Minnesota Vikings: Full Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Tight End

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IJune 22, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Full Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Tight End

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    New Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves to use tight ends. Over the years he's helped turn players like Jay Novacek, Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron into stars in the NFL.

    According to ESPN Stats & Information, last season the Cleveland Browns, under Turner as offensive coordinator, utilized two-tight end sets on 466 snaps, the fourth-most in the NFL. 

    Cameron had a huge year in his third season in the league—his first under Turner—catching 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, after catching just 26 balls in his first two campaigns.

    Vikings starter Kyle Rudolph, at 6'6" and 258 pounds, is an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than Cameron. He will be the main beneficiary of Turner's propensity to throw to the tight end.

    And while the Browns used two tight ends often, their second man in, Gary Barnidge, caught just 13 passes for 127 yards.

    Tight end is certainly a position of strength for the Vikings, who, after Rudolph, have four other tight ends who combine size and athletic ability to give Minnesota plenty of options at the position.

    With all of the pre-training camp activities behind them, we take a look at the Vikings depth chart at tight end and project how each player might fare during the 2014 season.

5. Allen Reisner

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    At 25 years old, it's getting pretty close to make-or-break time for Allen Reisner, who will enter his third training camp with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. 

    Reisner has looked very capable in parts of three seasons in the NFL—two with Minnesota and one with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 15 games, he's caught seven passes for 58 yards. Reisner looked very good in two different preseasons with the Vikings but hasn't been able to cement a spot on the roster.

    Obviously the Vikings like what they see in him, or they wouldn't have re-signed him in April.

    Reisner has certainly been caught in a numbers game during his career. He's a guy who's a pretty decent blocker and has shown nice hands as a receiver, but he hasn't done anything to earn a spot as a starter or No. 1 backup as of yet.

    Reisner probably has a pretty big hill to climb if he wants to stick with the Vikings in 2014. He'll probably open camp as the fourth tight end on the depth chart behind Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford, but the guess is that rookie A.C. Leonard will quickly move past him with his superior pass-catching talent.

4. A.C. Leonard

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Like every NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings had a list of prospective rookies that stretched miles beyond the 10 draft picks they used in May.

    NFL rosters are not only fortified by players who slip through the cracks of the draft, but it's no longer even unusual for players to become stars in the league after not getting drafted.

    Kurt Warner, Wes Welker, Tony Romo and Gates are just a few of the many players who didn't hear their names called at the draft but went on to find a place among the best players in the league.

    Vontaze Burfict, the Cincinnati Bengals star linebacker, led the league in tackles in 2013 in just his second year after not being drafted in 2012. Everyone knew who Burfict was before the draft. He was projected to be a first-round pick heading toward his senior season at Arizona State.

    Burfict had a disappointing senior season that was dotted with run-ins with coaches and a suspension that left him out of the Sun Devils' bowl game that year. He followed that up with a bizarre combine where he left talent evaluators thinking he was immature and perhaps too much of a problem child to be worth a draft pick.

    We talk about Burfict here because everyone in the NFL knew about Leonard before the 2014 draft. He was a Scout.com 4-star recruit out of high school and signed on to be another in a long line of stars at tight end for the Florida Gators.

    Leonard transferred out of Florida after his freshman season that saw him arrested that January. He moved on to Tennessee State, where he had 85 receptions for 1,174 yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons.

    Leonard showed off superior athletic ability at the combine, running a the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds, with a scorching 1.5-second split in the first 10 yards, per NFL.com. His coach at Tennessee State, Rod Reed, called him a "model citizen" during his time there, according to Ross Jones of Fox Sports.

    What we know about Leonard at this point is that he's a one-dimensional player, but that dimension is a pretty good one: He's a blazing-fast tight end prospect with excellent hands and a great ability to run after the catch.

    It's certainly not outlandish to think that Leonard has a much higher ceiling than all of the tight ends on the Vikings roster not named Rudolph. What Leonard will have to prove, however, is that he can contribute enough as a blocker to land a spot on an NFL roster.

    The truth is that Leonard might just be the best athlete among the Vikings tight ends. He can run, and he can catch. You'd certainly think the Vikings had vetted him enough to feel like his temper problems are under control.

    Leonard looks to be the low-risk, high-potential player who could develop into an undrafted steal. One training camp might not be enough time to land him a roster spot, but Leonard seems like the perfect candidate to spend a season on the practice squad.

3. Chase Ford

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    Andy King/Associated Press

    Ford is like a lot of other "fringe" NFL players: He has size, speed and athletic ability, and he looks like a guy who, if just given the opportunity, could become a very good NFL player.

    Opportunity arrived for Ford in 2013 with the Vikings, with Rudolph missing the second half of the season and backup Ellison battling nagging injuries for most of the year. 

    Ford didn't look out of place when his chance came. At 6'6" and 255 pounds, he certainly has the requisite size of the modern-day tight end. Ford left the Vikings brass with a very good impression in the last game of the season, when he caught five passes for 43 yards against the Detroit Lions.

    Ford was a successful junior college tight end before starting seven games at the University of Miami in two seasons. He signed with the Eagles after going undrafted in 2011 and was signed to Minnesota's practice squad near the end of 2012.

    2014 will be an interesting camp for Ford. He's not as good of a blocker as Ellison and is probably not as good of a receiver as either Reisner or Leonard. What he has going for him, though, is that he proved to the Vikings that he can perform in the league when given the chance last season.

    Ford will have to hope that the Vikings coaches deem his combination of blocking and receiving skills make him their third-best option at tight end.

2. Rhett Ellison

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    ANDY CLAYTON-KING/Associated Press

    Ellison will no longer be a hyphenated player for the Minnesota Vikings. After spending his first two seasons in Minnesota as a tight end-fullback, Ellison enters the 2014 season as simply a tight end.

    Ellison has already proved his worth to the Vikings as a phenomenal blocker and would now probably like to catch a few more passes as he becomes a tight end only. Ellison has caught just 12 passes in two seasons in purple, but he's shown an ability to give the Vikings anything they need from him. He'll probably get more catching opportunities with Turner calling the shots.

    At a solid 6'5", 250 pounds, Ellison is among the hardest-working, high-character players on the Vikings roster. He's a player whose abundance of effort leaves players around him feeling like they could always be doing more. Attitude-wise, he's a coach's dream.

    As we mentioned in the opening slide, Turner likes to use plenty of two-tight end sets, so Ellison will probably get more snaps in 2014 than he's ever had before. He's an excellent blocker and should give Adrian Peterson more room to run. That should also provide the extra beat in the pocket that can help quarterbacks find an open receiver.

1. Kyle Rudolph

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    ANDY CLAYTON-KING/Associated Press

    Rudolph has had the whiff of stardom about him in his three seasons with the Vikings, but there's always been something that's kept him from joining the group of elite tight ends in the league.

    He might have been on his way to joining that class in 2013 before a broken foot sidelined him for the season in early November. Rudolph suffered the injury while scoring on a 31-yard touchdown reception against the Dallas Cowboys.

    Considering Turner's track record with tight ends, it's easy to think that Rudolph could be the breakout player for the Vikings in 2014. At 6'6", 258 pounds, with massive hands, Rudolph has already proved to be an ideal red-zone threat. 

    What he still has to improve on is his consistency. During his three years in the league, he's had too many stretches where he hasn't been a factor for two- and three-game stretches. Much of that can be attributed to Minnesota's spotty quarterback play in those seasons, but Rudolph has to be they type of player who commands the ball to reach his full potential.

    One needs to only look at last season to see what Turner can do for a tight end. With Cameron putting up monster stats for the Browns seemingly out of nowhere (80 catches, 917 yards, 7 TD), Vikings fans are salivating to see what the ceiling for Rudolph can be.

    There are five to 10 players on the Vikings roster who have superstar potential. How many of them reach that elite status will go a long way toward the team reaching the heights it wants to. Rudolph is most certainly one of those players.

    Rudolph has the ability to become a star in the NFL. If he does, the Vikings will be a much better team for it.