EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings added quite an intriguing prospect to their tight ends room during the 2021 NFL Draft.
Minnesota selected Zach Davidson out of Central Missouri with the 168th overall pick on May 1. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 243 pounds, Davidson excelled in an atypical double-duty role for the Mules: serving as the team's punter in addition to playing tight end.
Former Vikings linebacker-turned-analyst Ben Leber expressed high interest in Davidson and what he brings to Minnesota's roster.
"I just think there's so much untapped talent there," Leber said. "You don't find 6-7 guys that can move like that."
Leber compared and contrasted Davidson with longtime Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who this spring signed with the Giants during free agency.
"When Kyle came out of Notre Dame … you looked at his size, and you're like, 'My goodness. This guy's going to be a specimen. He's going to be such a weapon, once he gets healthy.' You saw this athleticism in a 6-6 body.
"Now [Davidson is] a little bit taller, built a little bit differently than Kyle, not quite as thick, but he doesn't run like a guy who's long-legged on a 6-7 frame," Leber continued. "He can drop his hips, he can bend his knees, he can change direction. He has a little bit of the short-area quickness that you look for in guys that can run after the catch. He's not a blazer. You've seen in him college sort of get run down a little bit, but mainly that's in running away from defensive backs, but that's fine."
See more of what Leber had to say about Davidson below, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @nacholeber.
View photos of Central Missouri TE Zach Davidson who was selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Player Profile: Zach Davidson, Central Missouri,redshirt senior
The Central Missouri football team didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Davidson garnered plenty of attention at tight end during the 2019 campaign. He played 13 games (12 starts) and recorded 40 catches for 894 yards (22.4 average) and 15 touchdowns. His touchdown total tied for seventh-most among D-II players.
Davidson served as the Mules No. 2 tight end in 2018, catching 11 passes for 239 yards with an average of 21.7 yards per grab.
He also led the MIAA in 2018 in punting with a 42.8-yard average. Davidson downed 15 punts inside the 20 and recorded nine punts of 50-plus yards.
Don't expect him to do much punting with the Vikings, but it never hurts to have someone as multi-talented as Davidson on the roster.
2021 Outlook: Davidson is stepping into an overall young position group.
Tyler Conklin, whom the Vikings drafted out of Central Michigan in 2018, is the team's most experienced tight end at 25 years old. Along with 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith, Jr., Conklin is likely to see an uptick in production following Rudolph's departure.
There's certainly room for Davidson to show coaches what he has, too, as he joins a position group with Conklin, Smith, Brandon Dillon and Shane Zylstra.
Among the tight ends, Leber noted, Davidson is most comparable to Smith; but he's still his own make and model.
"At the same time, he's different from Irv just because of his size, his wingspan and his catch radius," Leber explained. "Irv doesn't have that catch radius. He doesn't have that immediate red zone threat written all over him. He's more of the in-the-field, truly trying to stretch the field tight end – and run a receiver route. He's that athletic. And I think he's gotten that confidence in the last couple of years."
Leber is hopeful that Davidson can be "all of that, plus more of a red zone threat" for Minnesota.
"I would like to see it as [minicamp] goes along and we get into true training camp and all that stuff. I do want to see how he gets truly bodied up by linebackers and safeties. Can he make the tough catches?" Leber asked. "Because I don't think that he has elite-level separation when it comes to off-the-line at the NFL level quite yet – so he's going to have to rely on making tough catches in traffic.
"Now, can he do that? If he can do that, I think that he's going to be one of those guys that could pop in Year 1 and actually see a lot of reps as we get into the second half of the season," Leber added.
Davidson received early compliments from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who spoke to Twin Cities media members during team OTAs and commented on this season's tight ends.
"Zach just has a great size and frame, which you love, especially down in the red zone. He's been separating in a lot of the match coverages that you see, where he's got to create separation against a defensive back, and he's been doing it," Cousins said. "That's been fun to see from all those guys. The challenge is, the tight end position requires so much mentally. You have to learn the whole run game, you've got to learn most or all the protections, and you've got to learn all the pass game. You pretty much have to learn like you're playing receiver, offensive line and running back all in one, and it's a lot to put on somebody early."
Leber presented a way the Vikings could use their different tight ends:
"You could look at Conklin as being your inline tight end, Irv can certainly be a little bit of an inline tight end, and Zach can be split out just a little bit. And then all three of them can be split out," Leber said. "Let Conklin and possibly Dillon – if Dillon's on the team, as well – let those guys be the H-back type that can maybe line up in the backfield and can play tight end. Let Irv kind of be the Jack of all trades."
Will Davidson turn out to be a diamond in the rough for Minnesota.
If Leber had to predict now, he's pretty optimistic.
"For a guy that is going to be pretty raw when it comes to a lot of the route running and [things of] that nature coming from the Division II level, he's got all the components there to be a special type of player," Leber said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, how'd they find this guy?' And, 'Boy, this guy came out of nowhere and all of a sudden became a Pro Bowler within a couple years.' There is that possibility with him.
"If he gets to see a lot of reps with he and Irv on the field together, that's a pretty dynamic and dangerous tight end corps that can stretch the middle of the field – and really stress out a defense," Leber added. "So I'm really, really high on what he can do immediately just from the offensive perspective."
GM's Take: "He ran [the 40-yard dash] in the 4.6s for us on our watches at [his] pro day, and his incredible catching radius and athletic skill set to create mismatches – you know, when we drafted Tyler Conklin, who's one of our best blocking tight ends right now, when we took him around that same time, the only place he lined up in college was outside at receiver.
"So we see the vision. We see that you can't get an athletic kid with this size, this speed, this athletic ability and the catching radius that he does have – those are the traits that you can't coach. But adding on strength, technique as a blocker, all that stuff will come."
– Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman
Film Breakdown: Former Vikings player and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Davidson's tape from Central Missouri.
"As any NFL scout will tell you," Bercich said, "if you're looking at the Division II level for potential starters in the NFL, that player better stand out immediately. And Davidson stands out immediately as a tight end at this level."
Bercich referenced a play against Southern Missouri in which the Mules started in a bunch formation.
"Davidson as the tight end, he splits these two safeties right down the middle, he outruns that linebacker – they're trying to play some form of Cover 2 – he catches the football, and he's gone," Bercich said of the 78-yard score. "This is the type of dominance that you want to see out of a Division II athlete who has potential to make it in the NFL."
At 6-7, Bercich noted, Davidson is expected to be a great receiver. But what about run after the catch?
"You'll see him here in the backfield as a potential blocker – he gets his way out into the flat and makes a nice reception, but he's not done," Bercich pointed out. "Look at this run after the catch, folks. Four defenders near him, he's like a man among boys – and that's exactly what you want to see with a guy like this. He can run after the catch. Great athlete, great explosion, good hands."
In another example, Bercich referenced another play between Southern Missouri and Central Missouri, during which the Mules were just outside of the Lions red zone.
"You see him get outside to the flat, he turns and looks – so he sells that out route – and then wheels, gets up field, and that defender has no chance of catching up to him," Bercich said. "Again, he's making it look easy, and that's what you want to see out of a good Division II player against his peers."