Secret Superstar: Rhett Ellison
The Minnesota Vikings surprised everyone by making the playoffs in 2012. At 6-6 they needed to win their final four games, against the league’s toughest remaining schedule, to make the postseason. They accomplished it on the back of solid defense and special teams, efficient play from Christian Ponder and their dominant running game spearheaded by league MVP Adrian Peterson. In fact, as the weeks went by, the hype surrounding the Vikings became less about the playoffs, and more about whether AP could break Eric Dickerson’s rushing record and put together perhaps the greatest rushing season in NFL history.
As supernatural as AP was in 2012, he could not have put together the season he had without the exceptional blocking he received up front. None of his offensive linemen made the Pro-Bowl (Matt Kalil was an alternate), although John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt both merited serious consideration for their work in the run game. Jerome Felton, however, did earning the starting honors for the NFC Pro-Bowl squad after leading the way for AP. He was our third-rated NFC fullback with a +9.3 grade on the season. He also had a +7.9 run blocking grade last year, good for second in the NFC. However, as good as Jerome Felton was last year, the wrong Viking’s fullback may have made the Pro-Bowl.
Enter Rhett Ellison. He played just 251 snaps at fullback, compared to Felton’s 402, but in those limited snaps he posted a +15.8 overall grade and a +9.8 grade in run blocking — both good for tops in the NFC and second in the entire NFL, behind only Vonta Leach.
Replacing Jimmy Kleinsasser
Jim Kleinsasser was drafted by the Vikings in the second round of the 1999 draft. He spent the next 12 seasons splitting time at fullback and tight end, and was one of the best blockers in the league over that span. When he retired after the 2011 season, the Vikings needed someone new to handle the void he’d left behind. They drafted Rhett Ellison from USC in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. Most draft experts saw Ellison as a late-round pick at best. Ellison, himself, had not expected to be drafted this high, and was out fishing when he received the call from the Vikings.
Though three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Kleinsasser, Rhett stepped right in where Jimmy K had left off, and the Vikings didn’t miss a beat. In fact, Ellison graded out higher in his rookie season than Kleinsasser did in any of his final three seasons, although Kleinsasser played significantly more snaps per year.
Jack of All Trades
Although his forte was his run blocking, Ellison graded positively in every facet of the game. He received a +2.8 grade for his pass blocking, where he gave up zero sacks and hits, and did not allow a QB pressure until the playoff game against the Packers. He wasn’t targeted often as a receiver, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a +1.6 grade on the season. Another impressive aspect of Ellison’s play was that he didn’t commit a penalty the entire season.
The Viking was also consistent throughout the season, and did not have any glaringly bad games. His worst grade the entire season was versus the Rams in Week 15, where he posted a -0.7. The week before that, he had his best game of the year against the Bears, where he dominated blocking for AP with a +4.3 grade (+3.9 in run blocking).
A Happy Peterson
Adrian Peterson has long said that he preferred to run without a fullback lead blocking for him, but began backing off this statement last season. He excelled rushing behind both Ellison and Felton, and has to be excited about the way the Vikings have rebuilt their blocking personnel. It could be said that a freakish talent like AP makes everyone around him look better, but Rhett’s play stood out on its own merits.
The one big question facing Ellison is whether he can play at this high level for 700+ snaps a year, as Jim Kleinsasser often did. However, since the Vikings resigned Jerome Felton this often season he will likely not need to for a while. Having played only one season in the NFL, it is a little early to fully judge Rhett Ellison as a player, but the future certainly looks bright for both him and the Vikings.