Vikings’ Organizational Changes Telegraph Pruitt Cut

Vikings’ Organizational Changes Telegraph Pruitt Cut

Tight End MyCole Pruitt saw his offensive role with the Minnesota Vikings completely dissolve in a matter of days due to a trio of significant organizational changes that included Norv Turner‘s resignation, Pat Shurmur‘s ensuing promotion and the return of quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

The Minnesota Vikings are slowly getting healthier, and, as a result, the team will be forced to make a number of difficult decisions regarding who stays and who goes.

As much as depth has proved to be a significant asset this season — with exception to the offensive line — a filled out 53-man roster combined with shifting around designations due to both a variety and multitude of injuries carries with it the potential for being burned down the road.

Following the return of Taylor Heinicke, Minnesota was forced to send one of its current athletes packing. On a roster that combines significant depth and clear-cut positional wastelands as well as any team in professional football, the Vikings opted to shorten up their tight end depth chart in order to bolster depth behind Sam Bradford and Shaun Hill at quarterback.

Given the presence of four tight ends on Minnesota’s active roster and the team’s offensive line seemingly doing everything in its power to send Bradford back to an all-too-familiar spot on injured reserve, it was only logical to even up the positional groups at three apiece.

This, however, presented the Vikings with a decision that could very well lead to a few curse words, a closed-fist pound of a wooden table and, of course, a deep feeling of regret.

Assuming that Minnesota was going to cut a tight end to make room for the undrafted signal-caller out of Old Dominion, the two most logical choices were 2015 fifth-round pick MyCole Pruitt and 2016 sixth-round pick David Morgan. Rhett Ellison’s name could also have been thrown around given that his contract expires at season’s end, but the Vikings are in absolutely no position to cut ties with a fundamentally sound blocking specialist.

The team would eventually announced that Pruitt, the former FCS standout at Southern Illinois, would be the odd-man-out in this equation, officially ending his injury-plagued season-plus-long tenure in Minnesota:

What made this corresponding roster move more difficult to swallow was the raw potential and brief glimpses of game-breaking talent Pruitt showed in limited snaps on offense. His robust frame (6-2, 251 lbs) coupled with breakneck straight-line speed (he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL combine) and fluid athleticism profiles as bona fide mismatch that only a few rosters in the NFL can provide a sufficient defender in one-on-one coverage.

The above Mockdraftable spider chart alone showcases reason to believe cutting Pruitt could make the Vikings look foolish down the road, but his frequent injury issues and inability to carve out a role in former offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s tight end-heavy scheme offer some consolation.

In Turner’s scheme, Pruitt could have developed into a field-stretching weapons in both single- and multiple-tight end sets.

Pruitt, whose best volume numbers performance during the regular season came Week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals last season, briefly flashed his potential during Minnesota’s Wild Card game matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

His single-greatest play as a Viking (shown below) came at the expense of two of professional football’s most talented safeties in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Pruitt, who sets up shop out of a three-point stance in a formation also featuring tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison as well as wide receiver Stefon Diggs, is asked to run a simple crossing pattern to the boundary side of the field.

What makes this particular catch impressive is his ability to bully Chancellor off the line, create separation with a quick cut and burst of speed and haul in the Teddy Bridgewater pass right in the middle of the Seahawks’ All-Pro defensive backs. Thomas hammers him from his side while Chancellor blasts his lower body from behind, but Pruitt hangs on for a significant 18-yard gain — and nearly 10 percent of the Vikings’ 183 yards of total offense.

A few plays later, the FCS product foreshadowed another element that the future could hold with a reception on a quick out aiming to employ his speed after the catch:

Four-yard receptions near midfield aren’t exactly highlight-reel material, and Pruitt rounded his initial cut that likely cost him a few yards, but this particular snap reveals a game-planning option that most players of his size either struggle to execute or lack enough lateral athleticism to warrant putting in the playbook at all.

As intriguing as these glimpses may be, Turner’s departure more-or-less erases these particular personnel groupings from the play-call sheet.

Technically speaking, Turner’s departure alone did not cost Pruitt his role in Minnesota, as this was more a product of the Vikings’ subsequent move of naming Pat Shurmur as their interim offensive coordinator.

While Minnesota’s new offensive play-caller has been successful using tight ends throughout his coaching history (IE: Benjamin Watson, Zach Ertz), he tends to employ 3-WR, 1-TE and 4-WR sets as opposed to the 2- and 3-TE looks Turner built his very long career around.

This first example goes all the way back to 2012 when Shurmur was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns — a two-year stint in which upper management gave him the red tag without a fair number of years due to staffing incompetence, impatience and his choice to hire Brad Childress as his offensive coordinator (OK, the latter probably isn’t true).

With Brandon Weeden calling the shots — quarterback “talent” didn’t exactly do Shurmur any favors either — Cleveland lined up in the I-Formation with wide receivers split wide to the left and right as well as a tight end with his hand in the dirt on the left side of the set.

Weeden sells the play-action fake to running back Montario Hardesty (how..?), fullback Owen Marecic picks up the blitz giving the Cleveland signal-caller plenty of time find Josh Gordon (a Shurmur, Inc. product) one-on-one downfield.

And, well, if you happen to remember how Gordon faired in one-on-one situations during his very brief time as an elite wide receiver, the result should come as no shock: late separation+ body control + strong hands + stupid athletic = six points.

Even in the red zone, Shurmur has consistently opted to utilize some variation of 2-, 3- and 4-WR sets on a consistent basis over the years. This play-calling style is by no means dated either, as Bradford produced six points in a number of instances with the Philadelphia Eagles last season:

Bradford lines up with trips to the left, one receiver flexed right and running back Kenjon Barner flanked to his right out of the shotgun. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who sets up as the closest wide receiver to the offensive line on the trips side of the formation, allows his teammates to fade coverage into the back of the end zone before running a simple (and rather lazy) seven-yard crosser with room to work. Matthews catches the Bradford toss in stride and cuts up and into the corner of the end zone for an Eagles touchdown in garbage time.

Shurmur isn’t completely opposed to the “heavy” formation, however, as Vikings fans likely took note of such play call when Rudolph scored his fourth touchdown of the year from one yard out against the Detroit Lions.

This very heavy formation featuring 330-pound nose tackle Linval Joseph lined up at fullback could very well be carry-over from Turner’s play-call sheet — with about 100 extra pounds at the fullback spot — Shurmur does employ multiple tight end looks on occasion.

But, Shurmur heavy packages still don’t offer a role for a tight end with Pruitt’s skill set.

Rudolph and Ellison are the two tight ends trotted out in the above screen shot; Ertz and Brent Celek formed a similar tandem in Philadelphia; and the combination of Watson and Jordan Cameron served the purpose in Cleveland.

Rudolph, Ellison, Ertz, Celek, Watson and even Cameron (to a lesser degree) are all of similar physical stature and offer well-rounded skill sets that emphasize fundamentals — particularly as it pertains to pass-blocking. For as gifted as he is, Pruitt is more of a bulky wide receiver than a typical tight end, as he was not effective in pass protection and very raw from a route-running standpoint.

As a result, Morgan — who quite likely was hand-picked by Shurmur during his short stint as the tight ends coach — and his 6-4, 262-pound frame complete with above average tight end skills across the board fits the “Shurmur mold” much better than “Turner mold” Pruitt.

Turner resigns, Shurmur named as his replacement and the return of Heinicke was the recipe that cost Pruitt his job in Minnesota and left the Vikings at the mercy of the team that scoops him up — and Vikings fans better hope his athletic gifts don’t land in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers.

 

For more Vikings analysis and jargon, follow @VikingsBarroom on Twitter!

And don’t forget to review Minnesota’s upcoming matchup at the Washington Redskins with Drew Mahowald and myself, BJ Reidell, on the About the Labor Podcast!

BJ Reidell

BJ Reidell

Robert "BJ" Reidell IV is a St. Paul, Minn. native currently living in beautiful Bismarck, N.D. He began writing about the Minnesota Vikings and NFC North division shortly after graduating from Marquette University in 2014 with the goal of turning his favorite hobby into a career. In addition to contributing to NFCN Barroom, he is a full-time Sports Reporter for the Bismarck Tribune, an NFL Analyst at Vikings Territory, Co-host/Producer of About the Labor: A Minnesota Vikings Podcast and a Fred Biletnikoff Award voter. You can find him waiting in line at Chipotle, enjoying a cold soda at Plums Bar & Grill or on Twitter @RobertReidell.



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