The 2021 Minnesota Vikings’ tight end room will look slightly different than what fans have grown accustomed to.
Kyle Rudolph was let go after nine seasons in Minnesota, finishing as the Vikings’ all-time leader in touchdown receptions as a tight end and second all-time in yards and receptions. Replacing him is 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith Jr., who has proven to be a versatile weapon as a blocker and receiver.
After Irv, there is a lot of uncertainty. Many of these guys are unproven players, but each of them has a unique story to accompany their upside.
A fifth-round pick in 2018, Conklin is headed into the final season of his rookie deal. Despite showing flashes of upside, he only has 329 yards on 32 receptions over the course of three years.
One of his biggest strengths is his blocking ability, which is why he’s been able to stay on the roster. The Vikings have cut other tight ends they took late in the draft before their rookie contracts expired, including Bucky Hodges, David Morgan, and MyCole Pruitt.
Conklin also displays good body control, and the former college basketball player is great at making contested catches over the middle. Conklin shows good acceleration into his routes, even if he’s not the most advanced route runner.
But his size and speed hold him back. Conklin is not the type of player who is going to beat you with his athleticism. In a nutshell, he’s like a miniature Kyle Rudolph.
Davidson was also drafted in the fifth round after coming seemingly out of nowhere. He averaged 22.4 yards per reception as a senior at Central Missouri, finishing the season with 894 yards on 40 receptions.
However, he’s viewed as a raw prospect despite his production, and he’s the opposite of Conklin in some ways. Conklin is an athletically limited player who isn’t overly flashy and does the dirty work; Davidson is an absolute unit with the height and speed to shred defenses. He’s 6’7″ and excelled in drills testing speed, quickness, and leaping ability.
Unlike Conklin, Davidson needs to improve as a blocker to make an immediate impact. Pure athleticism isn’t enough to make it in the NFL, so Davidson needs to prove he can contribute in other areas if he wants to avoid Bucky Hodges’ fate.
Fortunately for him, he has experience as a punter, so there may be a place for him on the team if he fails to produce at training camp.
Entering his third season in Minnesota, Dillon has been a practice squad-level player thus far. Granted, he made the 53-man roster in 2019, and Kirk Cousins liked him enough to give him the nickname “The Marion Flash.”
There’s not a lot of info about Dillon’s game, but I think he’s the player who’s least likely to make the roster out of the group. For someone with a nickname invoking speed, he’s not exactly the fastest player. He finished with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.8, which is about the same time Conklin finished with at his combine.
Although Dillon finished with above-average agility scores, so did Conklin, who is not only a better blocker but also had superior body control. Dillon has regressed since making the 53-man roster in 2019, and with the Vikings only keeping three TEs on the roster last year, this may be his last chance to make a good enough impression to stick with the team.
Brother of former Vikings WR Brandon Zylstra, who was cut from the team in 2019, Shane played at Minnesota State University Mankato. He finished with 4,297 yards and 54 touchdowns on 227 receptions during his four-year college career.
Shane played receiver in college but is listed as a tight end. Like Dillon, he’ll need to improve as a blocker if he wants to make the roster, but what makes Zylstra stand out is his route-running ability. You don’t break school records if you can’t create separation.
Even in his first year, I think he’s more likely to make the roster than Dillon if they produce at similar levels because of his receiving prowess.
In terms of how these players work together, I think Tyler Conklin and Zach Davidson’s skillsets complement each other. But beyond that, Brandon Dillon has failed to make a big impression, and Shane Zylstra is brand new to the position. It wouldn’t hurt the Vikings to add a veteran to the group before training camp to round out the roster for extra competition, even if that player doesn’t end up making the team.