Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Colin Anderson, *John Carlson, *Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford
The breakdown: Minnesota returns the top three tight ends from last season, though more is expected from Carlson, who was a flop in his first season with the Vikings after signing a lucrative five-year, $25 million contract as a free agent.
Rudolph had a breakthrough season in 2012 with 53 catches for 493 yards and nine touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl nod. The team believes Rudolph will grow even more because of the Pro Bowl appearance and have said he's been more confident this summer. Rudolph said he spoke with Dallas' Jason Witten and watched him keenly while the two were at the Pro Bowl. Witten and Rudolph have similar games and Rudolph will try to find the same consistency Witten has had and continue the improvements he's made in blocking.
Rudolph is known for his good hands and his size, making him a good red zone target and he tied for second in touchdowns among all tight ends last season. But there were too many games where quarterback Christian Ponder was unable to find Rudolph, who went without a catch in three games and had three others with just two catches and 20 yards or less.
Carlson will likely make the team after he agreed to restructure his contract in the offseason. Carlson, a Minnesota native, was the primary target for the Vikings in free agency last summer after missing the entire 2011 season. He ended up hurting his knee in training camp and was never the same. He finished with only eight catches for 43 yards and didn't score a touchdown. Minnesota and Carlson hope he can regain the form in which he had 106 catches and 12 touchdowns his first two seasons in the league with Seattle.
Ellison was a surprise fourth-round draft pick last season, but proved the Vikings right for the selection by coming in as a strong blocker in his rookie season and showing good hands. Ellison only had seven catches for 65 yards but filled the role of blocking tight end left vacant by Jim Kleinsasser's retirement.
Best position battle: Assuming Carlson sticks after reworking his contract, the three spots for the active roster are set. Rudolph is the starter. Ellison is the second tight end for blocking situations and could cut into Carlson's time further, but Carlson would be the second receiving tight end. The Vikings typically hold a fourth tight on the practice squad, so it comes down to Anderson and Ford fighting to stick around. Ford spent time on the practice squad for Philadelphia and Dallas last season before finishing the year on Minnesota's practice squad. Anderson is an undrafted rookie free agent from Furman, where he caught 30 passes for 498 yards last season.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Lions; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4. Bears.
Detroit doesn't ask for a lot of blocking out of its tight ends, but uses Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler well in the passing game. Pettigrew and Scheffler are both considered starters and both had over 40 catches last season, giving the Lions the most proven top two tight ends on an NFC North roster. Pettigrew dropped statistically last season with 59 catches in 14 games, but he was one of the league's growing threats at the position with 154 catches total the previous two seasons. Scheffler is entering his eighth season in the league, but is still a steady veteran and good receiving threat.
Rudolph is one of the emerging tight ends in the league and the division, and Minnesota has a strong blocking element in Ellison. If Carlson can re-emerge, Minnesota could have the best set of tight ends in the division.
Jermichael Finley is back in Green Bay, but he remains somewhat of an enigma. Finley isn't much of a blocker and is almost considered another receiver in the Packers' offense, but he has produced. He had a career-high 61 catches for 667 yards and two touchdowns last season, but it almost didn't meet expectations after he had 55 catches, 767 yards and eight touchdowns the previous season. Finley's time and outlook in Green Bay looked bleak at times last year, but he had 26 catches over the season's final five weeks. The unproven Andrew Quarless and D.J. Williams are behind Finley.
The only real change in the entire division came in Chicago, where the Bears replaced the inconsistent Kellen Davis with Martellus Bennett from the New York Giants in what should be an upgrade. Bennett had 55 catches for 626 yards last season for New York. Kyle Adams is the only tight end on the Bears roster that had a catch last season (four).
Frazier says: "I try not to get too far ahead of myself, but the Kyle Rudolph that I see now is so much more confident and more sure of himself than the Kyle I saw a year ago at this time. It's like night and day to me, personally. I'm anxious to see how he does when we get to training camp from a blocking standpoint, but that Pro Bowl, it's flipped the switch. He knows he has a chance to be a premier tight end in this league after what he did over there being MVP and it's evident by the way he's practicing, the way he runs his routes, the control he has in the meetings. I was teasing Jimmy Johnson I said, 'Don’t forget you have the MVP of the Pro Bowl running routes for you.' But it's obvious he's taken his game up to another notch but we're still only in June so I have to temper my emotions a little bit. I'm excited about what I see."