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Monday Morning Mailbag: Opportunities for Vikings Tight Ends, Emerging Players

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I hope everyone who received time off for the Memorial Day weekend has been able to enjoy it while appreciating the meaningfulness of the holiday.

I also hope families and friends of fallen U.S. service members felt the sincere appreciation of others.

The Vikings will be taking the field tomorrow to begin another round of Organized Team Activity practices this week. The team held three sessions, including one that was open to media members last week. Here are three takeaways from that session. We'll post more from the other open OTAs, as well as the mandatory minicamp practices that are scheduled for next week.

There also were media sessions where we heard how Harrison Smith passed the time working construction before restructuring to return for his 13th Vikings season and how Sam Darnold has enjoyed reconnecting with his former Jets teammate turned quarterbacks coach Josh McCown.

Vikings fan since inception. Rip Hawkins was my hero because I loved his name.

Collected Coke bottle caps that had individual Vikings players on the inside of each cap.

What do you think of the early prediction of the Vikings going 5-12? I don't see them quite that bad.

— Charlie Hallquist

We'll start with a nod to the second player ever selected in an NFL Draft by the Vikings.

Ross Cooper — "Rip" was appropriate for the linebacker — Hawkins was selected with the 15th overall pick of the 1961 NFL Draft and opted to sign with Minnesota instead of the Boston Patriots, who had also selected him in the second round of the 1961 AFL Draft (12th overall).

Tommy Mason, Minnesota's first NFL Draft pick at No. 1 overall also chose the Purple over the Patriots (first round, No. 3 overall), and so did Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota's third ever pick in an NFL Draft at No. 29 overall, compared to fifth round and 35th overall by Boston, as the team was identified through 1970).

That's three Pro Bowlers who helped launch the identity of the Vikings. Sadly, Mason and Hawkins passed away in 2015. I never had the privilege to interview them.

It was an honor to welcome Mason's family members when the Minnesota Vikings Museum opened in 2018. They preserved so much from his storied career and were gracious enough to display the artifacts.

Hawkins probably deserves a little more shine than he's received over the years. He recorded 12 career interceptions (five as a rookie) and returned three for touchdowns over the course of 70 games (69 starts).

As for projections this year, I've previously mentioned I don't think it's fitting for a direct employee of a team to weigh in on predictive win-loss projections.

I'd imagine the prognosticators are taking into account the number of changes the Vikings made this offseason, as well as the team moving on after quarterback Kirk Cousins' departure.

We saw Darnold and returning veteran Nick Mullens work with the first grouping of offensive players last week while first-round pick J.J. McCarthy and second-year pro Jaren Hall worked with the developmental group.

It did seem Smith, who has been instrumental in some of the best seasons in Vikings history, has seen some of the projections. Early in his answer about returning, he mentioned some external expectations.

"Number one thing is continuing to try to win here. That's why I play the game. I love to compete," Smith said. "And I know people outside of here aren't expecting as much out of us as we do of ourselves. But I think we have the makings of some good things here and continuing to be a part of that."

[Regarding] J.J. McCarthy's time on ice, did he play forward or defense? My guess was that he played both coming up but ended up playing wing.


— Roger Dier in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Roger's question circles back to last week’s discussion about the potential impact of McCarthy's background in youth hockey (through ninth grade, when he was an accomplished forward) potentially impacting his play on the gridiron.

The Athletic's Adam Jahns put together this in-depth feature about McCarthy's time on the ice going all the way back to his younger years. Sorry I hadn't read it until this past week, or I would have included it last week.

"People who don't play hockey don't really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it," Northern Express hockey coach Brent Dolan told Jahns. "You have to make a decision with the puck, and you've got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That's not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.'s vision in football."

Jahns wrote the following:

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express' power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.

"He's trying to avoid getting drilled," Dolan said. "The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he's out on the edge rushing or scrambling."

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey's influence.

"One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn't able to skate past guys or make them miss," Holcomb said. "Hockey definitely helped him."

Have the Vikings signed their draft picks?

— William McKinney

Yes and no.

The Vikings have signed four of their seven selections of 2024.

Kicker Will Reichard, offensive lineman Michael Jurgens and defensive lineman Levi Drake Rodriguez on May 10 at the start of rookie minicamp.

On May 14, the team announced it had signed tackle Walter Rouse.

Generally, the higher the pick, the longer it is before the contract is signed. There's always exceptions to that, but it's not out of the ordinary because they are somewhat related to contracts of similarly slotted picks.

We'll obviously keep you posted on when the contracts for McCarthy, Dallas Turner and Khyree Jackson are inked.

Let's go Vikings! Since the Vikings have signed Robert Tonyan, their tight ends room should be a little better with T.J. Hockenson expected to miss the beginning of the season. It's hard to predict how the Vikings are going to do this year. It depends on how well the offensive line and quarterback does. We are set at wide receiver and the running back positions. I think the defense will do well under Brian Flores again this year. We'll have to see how our drafted and UDFA rookies do in camp.


— Matt Weibel


With all the potential talent at tight end, will we see more screen passes to them?


— Michael Dawkins

Combining these since they both relate to tight ends.

Tonyan, who caught a whopping 11 touchdowns in 2020 with the Packers, signed on May 16 after impressing during a workout.

Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips addressed the addition of Tonyan when he spoke with media members last week, which was a little after Tonyan made multiple catches, including a rapid snag on a back-shoulder throw down the seam. He made it look easy.

"It's kind of one of those workouts where you just watch the guy run and catch and he understands what you're asking him to do from his experience," Phillips said. "It was kind of a no brainer for everyone — just looked around and said, 'Yeah, you know, like, let's get him,' so I think he's really going to help us and obviously, you know, with T.J. [Hockenson] being out, I think Robert can kind of fill some of those roles that T.J. did for us, a lot of production from T.J. that we're gonna miss for a little bit, and I think he can pick up a good amount of that slack."

Hockenson is said to be progressing nicely through his rehab, offering this update on April 15.

The Vikings are returning Josh Oliver, Johnny Mundt and Nick Muse. Minnesota also signed undrafted free agent Trey Knox and Sammis Reyes (through the International Player Pathway program).

Different tight ends offer unique strengths, and Minnesota's coaches will try to capitalize on those attributes. Maybe that's running tight end screens, maybe it's trying to create mismatches with personnel groupings or being in position to capitalize in special situations.

Some players take a year or more to get up to speed for the NFL. Which of the following players have the best odds to be major contributors next year? The players are Brian Asamoah II, Andrew Booth, Jr., Andre Carter II, Lewis Cine, Ed Ingram, Pat Jones II, James Lynch, NaJee Thompson, Jay Ward and Blake Brandel?

— Gerald Goblirsch

There's quite a few players mentioned by Gerald who have opportunities to take their next steps in 2024.

Offensive line is often a position where two-to-three developmental years can be impactful. Ingram is prepping for his third pro season and third in this system. Brandel worked with the first-team offensive line at left guard last week, and he appears to have the opportunity to become a starter in front of him.

"I'm really excited about Blake. I feel like he gets bigger every time I see him, and he's just a massive man on the inside. But he's in great shape," Phillips said. "He's always been very coachable. You talk about technique fundamentals, footwork, hand placement, all the things that are critical for the O-line. You know one false step for an o-lineman could be a catastrophe. So it's been very encouraging so far with him stepping in to that starting spot on the left there, and I think it'll only grow from there, the more experienced, the more reps he gets. He's been a guy that, anytime he's been put in a game at several positions, has been has come through for us, and we haven't forgotten that and I think he's earned this opportunity."