Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we will take a look at the tight ends.
Given offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s track record with tight ends, big things were expected of Kyle Rudolph this past season. After all, look what Turner did with guys like Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron in his previous stops. But a pair of injuries limited Rudolph to just nine games.
After Rudolph underwent sports hernia surgery in Week 3, it was up to Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison to hold down the position. Ford showed flashes as a pass-catcher and Ellison fared well as a run blocker. But neither emerged as a consistent threat for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Rudolph returned after the bye week, but it took him a while to resemble his old self. He finally busted out with seven catches for 69 yards in the Week 15, but he suffered knee and ankle injuries and wouldn’t make another catch the rest of the way.
Collectively, that trio combined for 66 catches for 697 yards and four touchdowns — not awful considering the circumstances, but not exactly the big-time production expected under Turner.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Turner will be back as offensive coordinator, and one can presume the plans for his offense won’t go up in smoke like they did in Week 2, when running back Adrian Peterson was lost for the season due to his legal issues. It also didn’t help that Rudolph was lost in Week 3. Rudolph should have a larger role in the offense in 2015, particularly in the red zone…
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: … but only, of course, if Rudolph can remain healthy enough to play. The Vikings are banking on big production from Rudolph, evidenced by the five-year, $36.5 million contract extension they gave him during training camp. But he has missed 15 total games the past two seasons due to injury, and he must stay on the field to reward them for their investment.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Ford was the only tight end graded in the green with a plus-4.6 grade. Ellison was slightly below average at negative-0.2. Rudolph was a negative-2.8 overall. Former Gopher MarQueis Gray graded as a negative-1.5 in limited action before he was waived.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: two — passes caught 20 or more yards downfield by Vikings tight ends, both by Ford. In 2013, when Turner coordinated the Browns offense, Cameron was targeted much more often downfield. But the Vikings in 2014 targeted one of their tight ends deep only three times.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: All three tight ends are under contract through the 2015 season.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Very low. The Vikings have three young tight ends who all bring something to the table. The key will be Rudolph staying on the field, but the position is not a priority.
Before the NBA season started, Bovada and other Las Vegas casinos set over-under win total lines for all the teams. The Wolves’ number was 26.5, which seemed quite reasonable and even tempted those with optimism to make a sprint to Sin City to bet the over.
Anyone who made that bet needs the Wolves to win at least 27 games. We are halfway through the season now, and we can report this much: Minnesota has taken care of the crooked number, the seven. Now all that remains is the 20.
This is not exactly impossible — the Wolves going 20-21, basically .500 ball over the season’s second half — but it is improbable enough that we wouldn’t pay anyone more than 1 cent on every dollar bet to buy them out of their over tickets.
The reasons are many, but the primary one is simple: as the season has gone along, a franchise that nearly perfected losing has somehow gotten even better at it.
The Wolves were 2-2 in the season’s first four games; the two losses were by four points at Memphis and by one point at home against the Bulls. In their fifth game, Ricky Rubio hurt his ankle early on. They wound up losing in overtime, and they have only won five times since then. Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin quickly followed Rubio to the injured list, with Pek being the first of the three to finally return Wednesday in a blowout loss to the Mavericks.
Rubio, Martin, Pekovic, J.J. Barea (bought out before the season) and Ronny Turiaf (two games played) combined to play just 26 games in the first half of the season. Put them in a 5-on-5 game against any other 5 on the Wolves’ roster and they probably win 8 of 10 times. Add to the mix that Corey Brewer was traded after 24 games, and you have an almost foolproof losing cocktail.
A 19-year-old (Andrew Wiggins) is the only player to have started all 41 games, while second-year center Gorgui Dieng is the only other player to have played all 41 games. Rubio and Martin will return at some point (your guess is as good as ours as to exactly when), but it also wouldn’t surprise us if those gains are somewhat offset if Thad Young and/or Mo Williams are traded to contenders for more young pieces or salary flexibility.
Our best guess is this Wolves team will at least be somewhat improved in the second half, meaning it won’t stay on the same pace and finish with 14 wins — which would make this the worst team in franchise history. Where it falls on that spectrum — 10 Wolves teams in full 82 game seasons have won between 15 and 26 games — remains to be seen, but if you are still clinging to that betting slip and it says “over” on it … well it is, indeed, over.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t look for a lot of excuses when it comes to winning and losing. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Zimmer — when asked Wednesday at the Senior Bowl about the ball deflation controversy that has emerged in the wake of the Patriots’ AFC title game thrashing of the Colts — wasn’t buying it.
“I think it was like 41-7, right?” Zimmer said, according to NFL.com. “I don’t think the balls had a lot to do with it.”
Well, 45-7, but point taken. That said, the Vikings were EMBROILED IN CONTROVERSY over a somewhat similar ball situation earlier this season (and by that we mean it passed with barely a whimper aside from a warning and reminder from the league), when sideline attendants were shown heating footballs against league rules during Minnesota’s freezing 31-13 win over the Panthers.