EAGAN, Minn. — The NFL's New League Year is on the horizon.
It officially begins at 3 p.m. (CT) on March 16, which means the 2022 edition of free agency is also quickly approaching.
Here's a look at which Vikings tight ends and offensive linemen are scheduled to become free agents, Minnesota's potential needs, as well as notes on players from other teams that are set to become free agents.
UNDER CONTRACT: Zach Davidson, Ben Ellefson and Irv Smith, Jr.
Let's start with the big question: Vikings fans are hoping Irv Smith, Jr., will return healthy to the field after being sidelined all last season with a torn meniscus.
Smith, a second-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, scored a career-high five touchdowns in 2020 and appeared poised for a breakout season last year, particularly after the departure of longtime starter Kyle Rudolph. The hope is that Smith will be back at full strength after undergoing surgery to repair the meniscus in September.
The Vikings drafted Davidson in the fifth round of last year's draft. The Central Missouri State product demonstrated a lot of athleticism and vertical ability during spring practices and training camp but spent his rookie campaign on Minnesota's practice squad.
The Vikings claimed Ellefson, a Minnesota native, off waivers when Smith landed on Injured Reserve. Ellefson played five games on offense and special teams before landing on IR himself with knee and foot injuries.
SCHEDULED TO BECOME FREE AGENTS:
Tyler Conklin (unrestricted free agent)
Since being drafted by Minnesota 157th overall in 2018, Conklin has taken on a bigger role in the offense each season.
Conklin stepped up in a big way in 2021, becoming the Vikings starting tight end in the absence of Smith. The 26-year-old started 15 of the 17 games he played, recording 61 catches for 593 yards and three touchdowns. Conklin also continued to make an impact for Minnesota's offense as a blocker.
If the Vikings don't re-sign Conklin before free agency opens, this will mark his first time testing the waters.
Chris Herndon (unrestricted free agent)
After Smith underwent surgery, the Vikings traded with the Jets to acquire Herndon.
The fourth-year tight end started five of the 16 games he played for Minnesota but didn't make much of an impact on the surface. Herndon finished the season with four catches for 40 yards and one touchdown.
Luke Stocker (unrestricted free agent)
Stocker was signed to Minnesota's practice squad on Oct. 13 and played 10 snaps on offense four days later. The veteran tight end played in 12 games for the Vikings, contributing on offense and special teams, but he was only targeted two times and never after Nov. 7.
A lot likely will depend on whether Smith is fully ready to go and if Minnesota re-signs Conklin.
The Vikings offense probably will look slightly different under new Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, so it will be interesting to see how he involves tight ends in the scheme.
O'Connell, who most recently served as the Super Bowl-winning Rams offensive coordinator, addressed offensive scheme during the NFL Scouting Combine.
"We were predominantly an 11 personnel team [in Los Angeles] – that would be with three wide receivers on the field with a back and a tight end," O'Connell said. "I hope to be more multiple, just based on the fact that we have the personnel to do that – from the tight ends, to [fullback C.J. Ham].
"The different variations to how you can attack people in the run game just forces them to have to defend a lot more offense that we can then marry with play-pass keepers, drop-back pass screens, to try to generate explosives," O'Connell added. "That's really what we'll do."
It seems probable that Minnesota's tight ends group will look different in 2022. But who stays, who departs and whether the Vikings add via free agency or the draft remain to be seen.
WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents.
The following tight ends are listed in order of their overall rankings: 13. Mike Gesicki, 22. Dalton Schultz, 32. Rob Gronkowski, 50. Evan Engram, 80. O.J. Howard, 94. David Njoku, 97. Zach Ertz
Note: The Browns used the franchise tag on Monday to retain Njoku, who averaged 13.2 yards per catch last season and recorded four touchdowns.
The list of top tight ends scheduled to hit free agency this spring is an interesting one, since only Gesicki and Schultz are finishing up their rookie contracts – and they each have since been franchise tagged by Miami and Dallas, respectively. The other five tight ends highlighted by Rosenthal are farther into their careers.
While Gesicki may not be a flashy name on the stat sheet, Rosenthal said, "perhaps no member of the 2018 rookie class improved more over the course of his first pro contract."
The Dolphins clearly recognize the talent they have, as they used the franchise tag on Gesicki prior to the deadline Tuesday.
Garrett Bradbury, Blake Brandel, Ezra Cleveland, Christian Darrisaw, Wyatt Davis, Brian O'Neill and Olisaemeka Udoh
Bradbury is entering the fourth season of his rookie contract (the team will have a fifth-year option on him since he was a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft). The 26-year-old over the past three seasons has started all 45 games he's played for Minnesota. Bradbury missed four games in 2021 after initially being sidelined by COVID-19.
According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Bradbury allowed just two sacks last season. He has demonstrated ups and downs in pass blocking but seen more consistent success in the run game.
Get a behind-the-scenes look of GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell at the 2022 NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
O'Connell was asked at the combine about his impressions of Bradbury.
"I see a guy [with] really, really good movement skills. Obviously a guy that was drafted really high for a reason. I can remember evaluating him through the process," O'Connell said. "[He] did a lot of really good things in college, and it's just been a matter of finding the right fit for him and the right system, and 'What are you asking him to do snap in and snap out that gives him the best possible chance for success?' I'm really excited about not only Garrett, but the rest of our guys up front."
Speaking of the rest of the guys up front, the Vikings of course are returning O'Neill, who signed a multiyear extension with Minnesota in September 2021. The right tackle has impressed each season since being drafted in the second round in 2018 and being thrust into the fire that season.
O'Neill was charged with allowing just one sack last season and received an overall grade of 73.7 by PFF.
Though Darrisaw had a delayed pro start due to rehabbing an injury from college, the 2021 first-round pick established himself as a talented left tackle when he received his opportunity. Darrisaw started 10 of the 12 games he played in his rookie campaign. He was flagged for just three penalties over those contests.
At guard, Cleveland started all 17 games on the left side for the Vikings in 2021, becoming a mainstay on the line after starting just nine contests as a rookie. Cleveland took a big step forward in Year 2, also allowing only one sack last season, and fans will be watching to see if he makes another jump this season.
Udoh transitioned from tackle last spring and started at the right guard for the majority of Minnesota's 17 contests last season with the exceptions of Weeks 13 and 14, during which he started at left tackle in place of an injured Darrisaw. Mason Cole filled in at right guard during those two games. Udoh experienced a learning curve in the position switch and was penalized 16 times throughout the campaign.
Brandel appeared in 13 games last season after spending 2020 on the Vikings practice squad. The former Oregon State standout provided Minnesota with a "bonus tight end" on multiple occasions.
The Vikings drafted Davis in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but the guard did not play an offensive snap as a rookie.
SCHEDULED TO BECOME A FREE AGENT:
Mason Cole (unrestricted free agent)
The Vikings received Cole from the Cardinals via trade last March. The 25-year-old started four games in place of Bradbury, who missed time due to COVID-19. Cole then started at right guard for three games before suffering an elbow injury in Week 15. The Vikings placed Cole on Injured Reserve on Dec. 24.
View the best offensive line photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.
Dakota Dozier (unrestricted free agent)
Since joining the Vikings in the spring of 2019, Dozier has filled multiple roles for the team. He spent most of the 2021 campaign on practice squad after starting all 16 games at left guard in 2020.
Dozier battled COVID pneumonia last winter but made a full recovery. He was promoted to the active roster for Minnesota on Dec. 21.
Rashod Hill (unrestricted free agent)
Hill also has provided some versatility for Minnesota, who signed the tackle off the Jaguars practice squad mid-season in 2016.
In 2021, Hill played 15 games and made five starts. The Jacksonville native opened the season as a starter and then transitioned back to the role of swing tackle once Darrisaw hit the field.
O'Connell said during the combine that the Vikings offensive line "jumped out at him."
"The skill sets of both of our guys on the edge. The tackle position is very strong. I think the guard position, there's a lot of depth there, there's a lot to like," O'Connell said. "And then, in my mind, obviously, Garrett Bradbury in the middle is what you look for from a core center from a standpoint of communicating. We do a lot of things.
"We ask our center to do a lot of things. I know Mason Cole did a great job last year, as well. So, you look at the tape and you just study the tape," O'Connell continued. "There's a lot to like there. There's a lot to build off of. A lot of people want to talk about building an offense for the quarterback position or maybe the skill players, but you do it for the offensive linemen, as well, and all those guys across the board."
The Vikings new coach called the depth at offensive line "exciting"; it remains to be seen, however, exactly what the group will look like come training camp.
It seems likely that Bradbury will stay at center. If that's the case, will Cole be a potential re-signing to play right guard (or interior swingman), or will the Vikings keep Udoh there? Will the Vikings bolster depth by re-signing players like Hill and Dozier, or will the new system prompt Minnesota to explore options for other traits? Another question mark is how the staff and system change might affect Davis' status.
WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents, which included a whopping 17 offensive linemen.
The following players are listed in order of their overall rankings as of March 7: 4. T Terron Armstead, 5. T Orlando Brown, 16. G Brandon Scherff, 19. C Ryan Jensen, 21. T Duane Brown, 29. G James Daniels, 33. T Joe Noteboom, 40. C Bradley Bozeman, 42. C Ben Jones, 44. T Trent Brown, 45. T Cam Robinson, 51. G Laken Tomlinson, 53. T Eric Fisher, 54. G Connor Williams, 58. G Alex Cappa, 87. T Morgan Moses, 90. G Austin Corbett
NOTE: Brown and Robinson were franchise tagged by the Chiefs and Jaguars, respectively, Tuesday.
As you can see, there's a full range of free agents available at offensive line. The Vikings seem pretty well set at starting center and tackle, and I don't expect Cleveland to move from the left guard spot. But could Minnesota target one of the above guards as a starter at right guard? Several new Vikings coaches are well-acquainted with Noteboom and Corbett, who helped the Rams win Super Bowl LVI last month.