The last time the Minnesota Vikings were without Jim Kleinsasser, Bill Clinton occupied the White House.
Kleinsasser was Minnesota’s second round pick (44th overall) in 1999. He was a North Dakota boy, born and raised, who played at the University of North Dakota. He became a fan favorite for his blue-collar work ethic and strong run-blocking abilities.
He looked, acted like and was a Minnesotan at heart. He became a mainstay on a roster with much turnover between 1999 and 2011.
His contributions were limited to run-blocking with little impact on the passing game.
His contributions to the running game helped Michael Bennett reach the Pro Bowl in 2002 and made Onterrio Smith appear to be an NFL-caliber running back.
But now he’s gone, and Minnesota needs to replace his on-field production. What Kleinsasser excelled at was doing under the radar work. He made Minnesota’s running game better by sealing off the edge and working to the next level of defenders.
It’s dirty, boring work, and not everyone is capable of doing it at a level similar to Kleinsasser.
Luckily for the Vikings they have the perfect man to fill Kleinsasser’s shoes: Rhett Ellison.
Ellison was projected by some NFL draft experts to go undrafted, but Minnesota general manger Rick Spielman was confident Ellison wouldn’t have been available had Minnesota let him slip past its pick in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Can Rhett Ellison replace Jim Kleinsasser successfully in his rookie season?
The skill set Ellison possesses reeks of Jim Kleinsasser. The scouting reports, including this one from Pro Football Weekly, could have been written for Kleinsasser:
“Versatile — lined up everywhere, was used as a motion player and played fullback. Aggressive, competitive blocker — good balance, bend and hand placement in pass protection and has strong, active hands to sustain,” the Pro Football Weekly scouting report said of Ellison. “Understands angles and works to the second level where he shows effort and body control to block in space.”
Jim Kleinsasser started with the Vikings lining up at tight end and became the team’s lead blocker on the edge. Ellison can do both from Day 1.
Ellison began his career at USC as a tight end and eventually learned to play fullback too, something that will get him playing time with Minnesota.
The Pro Football Weekly scouting report emphasizes his skills as a blocker and downplays his abilities as a pass-catching receiver.
“Could stand to sharpen his route running. Limited elusiveness after the catch,” the report read.
Those exact two descriptions could appear in Jim Kleinsasser’s scouting report too. Kleinsasser had reliable hands, but once the ball was secure he wasn’t difficult for defenders to take down. The man couldn’t break a tackle to save his life, but he often delivered a powerful blow to the defender in the process.
But that’s not where Minnesota will miss Kleinsasser. It will miss his abilities in the running game, something Ellison can help with.
Like Kleinsasser, Ellison is known as a hard-worker and a physical player. He’s a similarly size compared to Kleinsasser (6’5” and 251 pounds for Ellison, 6’3” and 272 pounds for Kleinsasser), but it will take time to learn the playbook and grasp the running styles of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart.
A new style of play will also appease the loss of Kleinsasser. Look for the Vikings to increase their passing attack in 2012.
Christian Ponder was drafted with a top-15 pick for a reason. Minnesota believes he can become a franchise quarterback with the ability to become an elite player at his position, which means the Vikings believe in him as a passer.
In order for Ponder to live up to his potential, the Vikings need to give him ample opportunities to sling the pigskin. Kleinsasser didn’t find himself on the field in passing situations too frequently, unless to serve as protection.
Don’t cry for Jimmy folks. He will be missed, but Minnesota has “Jim Kleinsasser Jr.” on its roster and will feature a different style of offense to compensate for his departure.