EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings tight end room was bookended by a well-established vet and 2019 draft pick.
Minnesota in June agreed to a contract extension with ninth-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has been with the Vikings since being drafted 43rd overall in 2011.
A couple of months prior, the Vikings used their second-round draft selection to snag Alabama standout Irv Smith, Jr.
Rudolph spoke after signing his extension about the prospect of multiple tight end sets that would come to be implemented as part of the Vikings system under Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak.
"It forces defenses to play with three linebackers, and that allows us to control the game," Rudolph said. "When we go out there in three-wide sets and people talk about creating mismatches, well, now they have five DBs on the field. There are still mismatches, size mismatches, but you can kind of control and do things how we want to do them."
The Vikings did heavily utilize two-plus tight end sets throughout the season. Minnesota ran 550 plays (56.7 percent) with multiple-tight end formations, which was second-most in the league behind Philadelphia.
Twenty-eight of Minnesota's 45 offensive touchdowns were scored when there were two tight ends on the field.
Rudolph embraced a variety of roles in 2019, during which he improved as a blocker and shouldered more of that responsibility than in previous seasons. He also delivered some big moments in the passing game, too.
View the top photos of Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph from the 2019 season.
The 30-year-old recorded 39 catches for 367 yards (9.4 yards per reception) and six touchdowns – including an impressive one-handed grab at Dallas – during the regular season. He added one more score in the postseason, the overtime game-winner against the Saints in the Wild Card game. We'll circle back to that play below.
Smith also impressed during his rookie campaign.
Through 16 games, he recorded 36 catches for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Smith's first NFL score occurred in Week 11 and helped spark a Vikings comeback win over the Broncos.
Smith reflected on his first season following Minnesota's loss in the Divisional round.
"We fell short and it's not the way we wanted to end it," Smith said. "But as a rookie, not many people can say they went to the playoffs and beat the Saints on the road as the No. 6 seed and did the things we did. It was a lot of fun, honestly."
Rudolph and Smith were joined in the position group by second-year tight end Tyler Conklin, who contributed on offense and special teams in 15 games.
Conklin, whom the Vikings drafted 157th overall in 2018, totaled eight catches for 58 yards, including a 20-yard grab against Denver.
David Morgan, whom the Vikings drafted in 2016, spent the 2019 season on Injured Reserve after undergoing knee surgery during the offseason.
The Vikings also had undrafted rookie Brandon Dillon, who played seven snaps in the season opener against Atlanta but then was moved to the practice squad, where he spent the duration of the 2019 campaign.
81.3 — Rudolph caught 39 of 48 targets in 2019. His reception percentage of 81.3 was second-best among qualifying tight ends in the NFL behind Jets TE Ryan Griffin (34 of 41). The next-closest was Tennessee's Jonnu Smith (79.5).
Minnesota's tight ends made some highlight-reel catches throughout the season, but the position group's most-memorable moment belongs to Rudolph, who scored the game-winning touchdown in New Orleans to advance the Vikings to the Divisional round.
The game went into overtime; Minnesota won the coin toss and never looked back.
Thanks to a 43-yard dime by Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen, the Vikings were set up with first-and-goal. After two failed attempts, Cousins on third down found Rudolph in the back corner of the paint. The tight end once again showed of his trustworthy hands and kept his feet in-bounds for the walk-off touchdown. He and Cousins received game balls from Head Coach Mike Zimmer following the game.
My honorable mention memorable moment is Rudolph's one-handed catch at Dallas for an opening drive touchdown on Sunday Night Football. Cousins threw the play-action pass to where only Rudolph could reach it, and he did so in impressive fashion.
16 games played; 39 catches for 367 yards (9.4 average); six touchdowns
Irv Smith, Jr.
16 games played; 36 catches for 311 yards (8.6 average); two touchdowns
15 games played; eight catches for 58 yards (7.3 average)
1. Week 11 against the Broncos proved a big day for Minnesota tight ends.
Rudolph entered the game with 410 career catches and by the fourth quarter had increased that total to 414, surpassing Vikings Legend Jake Reed and moving into fifth all-time in franchise history.
Rudolph went on to have his best game of the season that day, making five catches for 67 yards, including a season-long 32-yard touchdown en route to Minnesota's dramatic comeback defeat of Denver. Smith's first touchdown in the pros started the charge that saw the Vikings overcome a 20-point deficit to win 27-23.
Conklin's 20-yard catch (mentioned earlier) was a key play on third-and-14 that kept alive a drive capped by a Dalvin Cook rushing touchdown.
1. The Vikings were without Morgan, who had proved to be a talented blocking tight end, for the entirety of the season. Morgan, who also served as the Vikings backup long snapper, underwent offseason knee surgery and was added to Injured Reserve in August.
2. One of Minnesota's most disappointing losses occurred at Chicago in Week 4, when the Vikings offense was smothered by a talented Bears front seven and the team fell 16-6 to its division foe. Rudolph had just one catch for 12 yards, while Smith added another grab for just 5.
"I feel like each game, it's definitely a step [forward] for me. As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first just trying to come in and learn the offense. But Coach Stefanski and [tight ends coach Brian] Pariani did an amazing job of getting me ready. Each week I just try to come with the mindset that I can't be stopped, and this offense can't be stopped. I try to have that mindset each day. And each game is more experience for me under my belt."
– Smith on growth during his rookie season
"We've had a lot of really good rooms here over the years. I think back to Rhett Ellison, Dave Morgan, and before that, John Carlson. Guys who have always been really professional and helped us win ball games. Our room is no different from that this year. Irv, Tyler and even Brandon, they're always engaged and making sure that the tight end position, aside from the quarterback, is somebody that has to know almost everything about the offense. Especially in that room, you never know what is going to happen throughout the course of a week and on game day. You can be thrown in at any position at any time and know all of your stuff. Our guys all prepare really well."
– Rudolph on the mentality of Minnesota's tight ends room