The Vikings turned in one of the best offensive seasons in team history, and tight ends were critical to the effort.
According to Next Gen Stats, at least one tight end was involved on all but 12 of Minnesota's 1,023 plays in 2020. What's more, the Vikings used two or more tight ends on 445 plays (43.5 percent), with roughly half of those (224) in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers).
The Vikings tight ends group was led by Kyle Rudolph in his 10th season and included 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith, Jr., 2018 fifth-round selection Tyler Conklin and minimal appearances by Brandon Dillon, an undrafted free agent in 2019 who played in that season's opener before spending time on Minnesota's practice squad.
While the collective stats might not be as eye-popping as those of players in some systems, the Vikings group impacted the run game, assisted as extra blockers in pass protection and made catches that moved the chains or changed scores.
Tight ends also helped window dress plays before snaps.
Rudolph started the first 12 games of the season, but his streak of consecutive regular-season starts that began Dec. 28, 2014, and continued through 93 games on Dec. 6, 2020, ended when Minnesota visited Tampa Bay in Week 14. The 93 in a row led all active tight ends by a wide margin and is the 19th-longest by a Vikings player at any position. He was placed on Injured Reserve before Minnesota's Week 17 game at Detroit.
The Vikings began their journey without Rudolph by mixing it up against the Buccaneers. Smith's return to the lineup after missing two games helped, and he was joined more often by Conklin, who logged 192 of his career-high 448 offensive snaps in the final four weeks of the season.
134.4 — passer rating generated by Smith on throws when he was targeted by Kirk Cousins. That number is impacted by Smith's five touchdowns and his 12.2 yards per catch that improved from 8.6 as a rookie. Each of the Vikings tight ends who played generated a passer rating of 91 or higher. Rudolph generated a passer rating of 111.8, and Conklin's checked in at 106.9. Used sparingly, Dillon generated a passer rating of 91.7 on his lone target. Cousins finished 2020 with a passer rating of 105.0, which ranked eighth in the NFL.
It wasn't a surprise to see Rudolph reel-in a touchdown catch with one hand because of his previous one-paw prowess, but his Week 3 snag against the Titans was Minnesota Nice. Rudolph sold the route in the end zone and broke late when the ball was already in the air. He located the pass from Cousins and used all of his length to reach a pass that Cousins placed where it was Rudolph's or nobody's. The score gave the Vikings a 30-25 lead with 10:17 remaining. Minnesota was unable to hang on for the win, however, after Rudolph's 48th career score.
View the best tight end photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
12 games (12 starts); 28 receptions for 334 yards (11.9 yards per reception) and one touchdown on 37 targets; 2.3 receptions per game, 27.8 receiving yards per game, 75.7 catch percentage
Irv Smith, Jr.
13 games (7 starts); 30 receptions for 365 yards (12.2 yards per reception) and five touchdowns on 43 targets; 2.3 receptions per game, 28.1 receiving yards per game, 69.8 catch percentage
16 games (2 starts); 19 receptions for 194 yards (10.2 yards per reception) and one touchdown on 26 targets; 1.2 receptions per game, 12.1 receiving yards per game, 73.1 catch percentage
3 games (0 starts); one reception for 6 yards on 1 target; 0.3 receptions per game, 2.0 receiving yards per game, 100 catch percentage
1. Twice is nice
Smith waited until Minnesota's eighth game of the season for his first touchdown of 2020. He waited less than two quarters after that for his second. A 9-yard catch in the first quarter helped Minnesota build a 13-0 lead over Detroit, and a 1-yarder put the Vikings up 27-10 in the third period. The Vikings prevailed 34-20.
The stat line (2 catches, 10 yards and 2 touchdowns) sounds like the offspring of Randy Moss' game at Dallas on Thanksgiving in 1998 (3-163-3) and Leroy Hoard's game against the Saints (4 attempts, 11 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns) earlier that month. It shows the threat that Smith can pose in the red zone, forcing teams to respect the run and then biting them on play fakes.
2. Conklin's first score
Conklin's first career score occurred in his 45th career game and featured 20 yards after the catch. Conklin began the play by blocking Chicago's Khalil Mack as Cousins faked a handoff to Dalvin Cook, then set up for a short pass from Cousins right at the line of scrimmage. Without hesitation, Conklin turned and sprinted, capitalizing on the fact that the Bears didn't account for him. He picked up steam and plowed his way into the end zone. Conklin also gained 29 yards after the catch on a 30-yard reception against the Bears.
1. The entire Vikings offense stumbled and sputtered against the Colts in Week 2, and the tight ends were just as limited in an icky 28-11 loss in Indy. Rudolph was targeted once, but it was incomplete. Smith caught one pass for a gain of 3 on four targets. He would have had a 19-yard reception on a third-and-9, but an offensive pass interference call wiped it away.
"There's a lot of confidence in our tight end room and the depth we have there. It's just a great group, and when you have Dalvin and Justin [Jefferson] and Adam [Thielen], they're going to get their opportunities, too. But when the tight ends' number gets called, there's a lot of confidence in what they're going to bring. It's just week-to-week as to how that gets distributed, but yes, feel really good about our tight ends."
"It means I've had good luck over the last six years. I battled injuries early in my career. It wasn't that I wasn't working hard; I've just had some unfortunate things happen throughout the course of games. So it's exciting to be out there each week with my teammates. That's why we do this. I've said it multiple times in the past when asked about injuries. That's the toughest thing you deal with as a professional athlete, especially in football. We have 16 opportunities to go out and perform on Sundays, and you practice so many months leading up to that, starting in the middle of April. So, so much work goes into going out there and being on the field on Sundays, so I try to make sure I do everything so that I'm out there with my teammates."
— Rudolph just before he suffered a season-ending injury
"There's always things that I wish I could have done, or looked back on and say, 'Dang.' But I try to stay as positive as possible. We didn't win as many games as we wanted to, or finish that way, but as a positive outlook, just trying to make any play I can, but when my number is called, make the most of the opportunity."
"This is a league of opportunity. You never know when it's going to come. You never know when you're going to get your opportunity, so whenever you do, you've got to make sure you're prepared to take advantage of it to the best of your ability. I'm just trying to go out there and do what my team needs to help us win games, and I think I'm doing a good job right now."
Pressing Questions for 2021
1. The speculation about Rudolph's contract is already in the media. Is it warranted?
Stop me if you've heard offseason speculation about Rudolph's contract status before.
Media members began the 2021 installment before Rudolph's 10th season ended after the win against Jacksonville. When asked about his future in Minnesota, the tight end pointed out the fact that he's under contract for the next three seasons.
The 2021 salary cap will be affected by the loss of revenue that teams incurred when they were unable to welcome fans at full (or even any) capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams' adjustments to fit under the cap will be a talker throughout the offseason in the days leading up to the new NFL year, which is scheduled to begin March 17.
Rudolph, 31, ranks fifth in team history with 453 receptions and 48 receiving touchdowns. He also is 10th with 4,488 yards and would love to continue his career in the community that has become his home.
2. Are Smith and Conklin able to continue their momentum?
Regardless of Rudolph's status, the Vikings could be in line to look for even more from Smith and Conklin.
Each player delivered 126 yards after the catch for the Vikings in 2020, capitalizing on opponents' needs to respect the run in the play-action game and devote resources against the impressive receiving tandem of Thielen and Jefferson.
They have both been committed to mastering all aspects of one of the most complicated positions in the NFL and have taken impressive strides, even without an offseason program before the 2020 season. It remains to be seen whether teams will have a more normal offseason program with on-field practices and a full-fledged training camp, but the Vikings are hopeful that will be the case.