With training camp well underway, the position battles are starting to heat up. The highly popular battles like linebacker and quarterback are getting a lot of attention and commentary; however, there are battles that could impact the 2014 team that might be seen as under the radar at the moment.
With tight end Chase Ford entering camp on crutches and the PUP list, the depth chart behind Kyle Rudolph and his new 5 year contact gets a little foggy. Versatile 3rd year man Rhett Ellison is a shoe in to make the team and be a strong contributor with his ability to play either tight end or full back.
The battle for the 3rd tight end spot is currently up for grabs. During my time in Mankato over the weekend, a player vying for that 3rd spot immediately jumped out to me.
Undrafted rookie AC Leonard from Tennessee State seems to be making the most of his opportunity to climb the depth chart while getting plenty of time with the 2nd team offense. Oddly enough, I did not see former undrafted addition Allen Reisner get many reps at all over the weekend. I found this curious if nothing else because of how highly the Vikings thought of Reisner after picking him up from the University of Iowa. Reisner received a lot of attention for ‘catching everything’ as a relatively unknown rookie and after spending time on the Vikings practice squad and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Reisner was resigned by the Vikings. I think this says something about what Leonard has been able to do with the team in a very short time.
Leonard is an intriguing prospect for a variety of reasons, but he is clearly talented. After starting his college career at the University of Florida, Leonard was atop the Gators’ tight end depth chart that included current Washington tight end Jordan Reed.
Leonard’s time in Gainesville was short lived, however, and he left the program prior to the 2012 season. While at Tennessee State, Leonard displayed his athleticism and receiving ability while hauling in 85 receptions for 1,214 yards and 11 touchdowns over his two years with the Tigers.
There is no doubting Leonard’s receiving ability. Leonard has displayed a nice release off the line and seems to be fluid and athletic in route running. He also possesses the type of speed and acceleration needed to get behind a defense and stretch the field from the tight end position.
After yesterday’s practice, I asked Leonard what type of player he was and what he felt he brought to the Vikings.
“I’m hardnosed football player, I’m ready to do whatever it takes to help this team win,” Leonard said.
Leonard went on to mention he is ready to work on several areas because of the differences at the NFL level and noted the speed of the game as the biggest change since leaving college.
Although Leonard does present a good sized target for quarterbacks to throw to, he does lack ideal size as a blocker. This is overly evident when he is lined up next to offensive linemen or even defensive ends for that matter.
Most rookie tight ends struggle initially in run blocking and Leonard acknowledged he has been working on his run blocking.
“Blocking is coming along really well; I’ve been focused on working on my footwork and technique a lot.”
Leonard went on to add that he’s been working on just about everything, in order to make the final 53 man roster.
“I want to get better at everything. My route running, my blocking, my ability to read the defense, all are areas I’ve set goals for me to improve with.”
Leonard is not afraid to put in the extra time at practice to get better. Leonard was one of the last players to leave the practice field after Sunday’s practice after spending time with rookie quarter back Teddy Bridgewater on some extra route running and pass catching.
Bridgewater and Leonard seem to have made some sort of connection early in camp as Leonard seems to serve almost as a safety blanket for Bridgewater during team drills.
Leonard seems to be buying into the need to put in extra time and work hard to make this roster. When asked what offensive coordinator Norv Turner was asking of his tight ends, Leonard had a long list.
“Coach Turner really asks his tight ends to do just about everything. He wants us to work hard to get better at everything; he’s asked us to get better with our routes and blocking, just about everything.”
During his press conference with the media on Saturday, Turner noted that they indeed are working with the tight ends on improving route running. That’s not just Leonard, that includes Rudolph as well.
Turner is noted for his ability to develop highly productive tight ends after spending time with San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron and it seems he has his sights set on the Vikings tight ends as well.
Leonard seems to have his work cut out for him and camp is just getting started. However, Leonard has a lot of potential to serve as a strong receiving tight end and seems to have built a connection with the quarterback of the future, Teddy Bridgewater. Making the final roster will not be easy and is heavily dependent on how quickly Chase Ford can recover from his injury. Until then, Leonard will continue to make the most of his opportunity with the Vikings to improve his game and try to prove he can be a difference maker.