Vikings again professing to use TEs more

BY foxsports • July 13, 2012

This is the fourth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 27 start of camp.

July 10: Quarterbacks  
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans' guide to camp


Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starters: Kyle Rudolph (second year) and John Carlson (fourth year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Rhett Ellison, *Allen Reisner, Mickey Shuler

The breakdown: Entering last season, Minnesota and new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave were expected to feature this position heavily in two tight-end sets. All of the talk became just that as the Vikings' quarterbacks couldn't take advantage of the talents of Rudolph and veteran Visanthe Shiancoe. Shiancoe was third on the team with 36 catches for 409 yards. The two should have been big targets in the red zone as well, but they combined for just six touchdowns.

Rudolph took some time but did demonstrate growth during his rookie season. His usage patterns were curious, though. He was missing for large chunks of the offensive snaps and despite strong hands and good height, he wasn't a part of several red-zone packages. He had 26 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns, including a highlight-reel grab when he reached over a Denver defender. Rudolph says he is faster this season, finally recovered from the torn hamstring he suffered in his final year at Notre Dame. Rudolph and quarterback Christian Ponder, both second-year players, have a good rapport and are best friends off the field. Rudolph will certainly be used more this season and could have a breakout year.

Carlson, another former Notre Dame standout, was brought in to replace the aging Shiancoe and should start in two tight-end sets with Rudolph. The two give Minnesota a strong pass-catching tandem but will need to show they can handle the blocking assignments as well. Though Carlson, 28, is a veteran compared to Rudolph, he's still a relative unknown.

Carlson missed the entire 2011 season due to injury, though he's said he is fully healthy entering training camp. Carlson was a second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2008 draft and appeared to be an emerging young talent at the position after catching 106 passes in his first two seasons, adding 12 total touchdowns. Then he slipped in 2010 to 31 catches and just one touchdown before missing all of last season. The Vikings thought enough of Carlson to make him their priority signing when free agency started. He will have to reward that faith.

Ellison was a surprise pick in the fourth round and should assume the blocking role left vacant when Jim Kleinsasser retired. The Vikings believe he has the blocking potential, both as a tight end and fullback, to justify the pick.

Best position battle: With Rudolph and Carlson starting, and Ellison being a fourth-round draft pick, that leaves only Reisner and Shuler to compete for the likely final spot among tight ends. The three behind Rudolph and Carlson will need to be able to play special teams as well. Reisner was a surprise as an undrafted free agent last year, showing ability as a pass catcher. He ended up being active for six games and had one catch. Reisner has also been spending a lot of time off the field with Ponder this offseason, perhaps building more of a bond that could transfer to the field. Shuler has been of interest to the Vikings' staff for years. He was drafted in the seventh round by Minnesota in 2010. He made the 53-man roster at the beginning of the season but was later cut and signed on with the Miami Dolphins. The Vikings brought him back last November when he was a free agent, and he eventually made the active roster. This is likely a neck-and-neck competition heading into training camp, though Reisner has perhaps shown the most during his brief time with the team.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Lions; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4 Bears. The top two teams use their tight ends mostly in the receiving game. Minnesota hopes for dual-purpose blockers and receivers. Chicago rarely targets tight ends in the passing game. The top tight end in the division belongs to Green Bay in Jermichael Finley, but he's so athletic and is used on the outside so much that he's almost a pseudo wide receiver. So, the nod for the best group goes to Detroit which uses two tight ends at times with Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Pettigrew developed into one of the best young tight ends in the game last year with 83 catches, 777 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Scheffler added 26 catches. The Vikings' young group will be targeted more heavily this season in Musgrave's attack, but right now it's more about potential than production. Chicago starter Kellen Davis topped out with just 18 catches in 2011, but he's a strong blocker. Backup Matt Spaeth had seven catches but also is used more for his blocking.

Carlson says: "I'm excited because Kyle is here and to be able to play with another tight end like that, you've seen it around the league, it's possible to use two guys at the tight end position on the field at the same time and to have success. So I'm excited about that. I'm excited about how young the offense is and what they're building here. I'm excited about the running game, like I said. What my role will be, I'm not sure, but my goal is always to be a well-rounded tight end and contribute in the running game and contribute in the pass game catching the ball, then to pass block when I'm asked to. So if I continue to improve in those areas, my role will kind of be revealed as the season goes, as our offense develops and identity."
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