2014 Vikings draft preview: Tight ends

The Minnesota Vikings released expensive veteran John Carlson and have 2012 Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph and emerging blocker Rhett Ellison returning. It'd be a surprise if they spent an early pick on a tight end.

North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron ran a 4.60-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and is considered the only first-round-caliber player in the draft.

Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

 

FOX Sports North's Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the sixth day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.

TODAY'S POSITION: TIGHT ENDS

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 3

On the roster

Minnesota finally moved on from the mistake of giving John Carlson a five-year, $25 million deal in 2012 by releasing Carlson. The Vikings have made no moves to replace Carlson but likely feel good with what's left on the roster. Kyle Rudolph is healed from his broken foot and is ready to step back in as the team's top receiving threat at tight end. Carlson was largely an afterthought while Rudolph was healthy. Behind Rudolph, Minnesota has Rhett Ellison as the blocking complement at the position. Ellison is a standout blocker and is even an underrated, if rarely used, pass catcher.

Further down the depth chart, the Vikings have Chase Ford and Allen Reisner. Ford has intrigued the team with his size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), movement and pass-catching. Ford stepped in and had five catches for 43 yards in the regular-season finale last year with Rudolph and Carlson out with injuries. Reisner signed with Minnesota two weeks ago after playing parts of the past two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars after being part of the Vikings in 2011 and 2012. He had five catches for 40 yards in five games last season for Jacksonville.

Last five tight ends drafted

2012: Rhett Ellison, Southern California: fourth round (128th overall) -- still with the Vikings
2011: Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame: second round (43rd overall) -- still with the Vikings
2010: Mickey Shuler, Penn State: seventh round (214th overall) -- released Aug. 31, 2012; currently with the Atlanta Falcons
2004: Jeff Dugan, Maryland: seventh round (220th overall) -- released September 2011; out of the NFL
2000: Giles Cole, Texas A&M Kingsville: seventh round (244th overall) -- released August 2000; out of the NFL

Philosophy at the position

The previous coaching staff had spoken about trying to have dual receiving threats at tight end, thus the signing of Carlson to go with Rudolph. But the matchups never materialized and only one tight end produced at a time. Rudolph is that guy after a Pro Bowl season in 2012 in which he was named the game's MVP. He never fulfilled his hope for further development in 2013, in part because of the inconsistency at quarterback and also because of his foot injury. Carlson was productive in the rare occasions he got a chance when Rudolph was out.

Rudolph is back as the main pass catcher and has a chance to continue his growth with Cassel at quarterback. Ellison is the blocker to go with Rudolph and helps with Minnesota's run-first offense. While the team released Carlson and did nothing to replace him other than signing Reisner, it would be a surprise if the Vikings looked to tight end in the draft. The biggest concern at the position might be signing Rudolph to a contract extension as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Eric Ebron, junior, North Carolina (6-foot-4, 250 pounds): Tight end is the trendy position in the NFL with big, athletic pass catchers proving to be a nightmare matchup for defenses. Ebron could be another in that line of receiving tight ends. But he's also the only consensus first-rounder in May's draft. Ebron will likely be picked in the middle of the round, and another tight end might not come off the board until midway through the second round.

Ebron is fast, running a 4.60-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Ebron has said his game resembles San Francisco's Vernon Davis, who is the speediest of tight ends in the NFL and a true field-stretching threat. Ebron has good hands and is a mismatch in one-on-one situations. Of course, as is the case with many of the new-age receiving tight ends, Ebron needs work as a blocker.

Said Ebron: "I play the tight end role like no one else. Things I need to work on is everything. I'm about to step into a professional career, professional level of grown men that do this for a living, so I feel like I need to work on everything. Everything will help me be, hopefully, eventually, an elite tight end in the NFL."

 

 

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Troy Niklas, junior, Notre Dame (6-6, 270): Niklas is next in the line of Notre Dame tight ends, following Carlson, Rudolph and last year's first-rounder, Tyler Eifert. Hey, the Vikings do have a thing for Notre Dame players. Jace Amaro spent the early portion of the draft evaluation period being talked about as a possible first-rounder and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins has had the recent buzz. Niklas might just be the second tight end off the board, depending on team needs and perceptions.

Niklas is a true dual-purpose tight end. He's big, strong and an effective blocker. And he's shown good hands to be a receiving threat and has decent quickness. With his size and strong hands, he should be a good red zone target. He also has room to grow. He started at Notre Dame as an outside linebacker before switching to tight end in 2012 to back up Eifert. Playing just two seasons at tight end, Niklas is still learning the position, including route-running. He also has NFL bloodlines; Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews is his uncle.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Colt Lyerla, junior, Oregon (6-4, 242): No player likely has as many red flags as Lyerla. But few tight ends probably have his skill set either. Lyerla is as athletic as they come at tight end, ranking among the best performers at his position at the combine in 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump. He has good hands and his talent could lead to a team taking a chance on him during Day 3, but his list of transgressions is lengthy.

Lyerla was suspended by Oregon more than once and ended up leaving the team last fall. He was outspoken in his believe that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut was a conspiracy and he was arrested on Oct. 23 for cocaine possession. Lyerla played in just three games for Oregon last season, catching two passes for 26 yards. In 2012, he played in 13 games, making 25 catches for 392 yards.

Said Lyerla: "I'd say that I've put myself in a position where my back's against the wall, to a point that if I don't do everything perfect and the right way that I won't be able to play football, let alone be successful in any shape and form."

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