When the Vikings used a second-round draft pick on Kyle Rudolph is 2011, Rick Spielman couldn’t say enough good things about the athletic tight end from Notre Dame that they had stolen away from the rest of the league.
At the time, Rudolph was asked to be something of a one-trick pony, the receiving tight end and downfield threat that had become all the rage at the time. It seemed every team wanted their own Tony Gonzalez or Jimmy Graham and the Vikings saw Rudolph an extension of those types of players that could be a seam threat that creates mismatches and big-play potential.
Rudolph was admittedly one-dimensional, but much of that was due to a pair of veteran tight ends that did their jobs very well. Shiancoe had spent four years as a blocking tight end with the Giants while Jeremy Shockey grabbed all the headlines and Kleinsasser was a throwback who was as devastating a blocker as the NFL had seen in some time.
Rudolph viewed his learning from those two as a master’s degree in how to be a complete tight end. They were only together one year, but it was a career tutorial for Rudolph.
“I learned so much from Jimmy and Shank my rookie year,” Rudolph said. “I remember just spending my whole time listening and learning from them. They both helped me adjust to the NFL and I still remember things they told me from that year and the things they taught me are still helping me.”
In the Norv Turner offense and the circumstances under which the Vikings have found themselves due to injuries on the offensive line, Rudolph’s role in the offense has changed.
He couldn’t simply be a receiving threat and head coach Mike Zimmer made it clear that, given the circumstances, Rudolph’s role had to expand to being a more complete tight end, even though it came at the expense of his reception and yardage numbers.
“I have to be able to do everything,” Rudolph said. “Zim stressed to me early on that my role could change every week. We’re a team that runs the football to win games. If I want help us win games, it’s in the run game. With a younger offensive line, I’m called upon in protection a lot and have to help those guys out. It definitely limits my opportunities in the pass game.”
Rudolph is tied for the team lead in receptions with 47 and is the only Viking with at least one reception in every game.
From the receiving perspective, the pickings have been slim. He is averaging less than 32 yards a game and has six games with 16 receiving yards or less. He would like to be one of those tight ends who is a focal point of a high-powered offense, but that’s not how the Vikings of 2015 operate and he is aggressively embracing a role that guys like Kleinsasser and Shiancoe perfected that don’t show up on a stat sheet.
“I would love to be a 60- to 70-reception guy, but that’s not what is going to help us win football games,” Rudolph said. “That’s not the style that we play. Do I think I could out there every Sunday and be that pass-catching tight end? Absolutely. But if it’s not going to help us win football games, then it’s no good.”
Although, seconds later, he interrupted a follow-up question to point out, “I still might get 60 receptions, though.”
In Zimmer’s scheme, whether on offense or defense, individual numbers aren’t something to base an evaluation upon. If a defensive lineman forces a sack to someone else, the team succeeds.
Rudolph bought into the concept, even though it would force him to sacrifice a lot of the downfield pass routes that made him a high second-round pick.
“It was something that Zim asked me in the offseason – if I just wanted to be a receiver,” Rudolph said. “That’s not me. I take pride in being on the field all the time, being able to run block and having a hand in rushing yards that we get and games that we win by just physically wearing teams down. Maybe early on in my career I wouldn’t appreciate that as much as I do now, but I enjoy it and, as long as I’m helping us win football games, I’m good with it.”
Don’t be surprised if Rudolph has big game on the offensive end Sunday night. But if he doesn’t and the Vikings win, he will have done his job and be happy about it.