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Monday Morning Mailbag: Vikings NFC North Chances & Battle for TE3

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With Kyle Rudolph now gone the Vikings have an open position for the third tight end. Who is currently competing for that position, and who is most likely to get it, assuming we have a TE3 on the roster?

— Gehrig in Coon Rapids, Minnesota

The start of U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp is just over a week away, and Gehrig's question touches on what could be one of the best position battles that unfolds.

Irv Smith, Jr., and Tyler Conklin are the top two tight ends on the roster … and they undoubtedly proved that by making plays all over the field during the offseason program.

But behind them? There's a trio of players currently on the roster who will compete for that third spot.

Right now, Brandon Dillon might have a leg up, but only because he already has two seasons worth of experience. He was a 2019 undrafted free agent out of Marian University (NAIA) and quickly turned heads in training camp and the preseason.

Dillon has spent most of the past two years on the practice squad after making the 2019 opening day roster and still seems to be held in high regard by the coaching staff.

Zach Davidson and Shane Zylstra are the other tight ends, and both are rookies.

Davidson was a fifth-round pick this spring out of Central Missouri (Division II) and might have one of the most unique backstories of any player on the team. He was initially a punter for the Mules, but later transitioned to tight end in college.

Davidson took off at that position, eventually earning First-Team All-American and First-Team All-Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association honors when he had 15 touchdown catches as a junior in 2019. (Davidson and Central Missouri did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19).

Zylstra also hails from a Division II school (Minnesota State, Mankato) and has a name that should be familiar to Vikings fans. His brother, Brandon, was with Vikings a few years back.

Shane Zylstra brings an impressive resumé to the team, as he is the Mavericks all-time leader in receptions (227), receiving yards (4,297) and touchdown catches (54).

But he racked up those stats as a wide receiver and has now transitioned to tight end. It will be interesting to watch how quickly he picks up a new position while also adjusting to the speed of the NFL.

I'm among many who are excited to watch this position battle play out over the next month or so during training camp and the preseason.

Each of the three players brings something different to the field, and all are small-school guys who want to prove they belong in the league.

It will be up to the Vikings to determine which player makes the biggest impact for the team.

Trade scenario: Danielle Hunter for Von Miller?

— Sean Bernier

That would be a 'No,' from me, Sean. And here's why…

Miller is certainly a great player and one who is likely destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his illustrious career is over. But he's also 32 years old, and I'd rather take Hunter, who is somehow still just 26 years old.

And here's just one stat that I hope also backs up my reasoning.

In 135 career starts, Miller has 106 sacks. That's an average of 0.785 sacks per start.

Hunter has started 49 games in his career and has tallied 54.5 sacks. His rate is 1.12 sacks per start, a number that obviously exceeds Miller's total.

Yes, Miller has done it at a high level for a longer period of time. But if I'm sitting in Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman's chair, I'd decline even though it would be Broncos General Manager George Paton, one of Spielman's best friends, on the other line.

To me, Hunter's absence was one of the biggest reasons the Vikings endured the disappointing season they had in 2020. And if he can return to form in 2021, there's no reason why Hunter can't return to the Pro Bowl player he was in previous seasons.

What are your thoughts on the Aaron Rodgers drama? One thing that sticks out to me is a comment he made midway through last season when reporters asked how he was so successful: his answer was "rest." He'd rested more in the offseason, and his body felt better. We all know he's a competitor and that he's determined. His scruples with the front office are so vague, though. I think he will start in Week 1. I think that's all a cover. Plus, if they get other teams/players wasting their time thinking about this, so much the better. Whether or not a new contract gets done (which I think it will), I'd bet money Rodgers starts against the Saints week 1.

—Jacob Steinbauer

Do you think $100 would be too risky of a bet to place on Vikings winning the NFC North … even if Rodgers returns to Green Bay?

— Brian Fleming

I am not a betting man, so even though both Jacob and Brian's email reference putting money on certain things, I won't be doing that.

But I do think there is a compelling case for why the Vikings will surely compete for a division title in 2021.

Before I get into that, however, a word on Rodgers. I have no idea what will happen between the two, and frankly, it's none of my business. If he's in the opposing huddle on Nov. 21 at U.S. Bank Stadium, bring it on. If he's not, the focus will be on whomever is under center for the Packers.

I imagine Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer feels the same way. His sole focus is likely on training camp and getting his team ready to go … he doesn't have time to worry about what other teams and players are up to right now.

Ramble over, and here are a few reasons why I believe the Vikings could be poised for a big year in 2021:

—The offense could be special. Yes, the offensive line will likely be young, but it's also full of potential. Minnesota also has superstars at the skill positions (Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen), plus the tight ends mentioned above. And Kirk Cousins is at the center of all of this, and could put together the best season of his career if everything breaks right.

—The defense is healthy and experienced. We mentioned Hunter above, but the Vikings also get back key players who missed all or some of the season in Michael Pierce and Eric Kendricks. And it's no secret the defense was the priority in free agency with the likes of Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Bashaud Breeland and Xavier Woods. Oh yes, Harrison Smith is still lurking back there in the secondary.

—Young players are ready to excel. I'm looking at players such as Ezra Cleveland, Cameron Dantzler and D.J. Wonnum as key guys who could surprise outsiders in 2021. All three players are entering Year 2 and saw ample playing time as rookies. What do they have in store for their sophomore seasons?

—Zimmer is mad. To me, this is an underrated storyline right now. Zimmer has essentially had a respectable defense every year he has been in the NFL, a span that stretches 25-plus years. But due to injuries, bad luck and poor play, he (and others) were embarrassed by how that unit performed in 2020. I expect Zimmer to be as motivated as ever to prove that he is still one of the league's top defensive coaches of the past few decades.

Those are just a few reasons for optimism. But with 55 days to go until Week 1, there is plenty of optimism surrounding the Vikings.

*I have been a Minnesota Vikings fan for about five decades. I always hope they do well in the season, make the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl. Whether they win or lose, I will always be a Vikings fan. My question is really not about the team, but about the Hall of Fame Game. I feel that the two teams — AFC and NFC — that lose in conference championships should play the Hall of Fame Game and make it a week before the Super Bowl. That way the elected Hall of Fame inductees can be honored with meaning. *

— David Elder

David closes us out with an interesting suggestion, but one I don't think the league would go for.

The week he proposes as a new date for the Hall of Fame Game is currently the week the Pro Bowl is scheduled. And I'm not sure the league will want to put a wrench in a schedule that seems to churn perfectly right now.

The other reason for pessimism is that I can't find much incentive for the two teams that lose in their respective conference championship games to play an exhibition game at the end of January. Players are undoubtedly sore and probably cranky since their seasons just ended, and the thought of playing an outdoor game in Ohio probably isn't high on their wish list.

I've always enjoyed the timing of the Hall of Fame Game. It helps showcase the players inducted in that year's class and also gives fans a little taste of football, too.