Friday, July 20, 2012

A new tight end corps for the Minnesota Vikings

One thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is the complete turnover at tight end on the Vikings’ roster. The Vikings’ tight ends really hadn’t changed much since Brad Childress signed Visanthe Shiancoe to pair with Jim Kleinsasser in 2007. After Kleinsasser’s retirement and the decision to let Shiancoe leave in free agency, the Purple will now be relying on new faces John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, and Kyle Rudolph to replace Kleinsasser and Shiancoe’s production and blocking.

It’s not too surprising that the Vikings would decide to retool their tight ends. Shiancoe’s production had fallen off and Kleinsasser was ready to retire. What’s interesting is the type of players that the Vikings have brought in to replace them. One of the bigger shifts in the past few years is emphasizing the pass catching abilities of the tight end over the ability to pass block—think Dallas Clark, Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham instead of Kleinsasser. Teams seem to be looking for tight ends that are big wide receivers that can run block, rather than small linemen with good hands. This isn’t a new trend, but its accelerated in the past years as teams have increased how often they use their tight ends as primary receivers (especially out of the slot) and have stopped using their tight ends as outlets that only release into a route after helping to pass protect.

Ellison is the replacement for Kleinsasser (as I said after the draft). And based on the way he was used in Seattle, it appears that Carlson is the replacement for Shiancoe (expected to both pass protect and occasionally be a primary receiver). Rudolph, however, brings in the new wrinkle of a tight end whose primary purpose is running routes. So while the Vikings are copying the rest of the league (as we all know, the NFL is a copycat league), they aren’t yet willing to let go of their old way of using tight ends. That’s probably why Ellison was considered such a reach in the 4th round while Kleinsasser went in the 2nd (or the Vikings still haven’t figured out how not to reach for players).

While it makes sense that the Vikings aren’t willing to give up on an extra pass protector while they are developing Christian Ponder, it doesn’t seem likely that Ellison and Carlson will be able to provide the value that Kleinsasser and Shiancoe did in pass protection.

Pro Football Focus looked at the best pass blocking tight ends over the past three years and, not surprisingly, Kleinsasser was the best at protecting his quarterback. What was surprising was that Shiancoe was ranked third. Both were great at protecting the quarterback. Neither were in the top 10 when it came to snaps in pass protection (though some of that might be due to their injury problems and Kleinsasser’s part-time role), but they still were kept in to pass block quite often. So while it seems likely that the Vikings will use Ellison and Carlson in the same roles, it’s not clear if it will be worth it for them to do so.

As a rookie, Ellison, will not be as good at pass blocking as the veteran Kleinsasser was. And not only is Carlson not a good pass blocker—he’s one of the worst over the past three years. What’s problematic about Carlson is that he doesn’t appear to be much of a receiver, either (although the same could be said for Shiancoe when he came over from the Giants). Regardless, he shouldn’t be used in the same role as Shiancoe because he can’t be trusted to protect Ponder, removing his value as a blocker/outlet. And without that, his value needs to be as a primary receiver and, unlike Rudolph, he doesn’t appear to have the ability to assume a Graham/Gronkowski/Clark type role.

Additionally, unless the Vikings come out in two tight ends – like the Patriots did quite often last year – any time Ellison or Carlson is on the field, Rudolph is not, depriving the Vikings (and Ponder) of a much needed receiving threat. Of course, it’s not unlikely that the Vikings will use a two tight end formation a lot this year, since their wide receiving corps isn’t exactly the deepest in the game.

The closer we get to training camp, and the season itself, the more interested I am to see how Vikings’ use their new tight ends. Basically, what I’m saying is—can it be September 9th yet?

2 comments:

  1. itching for Sept 9 here, too.

    I am curious to see if they'll run any THREE tight end plays this year. They could put Ellison as the 6th lineman and have Carlson, Rudolph, Harvin and Peterson as the main threats. Since Ponder (and Webb!) are athletic enough to scramble and since Ellison's got good enough hands to not be ignored as a potential receiver, that could be a tricky personnel to defend in the red zone.

    Not gonna win a lot of games being overly gadgety, but it would be fun to watch a few plays with that group of players over the course of a season.

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    1. I expect Rudolph to catch around 40 passes this year. I wonder if having Carlson and Rudolph on the same team will help the pair's production or hinder it? I guess we won't know until Sept. 9 (and after).

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