MINNEAPOLIS -- When he was asked last Thursday at the NFL scouting combine about his impression of the tight end class in the 2014 draft. Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman admitted he'd paid little attention to the group.
"We have pretty good tight ends, so I wasn't really focusing on that," he said. "There's some depth at that position. I know there's some guys that have some character issues at that position. But we've got them all graded and stuff. We've kind of focused on some other areas."
It's not surprising to hear Spielman say the Vikings aren't focusing on the position, considering the presence of Kyle Rudolph on their roster. The 24-year-old was on pace for career highs in catches and yards when he broke his foot against Dallas last November and missed the rest of the season. But the Vikings will have to address some depth questions at the position, especially considering how much new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has used tight ends in the past.
Rudolph will be a free agent after 2014, though he would seem in line for a contract extension. The bigger question involves John Carlson, who restructured the second season of his five-year deal last year and could have to do so again to avoid being released. Carlson has a $5 million cap hit this season, and the Vikings would still have to count $3 million of his signing bonus against the cap over the next three years if they released him. If Carlson is healthy enough to continue his career after his concussion issues cropped up at the end of the season, he could fit nicely in Turner's offense with a restructured contract.
The Vikings also have Chase Ford, who showed flashes as a pass-catching option at the end of the season, and Rhett Ellison, who has played mostly as a run-blocker. Whoever stays could find a bigger role on offense than he's had in the past; Turner has made a career out of working with prolific tight ends, from Jay Novacek to Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron, and while he was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland last year, the Browns employed as many multiple-tight-end sets as almost any team in the league.
They lined up with two or more tight ends on 466 plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the fourth-most in the league -- for what it's worth, Mike Zimmer's old team (the Bengals) was No. 1 -- and the Browns' 7.84 yards per attempt out of those sets were the seventh-most in the league.
Rudolph could be in line for a bigger role in the offense, and if Carlson is still around, he might help the Vikings create the two-tight-end passing attack they'd intended to implement when they signed him. If the Vikings decide not to keep Carlson, they'd have to determine whether Ford can fill that role, but with more opportunities likely coming to tight ends in the passing game next season, the Vikings' decisions about their tight end depth could carry greater significance.
With Turner's emphasis on multiple-tight-end sets and his use of three or more receivers (the Browns had them on 559 snaps, or 112 more than the Vikings last season), one player who could have a tough time finding a spot in Turner's offense is fullback Jerome Felton. The Browns had two running backs on the field for just 53 snaps last year -- ninth-fewest in the league -- and ran on just 23 of those plays. Considering Turner's intent to get Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game, a pure blocking back like Felton might have to adapt into a more diverse role or risk being phased out. He'll be a free agent after 2015, but there's just $666,000 left on Felton's signing bonus from last spring.
The Vikings' offense, quite clearly, looks like it will be changing in 2014. And as Turner comes in, the tight ends on the roster could see a more prominent role.