Leading into the NFL Draft starting Thursday, April 25th, the Star Tribune will assess the Vikings roster, draft history and college prospects during this eight-part series.
As you’ve read here recently, the Vikings are one of the many NFL teams likely looking to bolster the tight end position (one that saw record-breaking seasons last year from three in George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz). Big and fast interior threats have become a go-to mismatch creator for NFL coaches. One coach known for running under-center play action with multiple tight ends is Gary Kubiak, the Vikings’ new assistant head coach hired along with three of his assistants in the offseason makeover under coordinator Kevin Stefanski. The Vikings’ late-season pivot away from a shotgun-heavy offense already started to benefit the position. Tight ends averaged 72.3 yards in the three games under Stefanski, a 31.5-yard increase from the previous 13 games last season.
Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings’ second-longest tenured player behind Everson Griffen, has been vocal about his desire for a new contract to stay in Minnesota beyond this season. But no word has yet come from the Vikings, according to Rudolph. There is plenty of time, nearly a year to be exact, to work things out. However, the long-term uncertainty lingers into the NFL Draft, where the Vikings may add another piece to that puzzle behind Rudolph, who turns 30 in November.
Level of need
No. 3. The Vikings’ two proven tight ends, Rudolph and David Morgan, enter the final seasons under their current contracts. From the failed pursuit of Jared Cook in free agency, trade discussions for the Rams’ Tyler Higbee to drafting tight ends for four straight years, the Vikings’ pursuit of another interior receiving threat will likely continue during this NFL Draft.
Kyle Rudolph (2019)
David Morgan (2019)
Tyler Conklin (2021)
Cole Hikutini (2020)
Tyler Conklin (2018, 157th overall)
Bucky Hodges (2017, 201st overall)
David Morgan (2016, 188th overall)
MyCole Pruitt (2015, 143rd overall)
Kyle Rudolph (2011, 43rd overall)
Don’t forget about
Tyler Conklin. It was Conklin, the fifth-round pick, who led the Vikings with 53 receiving yards against the Dolphins during Stefanski’s first game as coordinator. The yards came wide open on two big plays; one was broken Dolphins coverage, the other was a 33-yard play-action bootleg that could be a staple this season.
Five names to know
Noah Fant, Iowa: The No. 1 tight end in the draft is considered to be Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson, but there’s little reason to think he’ll be available to the Vikings, even at pick No. 18. Should they consider a first-round tight end, Fant (6-4, 249 pounds and pictured above) is an ideal candidate. Hockenson and Fant could become the first tight end duo from one school to be taken in the same first round, they’re both that talented. Fant is regarded as more of a receiving mismatch, whereas Hockenson projects to be more well-rounded right away. Fant is incredibly athletic as a former track and basketball standout from Omaha. He also says he wants to be an orthopedic surgeon one day.
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama: Smith Jr. (6-2, 242 pounds) might be the next tight end drafted. The son of Irv Smith, the former Notre Dame tight end and Saints first-round pick, Smith Jr. has limited college experience but plenty of upside. Left Alabama after one breakout season in which he set the school single-season scoring record by a tight end with seven touchdowns. Regarded as a versatile blocker with untapped potential as a receiver.
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M: Sternberger (6-4, 251 pounds) is a college journeyman who blew up in his one season under Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M with 832 yards and 10 touchdowns. He initially played at Kansas and transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Projected as an immediate impact receiver who needs work to become a stable blocker in the NFL. He’s expected to be drafted as early as the third round.
Kahale Warring, San Diego St.: Warring (6-5, 252 pounds) is a former walk-on at SDSU who earned a scholarship but won’t be drafted based on his college production. Didn’t play football until his senior year of high school. Relatively inexperienced, but a premiere athlete in this class. Ranked top five in five different drills at the combine.
Josh Oliver, San Jose St.: Oliver (6-5, 249 pounds) is a converted outside linebacker who proved to be a climber in college. Needs work as a blocker, but improved as a receiver each season. Peaked with 709 yards and four touchdowns as a senior. He was San Jose State’s primary target asked to run an array of routes. He then ranked second among TEs in the bench press (22) and third in the 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds) at the combine.
How it’ll happen
Our best guess is the Vikings could target a Day 2 tight end, such as Sternberger, to add considerable depth and a potential long-term starter at the position.