Vikings preview: How will O’Connell’s offense use tight ends?

Vikings preview: How will O'Connell's offense use tight ends?

The Vikings had their first padded practice of the summer Monday. We’re taking a look at each position group as training camp gets underway. Today: Tight ends.

The roster

Irv Smith Jr., Johnny Mundt, Ben Ellefson, Zach Davidson, Nick Muse, Shaun Beyer

Offseason moves

In: Mundt (free agent signing), Muse (seventh-round pick), Beyer (free agent)

Out: Tyler Conklin (signed with Jets), Brandon Dillon (signed with Saints), Chris Herndon (free agent), Luke Stocker (free agent)

Outlook

After Smith missed all of 2021 with a torn meniscus, Conklin grew into a starting role and caught 61 passes for 593 yards last season. The Vikings couldn’t afford to keep him in free agency, though, so they’re back to counting on Smith to emerge as the receiving target they thought he could be when they took him in the second round in 2019. He’s the unquestioned starter At the position, though Mundt could find a role as a blocker if he’s recovered from a torn ACL, and Muse could develop as an option in the passing game.

Top competition

No. 2 tight end. Assuming Smith stays healthy — he left practice on Monday, later returning to the field to watch the rest of the session — he’ll be the starter, but training camp will be an opportunity for players like Mundt and Muse to carve out roles in the offense. Muse runs well for his size (6-foot-5, 259 pounds) and can move around the formation; he is likely to get chances in preseason games to show what he can do as a receiver and demonstrate where he’ll fit in as a blocker.

Player to watch

Smith. He’s fully recovered from his surgery, after staying in Minnesota during the offseason to rehab with the Vikings’ new athletic training staff. Before he was injured last season, Smith seemed on the way to breaking out in the Vikings’ offense showing, with an impressive training camp that suggested he was ready to be a threat over the middle of the field. Now, he’s in his final season before free agency, and he has every reason to turn in a big season as he plays out his rookie contract. If he can benefit from defenses focusing on Justin Jefferson and assert himself in the Vikings’ offense, he’d add a significant element to their passing game.

One big question

How will the Vikings use their tight ends under Kevin O’Connell? In the Vikings’ final three seasons under Mike Zimmer, their three offensive coordinators — Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak and Klint Kubiak — putting three receivers on the field more rarely than most teams in the NFL, providing ample opportunity for tight ends to develop bigger roles in the offense. A one-back, two-tight end set was the Vikings’ base package under Stefanski, but its usage dipped under Gary Kubiak and especially under Klint Kubiak, who used it just 13% of the time last season, according to Sharp Football Stats. Three-receiver sets figure to be a larger piece of O’Connell’s offense than they were on Zimmer’s teams, and given how much the Vikings could continue to use fullback CJ Ham in heavier sets, it’s worth watching how much they employ multiple tight ends this year and the ways they employ flexible players like Smith and Muse.

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