There are several players who have established themselves on the Minnesota Vikings as being the foundation pieces of the 2016 team – from Adrian Peterson to Teddy Bridgewater to John Sullivan to Everson Griffen to Linval Joseph to Anthony Barr to Eric Kendricks to Harrison Smith.
Perhaps there are others, but for a 53-man roster, that’s only eight players. There are a slew of other players that will have to live up to expectations for the Vikings to repeat as NFC North champions and one of them needs to be tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph’s journey with the Vikings has been a strange one marked by untapped potential and injuries.
When he came to the Vikings, it was under the watchful eye of the medical staff as much as it was the football side of the operation. A star at Notre Dame that was drawing Tony Gonzalez, he seemed a lock for the first round of the 2011 draft … until he tore his hamstring off the bone. Yes, off the bone.
This was serious. Given the probing done to players who are healthy at the NFL Scouting Combine, the medicos were all over Rudolph. His stock dropped him into the second round and, thanks to an NFL lockout that didn't include free agency, it allowed for a lot of scrutiny to injured college players. Rudolph fell to the 43rd pick, which happened to be owned by the Vikings, and he was drafted with their first pick after Christian Ponder.
As a rookie, Rudolph was overshadowed by a pair of veterans who were proficient at their craft as few others – Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe. As a rookie, he was a specialist who caught 26 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
Bigger expectations were brought to the table in 2012 and Rudolph delivered. For the most part, his receiving numbers were modest (53-493), but nobody – not Gonzo, not Antonio Gates, not Jimmy Graham – was more lethal in the red zone than Rudolph. On a team with a 2,000-yard rusher, Rudolph was making Ponder a viable future option because he scored nine touchdowns – all in the red zone when bullets are flying.
The next year would take away the Ponder viability, but part of that was not having Rudolph. They played in just five games together and, as they connected on a 31-yard touchdown pass, Rudolph broke his foot on that play and was lost for the rest of the season.
By the time he next played in a meaningful game, Ponder was an afterthought and Rudolph was getting paid.
On July 27, 2014, Rudolph signed a five-year, $36.5 million contract that included a $6.5 million signing bonus and $18.5 million in guaranteed money. The extension signed Rudolph through the 2019 season and he was signed before ever playing a game with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
It seemed clear at the time that Rudolph was being viewed as a critical building block for then-rookie Bridgewater in hopes that he would provide the same sort of offensive spark – especially in the red zone – that he gave to Ponder.
In 2014, Rudolph and Teddy had very little in the way of being concentric circles. Rudolph played in nine games, Bridgewater played in 13. In the game Bridgewater made his debut, Rudolph made his exit. They played six games together. In two of those, Rudolph didn’t catch a pass. In the other four, he caught 14 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown.
If that stat line seems light on big-play ability, it is. It’s less than 10 yards a catch. For every 30-yard reception, there have to be two that gained nothing to achieve that average.
Last season, Rudolph and Bridgewater played all 16 games together. They connected 49 times for 495 yards and five touchdowns. Of those, four were for 20 yards or more. With problems on the offensive line, Rudolph was asked to stay in and block more.
For the most part, as it pertained to a Turner-based offense known for downfield plays to tight ends, the Vikings have not consistently exploited situational mismatches that can be audibled into. The extent to which Rudolph and Bridgewater start connecting could be the biggest 2016 difference-maker from 2015.
Rudolph’s next 500-yard season will be his first. If he has that career hurdle cleared before Thanksgiving, the 2016 Vikings could be dangerous.