The Vikings begin training camp next week, with their first full-squad practice scheduled for July 28. Between now and then, we're previewing camp with a look at each position group. Today: tight ends.
Irv Smith, Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon, Zach Davidson, Shane Zylstra
In: Davidson (fifth-round pick), Zylstra (free agent)
Out: Kyle Rudolph (released)
The Vikings have been hinting at a change at tight end for the past two years, after drafting Smith in the second round and elevating their younger players ahead of Rudolph in the passing game in 2020 especially. Now, with Rudolph on the Giants' roster after the Vikings released him in a cost-saving move this spring, the Vikings will lean on Smith and Conklin an offense that again figures to put two tight ends on the field more than most teams in the NFL.
Roles in the passing game. Smith led Vikings tight ends in targets last year, with 43 in 13 games, but as a whole, the position group claimed just 20.7 percent of Kirk Cousins' targets last year, down from 22.5 percent in 2019. There's an opportunity for several players — Smith, Conklin and maybe even Dillon (who's shown flashes in previous training camps) — to become reliable targets, especially given how much the Vikings throw out of two-tight end sets and how many questions they have behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson in their receiver group.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Smith. The Vikings drafted him in 2019 to be the kind of middle-field threat that Rudolph simply wasn't. So far, he's only shown flashes of the ability to succeed in that kind of role; just seven of his 30 catches were on targets of 10 yards or longer. His third year will be an important one with Rudolph gone, and if he can become a larger part of the passing game, he could set himself up for a contract extension before the final year of his rookie deal in 2022.
ONE BIG QUESTION
What will a new coordinator mean for the group? It's seemed an annual exercise to speculate about how a new offensive play-caller will utilize the Vikings' tight ends, dating back to Norv Turner's time as the first of Mike Zimmer's six offensive coordinators. Klint Kubiak succeeding his father after Gary Kubiak's retirement means the Vikings' offense should largely stay the same, but it's worth watching if the younger Kubiak finds ways to unleash Smith and Conklin on some of the crossing routes that the Vikings' schematic counterparts have used with players like George Kittle in San Francisco and Robert Tonyan in Green Bay. There's room in the Vikings' offense for one of their tight ends to become a valuable weapon, and it's worth watching if Klint Kubiak can find ways to make that happen.