EAGAN, Minn. — The effects of a reduced salary cap are showing up across the NFL, including at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
The Vikings last week announced the termination of Kyle Rudolph's contract and bid farewell to the tight end after 10 memorable seasons.
The tough decision is one of many with financials at the forefront ahead of the 2021 league year beginning at 3 p.m. on March 17. Teams will be able to sign free agents after that point.
Vikings.com is continuing its positional outlook series with tight ends.
Irv Smith, Jr., Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon and Hale Hentges
2020 Stats: 13 games (7 starts); 30 receptions for 365 yards (12.2 yards per reception) and 5 touchdowns on 43 targets; 2.3 receptions per game and 28.1 yards per game; 69.8 catch percentage; generated passer rating of 134.4
The 2019 second-round pick continued his progression and made seven starts for the second consecutive season despite missing three games. While many stats in Smith's second season resembled his rookie campaign, the passer rating he generated improved nearly 27 points from 107.7, thanks mostly to his touchdowns going from two to five. A couple of advanced stats also reveal a switch in the way Smith was utilized in his second season: his average depth of target increased from 5.6 yards to 8.0, and his yards before contact per reception increased from 4.9 to 8.0, showing that he ran deeper routes (and caught the ball farther down the field) in 2020.
2020 Stats: 16 games (2 starts); 19 receptions for 194 yards (10.2 yards per reception) and 1 touchdown on 26 targets; 1.2 receptions per game and 12.1 yards per game; 73.1 catch percentage; generated passer rating of 106.9
Those wondering what the Vikings offense might look like in the absence of Rudolph might have gotten a bit of a preview in December and January when Conklin's playing time increased. Minnesota continued to incorporate sets with multiple tight ends, and Conklin showed intriguing versatility with solid blocking, dependable hands and a threat after the catch. Nearly two-thirds of Conklin's yards in 2020 were gained after catches (126 of 194), highlighted by 20 on his first career touchdown.
2020 Stats: 3 games (0 starts); 1 reception for 6 yards on 1 target; 0.3 receptions per game and 2.0 yards per game; 100 catch percentage; generated passer rating of 91.7
Enthusiastically nicknamed "The Marian Flash" by Kirk Cousins in honor of the Indiana university Dillon starred for, he has the requisite size for a tight end (6-foot-5 and 250 pounds) but also showed enough playmaking ability during the 2019 camp to earn a spot on the Week 1 active roster.
2020 Stats: 1 game; 0 targets
A former teammate of Smith's at Alabama from 2016-18, Hentges entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Washington in 2019. He appeared in 11 games and made four starts, catching eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets in his rookie season.
2020 Stats: 12 games (12 starts); 28 receptions for 334 yards (11.9 yards per reception) and 1 touchdown on 37 targets; 2.3 receptions per game and 27.8 yards per game; 75.7 catch percentage; generated passer rating of 111.8
Rudolph handled more of a blocker's role in each of the past two seasons as Minnesota reinforced its commitment to the run game. His targets and catches were the second fewest of his career, and he caught a career-low single touchdown after securing 25 scores in the previous four seasons.
The Vikings emphasis on the run game, combined with Adam Thielen's productivity in the red zone (13 of his 14 receiving touchdowns were inside an opponent's 20-yard line) and Justin Jefferson's incredible rookie season, likely shifted some targets from tight ends in 2020.
Minnesota, however, still utilized two or more tight ends on the field at the same time on 446 of 1,023 offensive plays last season.
The Vikings incorporated 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) on 224 of those plays. The only groupings that were more common were 11 (RB, TE and three WR) for 280 plays and 21 (2 RBs, TE and 2 WRs) for 267 plays.
It will be interesting to see how new Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak approaches things, but the expectation is a few twists on a system that has frequently used multiple tight ends.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was asked last week if the development of Smith impacted the decision to release Rudolph and said it "had nothing to do" with what was a needed move to work toward getting under the cap.
"Irv, we drafted him in the second round a couple years ago out of Alabama and you can see the mismatches that he can create, a different way than Kyle did," Spielman said. "Kyle did it with his size and his enormous wingspan and catching radius. Irv does it with his ability to run and his athletic ability, so two different ways, same type of production hopefully going forward.
"I think the other guy that really jumped out at the tight end position was Tyler Conklin," Spielman added, "and last year he took a significant jump when he got his opportunity to play, not only making some plays in the passing game but in his development as a blocker at the line of scrimmage as well."
View the best tight end photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents on March 1, which was prior to the release of Rudolph and others, including two-time Pro Bowler Jared Cook, who spent the past two seasons with the Saints.
Rosenthal listed the following five tight ends: 27. Jonnu Smith, 28. Hunter Henry, 56. Rob Gronkowski, 78. Gerald Everett and 97. Dan Arnold.
Smith flourished in 2020 by catching eight of his 16 career touchdowns. Each score was 13 or fewer yards, including six inside the 4-yard line, but he has shown some big-play potential in the past as well with four career touchdowns of 24-plus yards.
A second-round pick in 2016, Henry debuted with an impressive line of 36 catches for 478 yards and eight scores in the final Chargers season in San Diego. He missed all of 2018 but bounced back with 115 catches, 1,265 yards and nine scores over the past two seasons.
Gronkowski came out of retirement and came up big — again — on the sport's biggest stage. His six receptions for 67 yards and two scores led the Buccaneers and secured Gronkowski's fourth Super Bowl ring. His 45 receptions for 623 yards and seven scores during the regular season showed he's still got it, especially when thrown to by a certain quarterback who has thrown all but two of his 100 total touchdown receptions (including all 14 in postseason games).
Everett has steadily increased his catches and yards in each of his four seasons with the Rams, but he's never caught more than three touchdowns in any season. He has moved the chains, with 46 of 78 receptions (59.0 percent) gaining first downs since 2019.
Arnold entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Saints in 2018. He was waived by New Orleans and signed by Arizona in 2019. Arnold has averaged a whopping 14.6 yards per reception since joining the Cardinals.