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Minnesota Vikings offseason preview: Can the Vikings get more out of their tight ends?

Irv Smith Jr. and Kyle Rudolph were modest, but can they do more?
Kyle Rudolph

The focal point of the Minnesota Vikings offseason last year was to get Kirk Cousins new weapons in the passing game. With Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen already on the roster, they opted to pass on the wide receiver class and instead focus resources on their tight ends.

That led to the selection of Irv Smith Jr. in the second round of the draft and a lucrative, new contract extension for Kyle Rudolph. With the Vikings offense turning to more two tight end sets, Minnesota got the best of both worlds with a big-play threat in Smith and an effective red zone weapon in Rudolph.

While both had modest production in 2019, there seems to be room for more in 2020. With Gary Kubiak officially taking the reigns as offensive coordinator, a bigger season from the tight ends could be in the cards.

2019 in review

Last year was a strange season for the Vikings' tight ends. After selecting a tight end for the fifth straight year, there was the hope that Minnesota could get an upgrade in explosiveness over Rudolph. Instead, the Vikings didn't use Smith or Rudolph in an excessive fashion with the two tight ends combining for 75 catches, 678 yards and eight touchdowns.

Outside of that, there wasn't much to write home about at the position. David Morgan has been an effective blocking tight end, but he never saw the field last year after season-ending surgery in October. Tyler Conklin was thrust into that role, but he didn't contribute much in any way, catching eight passes for 58 scoreless yards.

The salary cap situation

The Vikings will not be in the market for a tight end after the resources they dumped into the position last year. As the conclusion to the drama surrounding Rudolph last offseason, Minnesota forked out a four-year, $36 million extension that will pay the 30-year-old more than $9 million  in 2020. The Vikings do have a potential out in this deal, but it's unlikely they will exercise that option.

While paying that kind of money for about 300-400 yards and 6-8 TD is depressing, the presence of Rudolph allows Smith to continue developing. As one of the youngest rookies in the league (won't turn 22 until August), Smith will make $1.3 million in the second year of his rookie deal in 2020.

Meanwhile, Conklin will make $730K next season while Morgan is slated to become a free agent.

Potential free-agent targets

If the Vikings are to look for a tight end in free agency, it would be a way to upgrade Conklin's spot and/or find a younger, cheaper alternative to Rudolph. If it's the latter, there don't seem to be many veteran options that represent an upgrade as Tyler Eifert has a lengthy injury history and others such as Garrett Celek and Ben Watson don't really bring much to the table.

As far as the top of the class goes, there are some intriguing names such as Atlanta's Austin Hooper and Los Angeles' Hunter Henry, but with the Vikings currently sitting $9 million over the salary cap, those names are nothing more than a pipe dream.

Potential draft targets

Once again, it's unlikely that the Vikings will be drafting someone to take either Smith or Rudolph's job in 2020. Also, there just isn't the top-flight talent that was at the tight end position last year when both T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were first-round selections.

An interesting target in this year's class could be LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss, who is the son of Hall of Famer and Vikings legend Randy Moss. While Thaddeus doesn't have the same freakish ability his dad, he's an excellent blocker and could represent a third option that has the potential to develop into a Rudolph replacement down the road.

While it would require a higher pick, Colby Parkinson would be a nice complement to Smith's downfield ability. As a product of the Stanford system, which has produced Zach Ertz and Hooper, Parkinson plays well as a receiver and also is willing to get dirty to execute a block, which would also be an upgrade on Conklin.

Outlook

Again, it's highly unlikely that the Vikings will be in the market for a tight end, but as mentioned, they've invested heavily in that position in the draft. With Smith's youth and Rudolph's muscle, Minnesota is set but could use an upgrade at the bottom half of the depth chart. With many more pressing needs on the roster, tight end will likely remain the same heading into 2020.

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