Coming into the start of the 2015 season, tight end Kyle Rudolph was one of the players highlighted on the Minnesota Vikings roster. He missed a lot of the previous season recovering from a sports hernia and it was believed that he would be able to have a big season in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme with his health renewed. However, because of injuries to the offensive line he has had to take on more of a blocking role than originally expected.
Rudolph has never really been known as a blocking tight end since he has the size and athletic ability to really make a difference in the red zone. There were times toward the beginning of the season where he really seemed to struggle taking on defenders, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer seems to think that Rudolph is turning a corner.
“I’d like to point this out to you – Kyle Rudolph, to me, (against the Lions) did some things that don’t show up,” Zimmer said. “He chipped on the defensive end numerous times, he did a lot of really good things. He made a nice catch on the goal line that everybody sees, but some of the other things that he did, opening things up for other people, I thought was really important. It’s really what I’m trying to get our team to understand, the focus may not be on you today, but who cares? Let’s just go play together, let’s go win, let’s everybody do a good job.”
To go along with Rudolph, the Vikings also have two other tight ends that have been getting plenty of snaps in games – Rhett Ellison and MyCole Pruitt. With Adrian Peterson as a running back and the run game being a staple of the offense, the Vikings will run plays out of two-tight end packages a lot, meaning there is a lot of rotating of these three players.
“We’re trying to keep Kyle fresh; he’s really playing at a high level,” Turner said. “He’s probably still playing too many snaps. But we’ve got all three of those guys and we need to use them.”
As a way to cut down on Rudolph’s snaps – he has been at 50-70 snaps a game – the Vikings have begun to use Pruitt more often. With Ellison already receiving 20-40 snaps a game, it is up to the rookie to step in and help relieve Rudolph from time to time.
During the first two weeks of the season, the rookie tight end recorded just four snaps in each game. A big reason why was because Zimmer still felt as though he needed to improve on his blocking, but Pruitt has really tried to focus in on that and feels he has improved and won’t be a liability when on the field.
The coaching staff must feel the same was since his snap count has increased plenty since the start of the season. He started with four offensive plays in the first two games and is now between 10 and 20.
“Pruitt’s a young guy, so there are a lot of things he needs to get better at,” Turner said. “He’s working hard as a blocker. He really had the big block that got Adrian started on the long run. I think he’s a willing blocker. He’s physical enough to be a good blocker, he’s got good athleticism, good feet, so he’s going to be a good blocker at some point and he’s working hard every day to get better at it.”
Not only is Pruitt getting better at blocking, but last week he showed signs of improvement in the passing game too. He has had some drops early on in the season, but he was able to show that he has the ability to make big plays with the ball in his hands.
He only caught one pass in the game, but it went for 13 yards and a first down. The tight end was also able to show off his strength as he ran over multiple defenders before finally being brought down.
“Basically I was manned up, had to get open and I was able to do that,” Pruitt said. “After that it was just instincts taking over just to make a play and I was able to pick up a big first down and I think it helped the team.”
His head coach was also impressed by that play, saying he liked the way Pruitt attacked the defense.
Even though Pruitt was drafted in the fifth round, there were a lot of high expectations placed on him. He was a player that Turner was bullish on coming out of college and a lot of people were comparing him to Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay, who just signed a five-year, $38 million contract this offseason.
Both Rudolph and Ellison have been a big help to Pruitt as he continues to develop into the player the coaches expect him to be. The three are always talking to one another about what is happening during games or practices and that has benefited the rookie.
“Any questions I ever have I can go up to them and ask and they are willing to answer it no matter what,” Pruitt said. “In the games we are always communicating when we are in there together and even when we come off to the sideline we are communicating and letting each other what we see out there.”
All three tight ends have been asked to help out in the blocking game this season, especially with the injuries to the offensive line. Pruitt said that everybody wants to be involved in the passing game more, but if they are needed on the line then that is where they will play.
They know that blocking for Peterson and keeping quarterback Teddy Bridgewater clean are important to what they are trying to accomplish and they accept their roles. The fact the team is winning right now makes dealing with the blocking a whole lot easier.
“The team is doing really well right now,” Pruitt said. “So you can’t really complain when things are going so good.”