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2021 Vikings Position Recap: Tight Ends

EAGAN, Minn. — It was a weird year for Minnesota's tight ends room.

Tyler Conklin led that position group, which was a bit unexpected considering where the unit was as training camp opened.

The Vikings had released longtime veteran Kyle Rudolph in March, which paved the way for Irv Smith, Jr., to take on a bigger role as the team's top tight end.

And Smith looked primed for a monster season after an impressive camp and preseason, but he tore his meniscus in the preseason finale on a fluky play.

Suddenly, the tight ends group was in flux in Minnesota.

Conklin was thrust into a starting role, which he performed admirably with one of the top seasons in team history for a player at that position.

The Vikings also acquired Chris Herndon in a trade soon after Smith's injury, sending a fourth-round pick to the Jets and also getting a sixth-rounder back in the deal.

Herndon made a minimal impact over 17 games in Purple and wasn't the only fresh face to arrive at that position.

Ben Ellefson was signed to the active roster shortly before the season started, and Luke Stocker was added to the team in mid-October after Ellefson was placed on Injured Reserve.

Both of them played more of a blocking role, however, as Conklin proved to be the main tight end target in Minnesota's passing attack.

The Vikings also spent a 2022 fifth-round pick on Zach Davidson, but the former Division II standout (including as a punter) essentially took a redshirt and spent 2021 on the practice squad.

Conklin stepped up significantly for the Vikings in 2021. But all in all, it was a down season for that position group compared to preseason expectations.

Notable Number: 60

Conklin finished his fourth NFL season with 61 receptions, becoming just the fifth tight end in Vikings history to have a 60-catch season.

And while Conklin tallied 61 total receptions, the other tight ends on Minnesota's roster had just six catches for 52 yards, which equated to roughly two games of production for Conklin in 2021.

The following Vikings tight ends also recorded at least 60 catches in a season:

Joe Senser - 79 catches (1981)

Steve Jordan - 68 catches (1985)

Jermaine Wiggins - 71 catches (2004), 69 catches (2005)

Kyle Rudolph - 83 catches (2016), 64 catches (2018)

Memorable Moment

Some people might have had to check the Vikings roster early in the second quarter of Minnesota's Week 6 game in Carolina.

With the Vikings down by one point, Herndon snuck across the line of scrimmage to haul in a 2-yard touchdown catch from Kirk Cousins.

It was a bit of a strange sight to see No. 89 catch the ball for the Vikings, simply because it was Herndon's first catch as a Viking.

While he was targeted twice in the season opener, his next target didn't come until Cousins looked his way on that score.

Regular-Season Statistics

Tyler Conklin

Recorded 61 catches for 593 yards and three touchdowns on 87 targets in 17 games; averaged 9.7 yards per catch with a long of 40 yards; played 924 of team's 1,141 offensive snaps

Chris Herndon

Recorded four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown on seven targets in 16 games; averaged 10.0 yards per catch with a long of 17 yards; played 184 offensive snaps

Luke Stocker

Recorded two catches for 12 yards on two targets in 12 games; averaged 6.0 yards per catch with a long of 7 yards; played 154 offensive snaps

Ben Ellefson

Recorded zero catches on one target in five games; played 81 offensive snaps

Zach Davidson

Spent 2021 season on the practice squad

Irv Smith, Jr.

Spent 2021 season on Injured Reserve

The highest high

1. Conklin picked the perfect time to double his career touchdown total.

The tight end entered the Vikings Week 9 game against the Chargers with two career scores, and promptly added two more at SoFi Stadium.

Conklin's first touchdown was a 5-yard catch in the front of the end zone surrounded by a pair of defenders.

His next score came on fourth down, as Conklin ran a crossing route before tumbling to the ground with a 1-yard touchdown.

Conklin's pair of scores helped Minnesota to a 27-20 win that kept the Vikings in the NFC playoff race at the time.

The lowest low(s)

1. The Vikings might need more production from tight ends against the Bears next season.

In two games against Chicago during the 2021 season (both Vikings wins), that group tallied three catches for 13 total yards — with Conklin catching every pass.

Conklin was targeted five times in that pair of games, while the other tight ends who were on the field for at least one game — Herndon, Stocker and Ellefson — weren't targeted once.

2 pressing questions for 2022

1.What does this group look like in a few months?

Perhaps the only thing that is for sure is that Smith will be back in 2022 (more on him below).

After that? Everything is up in the air.

Conklin is scheduled to be a free agent, so he and the team could work out a deal to bring him back, or he could opt for an offer from another team.

Herndon and Stocker are also scheduled to be free agents, meaning they may or may not be back, depending on the roster shakes out.

Ellefson battled injuries in 2021 and has one year left on his current contract.

And Davidson will be one to follow closely, as well. He had plenty of raw potential coming out of college but needed a transition year to get acclimated to the NFL.

If he can progress and develop into a key role player, that could help alleviate the other losses that could be coming at the position this offseason.

2.How does Smith bounce back in 2022?

The Vikings were crestfallen in late August when it was announced that Smith had torn his meniscus.

The timeline suggested he would miss the entire season, and the third-year tight end did just that.

Smith's loss was felt both in the position room, and among the offense in general, as Minnesota missed his athleticism and playmaking ability all over the field. Before the injury, Smith looked primed to join the ranks of the game's top tight ends.

Now it remains to be seen how he looks during offseason workouts. If he can stay healthy, there's no doubt Smith has what it takes to put together a Pro Bowl-type season in Purple.

But it's also worth noting that the 2019 second-round pick will also already be entering the final season of his rookie deal in 2022.