<
>

Vikings position preview: Tight ends

MINNEAPOLIS -- Between now and the Minnesota Vikings' first training camp practice July 25, we will break down each position group.

Today, we'll take a look at the tight ends.

Returning players: Kyle Rudolph, Chase Ford, Rhett Ellison

Gone from last season: John Carlson, coach Jimmie Johnson

New this season: AC Leonard (undrafted free agent from Tennessee State), Allen Reisner (free agent from Jacksonville)

Position coach: Kevin Stefanski (first season; was Vikings' assistant QB coach for last five seasons)

Biggest issue: There might not be any player who stands to gain more from playing for offensive coordinator Norv Turner than Rudolph, who's looking for a breakout season as he approaches free agency next spring. He's not as fast as Antonio Gates or Jordan Cameron -- two of the prolific tight ends from Turner's past -- but he spent much of the offseason working on the finer points of his route running in anticipation of a bigger role in the passing game. If Rudolph should get hurt this season, though, the Vikings have some reason to be concerned about their depth; Ellison could fit in the "F back" role in Turner's offense, but has mostly been a run blocker so far. Ford (who caught 11 passes last season) and Leonard have potential as receiving threats, but will have to show more than that.

Player to watch: Ford provided some hints he could be a solid receiver at the end of last season, catching a pair of passes for 55 yards in a Dec. 15 win over Philadelphia and hauling in five passes for 43 yards in the Vikings' season-ending victory over Detroit. Like Rudolph, he's a big target at 6-foot-6, and on his biggest play of the season -- a 37-yard pass from Matt Cassel on a third-and-14 against the Eagles -- Ford showed some ability to run after the catch.

Medical report: Rudolph lost 15 pounds this spring, and is recovered from the broken foot that caused him to miss half the season in 2013. He looked leaner and stronger at the Vikings' minicamp, and has continued working out with Bill Welle, the trainer for Arizona Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, in Minneapolis this summer.

Help wanted: The Vikings could carry three tight ends on the roster headed into the season, given the fact Ellison could see some snaps out of the backfield. If Leonard doesn't make the roster, look for the Vikings to try and put him on their practice squad.

Quotable: "Coming back, this has been the first time in a long time I've had position coaches and a coordinator who are out on the practice field coaching all the time," Rudolph said. "I feel like Norv does such a great job, whether you're Adrian Peterson or the 53rd guy on the roster who's fighting for a spot. He coaches you every play. You always focus on what you want to work on that day, but when you get on the practice field, you just start doing what you've always done. They really bring that focus. If you want to work on something, and you go out and do it wrong, they bring it to your attention. I was able to fix a lot of things in my route-running this offseason because of that."