Kyle Rudolph
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Our first installment of our Vikings Free Agency Primer series: The Tight Ends

It’s the time of year to start speculating (and gently trying to nudge Rick Spielman in the right direction) about the fixes for a roster that lost as many games as it won in 2016. Obviously, health is a major part of their past failures and future (hopefully) successes, but the 2017 version of the Minnesota Vikings will not be turnover-free.

Thus, the Vikings Territory team is taking a position-by-position look at the current talent, contract situations, and potential moves that could make some sense heading into next season. We may even plant our flags with a prediction or two along the way.

First up, I’ve decided to take on one of my favorite positions to watch in the modern NFL. Tight ends can be such a factor in the run game, in pass protection, and as an attacking target that they seem to be becoming more and more important to today’s offenses.

LAST SEASON

The chaos at quarterback ended up producing the most accurate season ever by a quarterback, and Sam Bradford‘s efficient passing attack led to a bit of a renaissance for veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph as a pass catcher. Rudolph’s season was stained by a handful of bone-headed plays, but he looked to have more pep in his step than in 2015 and 2014, which helped his campaign to compile 83 catches (second on the team) for 840 yards (career best) for 50 first downs (career high) and seven touchdowns (team high).

Rhett Ellison, MyCole Pruitt, and David Morgan tacked on some catches at an almost non-existent rate, as they were primarily called upon to help mask a terrible offensive line, but they failed at masking that… at all. Even Ellison, who came back surprisingly early from his injury, seemed inconsistent all-too-often in the blocking game relative to past seasons.

Pruitt was snagged off of the practice squad by Chicago in December, which was an unfortunate byproduct of the roster churning injuries forced throughout 2016.

THE SITUATION

The unit, as it stands, is strong enough for some to embrace continuity. This is especially the case given Rudolph’s uptick season. However, there may be some turnover on the horizon, and Rick Spielman would be a fool not to at least consider all opportunities to upgrade the position (and any other).

Rudolph, who some may forget is still only 27 years old, has three years remaining on his contract and would cost the team $2.6 million in dead cap space if they released him for some reason. He’s set to earn a base salary of $5.15 million in 2017 and costs $6.8 million in cap space for the season.

[NOTE: All credit for cap figures can be appropriately assigned to the ever-dependable folks at Spotrac.]

Ellison’s one year contract, signed last offseason after some minor drama, is set to expire this offseason. I would be shocked if there wasn’t at least some interest in bringing him back again, but I’m also not privy to his medical file. The Vikings might have a tough time replacing his versatility and blocking abilities, and this isn’t a team that should be too eager about downgrading their supply of blockers – regardless of position.

David Morgan, on the other hand, was a rookie last season and should not be going anywhere prior to training camp, at the very least. He’ll compete with 2016 undrafted free agent Kyle Carter throughout this offseason, hoping to build upon a promising enough 2016 preseason.

POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS

According to Spotrac, here are the possible unrestricted free agents at the tight end position:

Jordan Cameron TE 28 MIA TBD 3 60 7.5 1 $7,500,000 UFA
Martellus Bennett TE 30 NE TBD 16 701 12.7 7 $5,100,000 UFA Market Value
Jermaine Gresham TE 28 ARI TBD 16 391 10.6 2 1 $3,500,000 UFA
Jared Cook TE 29 GB TBD 10 377 12.6 1 1 $2,750,000 UFA Market Value
Anthony Fasano TE 32 TEN TBD 16 83 10.4 2 $2,625,000 UFA
Vernon Davis TE 33 WAS TBD 16 583 13.2 2 $2,400,000 UFA
Brandon Myers TE 31 TB TBD 16 59 8.4 1 $2,125,000 UFA
Rhett Ellison TE 28 MIN TBD 15 57 6.3 $1,750,000 UFA
Larry Donnell TE 28 NYG TBD 14 92 6.1 1 1 $1,671,000 UFA
Jack Doyle TE 26 IND TBD 16 584 9.9 5 1 $1,671,000 UFA Market Value
Jacob Tamme TE 31 ATL TBD 8 210 9.5 3 $1,600,000 UFA
Gavin Escobar TE 25 DAL TBD 16 30 7.5 1 $1,052,623 UFA
Kellen Davis TE 31 NYJ TBD 8 $965,000 UFA
Clay Harbor TE 29 DET TBD 15 19 6.3 $885,000 UFA
Matthew Mulligan TE 32 DET TBD 8 8 8.0 $885,000 UFA
Jeff Cumberland TE 29 LAC TBD $840,000 UFA
Tim Wright TE 26 DET TBD $815,000 UFA
Logan Paulsen TE 29 CHI TBD 16 15 5.0 $760,000 UFA
David Johnson TE 29 PIT TBD 16 80 11.4 $760,000 UFA
John Phillips TE 29 NO TBD 16 72 7.2 1 $760,000 UFA
Jim Dray TE 30 SF TBD 6 $760,000 UFA
Brandon Williams TE 29 SEA TBD 16 36 18.0 $675,000 UFA
Dominique Jones TE 29 MIA TBD 9 61 8.7 1 $675,000 UFA
Dion Sims TE 25 MIA TBD 14 256 9.8 4 $656,888 UFA Market Value
Levine Toilolo TE 25 ATL TBD 16 264 20.3 2 $615,146 UFA
Luke Willson TE 27 SEA TBD 11 129 8.6 2 $584,633 UFA
Mychal Rivera TE 26 OAK TBD 13 192 10.7 1 $566,213 UFA
Ryan Griffin TE 27 HOU TBD 16 442 8.8 2 1 $559,670 UFA
Chris Gragg TE 26 BUF TBD $554,794 UFA

STAND OUTS

There are plenty of names on that list above. I’m not going to touch on them all, but here is a quick rundown of my thoughts on a few names that stand out to me.

JORDAN CAMERON: The talent here, as displayed in the past, is certainly attractive. However, Cameron has had serious concussion issues of late and doesn’t scream “dependability,” which is an attribute the Vikings should target after the season they just endured.

MARTELLUS BENNETT: The Patriots didn’t panic when Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season and instead kept on winning all the way to the Super Bowl. Bennett did a fantastic job filling in, both as a pass catcher and in the blocking game, and if he can be stolen away from New England, he might be a veteran presence (wearing a ring) that could add a new dynamic for the Vikings to play with.

JERMAINE GRESHAM: I know he’s never lived up to his potential. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Gresham could be a helpful addition to the red zone offense as Rudolph’s backup. I’d be cautiously optimistic about this Bengal following Mike Zimmer to Minnesota.

JARED COOK: This guy has made a career of not living up to expectations, and that was largely true during his season with Green Bay… with a major exception being his playoff performance. Cook is an athletic option for any team looking for a tight end, and that includes the Packers, but I’m not convinced he brings the consistency the Vikings need.

JACK DOYLE: If the Vikings are content to zero in on a consistent role player to serve as Rudolph’s primary backup, I’m kind of hoping a guy like Doyle could be a realistic possibility. He was a dependable outlet for Andrew Luck, has a proven ability to be the next man up when needed, and shouldn’t break the bank. He is my favorite option of this group of possible free agents.

LUKE WILSON: It would suck to be a good tight end who plays for a team that goes ahead and trades a huge ransom for Jimmy Graham. Wilson could certainly be a hidden gem in this free agency class due to his circumstances in Seattle.

MOVING FORWARD

There is no reason, despite how frustrating he has been at times over the last few seasons, to expect the Vikings to do anything other than head into 2017 with Rudolph as their top tight end. There is also no reason to expect they won’t continue to try and progress David Morgan.

After that, things get a little less clear, but I am hoping that they are able to retain Rhett Ellison and truly believe they will try to. With his injury more than a year in the past, I would hope he could be at full strength next season, and be the badass blocker we’d all grown to appreciate.

Last year, I advocated for the Vikings to select tight end Hunter Henry in the first round of the Draft (here’s the year-old justification), and I’d still love to see them pair a powerhouse threat with Rudolph to take the offense to the next level. Henry certainly proved as a rookie capable of helping a team move the chains (a Vikings need), block better (a huge Vikings need), and be more efficient in the redzone (another Vikings need).

I’m not sure any free agents this year truly fit that bill, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings used free agency to at least provide some competition at the backup spots, especially since MyCole Pruitt was almost certainly supposed to provide exactly that. A skill set like that provided by Jack Doyle could be of value in an offense that should again rely on Sam Bradford’s accuracy to put points on the board.

The NFL Draft holds a number of very attractive options starting with total package playmakers like Alabama’s O.J. Howard (likely a first rounder, though). While I’m probably in the minority as a Vikings fan that would love to see this team swing for the fences regarding the tight end position, I’d also be shocked if Rick Spielman didn’t at least take advantage of a deep and talented class to try and add some depth at the position.