This year’s draft class is already getting recognition as the best of all time at the tight end position. Along with the rest of the league, the position has been transformed by the evolution of the modern passing game. While the fullback is becoming an endangered position, the versatility of tight ends has allowed them to flourish in today’s NFL. Their multidimensional skill set leads to mismatches with defenders because they are too skilled as route runners to be covered by linebackers and safeties, and too big and strong as run blockers to be covered by defensive backs. This can become a serious problem for defensive coordinators when the tight ends become as athletic as wide receivers. With the success of big-name tight ends like Gronkowski and Graham, and the resulting big-money contracts, it seems that more and more elite prospects are dedicating themselves to the position. As evidence of this progression, more tight ends ran sub 4.7 second 40-yard dashes and jumped farther than 11 feet in the broad jump in this year’s pre-draft process than ever before. Although the Vikings have many other more urgent positions of need at the moment, they did lose Rhett Ellison in free agency and currently only have two suitable tight ends remaining on the roster in Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan. In addition, they also may have already betrayed their interest in seeking out a third tight end by pursuing Jared Cook in free agency.
However, at this position, I don’t think it’s the lack of talent on the roster that would lead to the Vikings drafting a tight end, but rather the opportunity to provide our offensive coordinator with a weapon that he’s particularly qualified to utilize.
As many already know, before being promoted to offensive coordinator midway through the season, Pat Shurmur was brought in as the tight ends coach. Once Norv Turner resigned and Shurmur assumed full offensive play calling responsibilities, his expertise at using tight ends showed itself in the production of tight end Kyle Rudolph. Under Turner, Rudolph had 31 catches for 322 yards and 3 touchdowns; under Shurmur, Rudolph had 52 catches for 518 yards and 4 touchdowns. Rudolph’s increased level of play was especially noticeable in critical situations, where he was the most targeted receiver on third down and a big contributing factor to the Vikings converting 10 out of 16 goal-to-go situations into touchdowns in the final 9 games of the season. Below, we’ll take a look at the strategies Shurmur uses to manufacture touches for his tight ends.
One aspect of his scheme that allows the tight ends to succeed so consistently is the effective use of run-heavy, multi-tight end sets, which force a defense to keep their base defense on the field with only enough corners to cover the wide receivers presented by the offensive formation. This ensures that the tight ends will be working against linebackers and safeties in coverage. Out of these multi-tight end sets, Shurmur has numerous play designs that will put a linebacker or safety out of their element in coverage downfield, like you will see in these examples:
Here you see Ellison lined up outside of Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph runs an inside seam route, while Ellison runs a seam up the sideline. The safety is put in a bind between the two routes. On this play, he sits on the inside seam, allowing Bradford to complete the pass with no help over the top.
In this three tight end set, the two tight ends on the outside spread out the coverage of the defense horizontally with their routes, allowing Rudolph to work the middle of the field.
On this play, two defenders follow Ellison across the field, allowing Rudolph to beat a less athletic linebacker on a deeper crossing route.
A well-designed throwback pass to Rudolph out of a multi-tight end set.
The next strategy Shurmur uses to get his tight ends touches in the passing game is the utilization of motion across the field to manipulate defensive match ups.
This sort of tight end sorcery would have had Shurmur put on trial in colonial times.
Rudolph goes in motion across the formation, the ball is snapped, the defender covering him is caught up in the traffic of the play, and Bradford finds him for an easy completion.
Shurmur uses a multi-tight end set combined with motion to get a completion down the field on this bootleg play.
Overall, considering Shurmur’s vast knowledge and experience working with the position, combined with the best tight end class in recent memory, I think the Vikings would be mistaken to not take a tight end in this year’s draft.