Vikings cap hits: Tight ends

Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) celebrates after catching a 10-yard touchdown pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

This article is part of a series focusing on the Minnesota Vikings’ salary cap. For this series I’m going to break down how much each player on the team’s roster counts towards the cap as well as shine a light on his current contract.

Kyle Rudolph ($8,825,000) #5

Rudolph, 31, still has three years left on his deal. He’s been a reliable red-zone threat for years and said earlier in the season that he wants to play for another eight or nine years. So where’s the problem?

He’s just not getting enough targets anymore. He’ll miss the last four games of the season due to a foot injury, but through 12 games Rudolph had 28 catches on 37 targets for 334 yards and a touchdown. The one touchdown is a career low.

Rudolph might still be a prominent red zone threat, but with the emergence of Irv Smith Jr. and Justin Jefferson along with the domination of Adam Thielen inside the 20 (13 RZ touchdowns), it’s not like the team is lacking options in this department.

He’s been a model player for this franchise both on and off the field, but Rudolph’s role and subsequent production in the offense simply isn’t enough to justify his contract.

The AAV (average annual value) of his deal is $9.025 million, which is 5th-most among NFL tight ends. According to OTC’s valuation chart, Rudolph produced at a level of a tight end worth $6,799,000, over $2 million less than his AAV. His cap hits the next three seasons are $9.45M, $10.25M and $11.65M. Unless he agrees to a massive pay cut, it’s time to move on. Even then, featuring Smith seems like the more prudent option.

Cutting Rudolph with a post June-1st designation would save the team $8 million and only create $1.45 million in dead money. Trading Rudolph (before June 1st) would save $5.1 million in cap space with $4.35 million in dead money, but it’s unlikely a team trades for him at these numbers.

The Vikings may end up releasing Rudolph this offseason without getting any compensation in return.

Whether or not that happens, it’s fair to question why the team chose to extend Rudolph after drafting a tight end in the second-round if they weren’t planning on really taking advantage of their depth at the position.

Irv Smith, Jr. ($1,317,828)

The Vikings drafted Smith in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The 22 year-old is primed to be a star in the NFL — he just needs more opportunities. It appears those opportunities are on the way. Smith began to out-snap Rudolph earlier in the season and with the veteran missing the last few games due to injury, Smith has shined.

Smith is in the second of a 4-year, $5.798M rookie contract which included a $2.23M signing bonus. His 2021 and 2022 cap hits are $1.581M and $1.844M. Assuming he takes on a larger role in the offense, he could provide the team with incredible value for the next couple of seasons.

Tyler Conklin ($820,258)

Conklin, 25, was a 2018 fifth-round pick out of Central Michigan. He was targeted a total of 17 times his first two seasons. Mainly used on special teams or as an extra blocker on offense, it wasn’t until a recent injury to Rudolph that Conklin got more involved in the passing game. In fact, he didn’t have reception through the first eight games of the season.

In the last seven games he has 16 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown, all career highs. With Rudolph potentially on the way out this offseason, Conklin may receive a much larger role in the offense in 2021.

He’s in the third season of a four-year, $3.001M rookie deal. He’ll carry a cap hit of $990K next year and be an unrestricted free agent following the 2021 season.