets back onto the football field.

There may be some ups and downs for him in training camp and the preseason as he begins to come back from that injury – he didn’t participate in offseason workouts – and you can be sure the Vikings will take their time easing him back in.

Expected outcome

Kyle Rudolph is going to remain the Vikings’ No. 1 option at tight end and will receive a majority of the snaps. If Ellison is able to fully recover from his knee injury, then he will likely resume the role he had a year ago as the No. 2 tight end who comes in to help support the offensive line in run- and pass-blocking situations.

It’s hard to see the Vikings keeping more than three tight ends on their roster because they are limited to 53 spots and if they do keep four they will have to cut back on the amount of players they keep at another position. That means Pruitt and Morgan will have to compete with one another for the third spot and then the team will likely try to stash the other one away on the practice squad.

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