Whether it was the expected progression in his early years or Norv Turner being added as his offensive coordinator in 2014, there were reasons to believe that Rudolph could be one of the more productive tight ends in the league.
In his five seasons, Rudolph has produced two years with more than 30 catches, including last year when he caught 49 for 495 yards and five touchdowns but was often required to help block for an offensive line that was underwhelming.
His best season was his second, in 2012, when he had 53 catches for 493 yards and nine touchdowns.
Why? Because Bradford has a knack for getting his tight ends heavily involved.
Last year, in Bradford’s first season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Zach Ertz caught 75 passes for 853 yards and two touchdowns – second on the team for both receptions and receiving yards.
“Obviously, as a quarterback, I think one of the first things you do is you try to pick out the couple guys on each play, the couple guys in the system, you can get the ball to pretty much regardless of what the play call is, and just develop chemistry with someone, a couple guys,” Bradford said when asked if a tight end can be leaned on more when learning a new system. “You’ve really just got to have someone you trust, and I think we’re trying to develop that in practice right now.”
Rudolph came to the Vikings after the Brett Favre era. He experienced Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder and even Josh Freeman before getting to the Bridgewater era. Perhaps none of them leaned on their tight end as much as Bradford has in recent years.
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It also might help Rudolph that the guy who vouched for trading for Bradford, Pat Shurmur, who worked with Bradford in Philadelphia and St. Louis, is now the Vikings’ tight ends coach. That gave Rudolph some insight into Bradford before he was even added to the Vikings’ radar late last week, and Rudolph noticed how Bradford uses his tight ends.
“A little bit from Philly tape last year, learning stuff from Pat’s guys and what they did before we even had Sam here,” Rudolph said. “So watching some of that tape, I’m a football fan so obviously I’ve seen what he’s done in college and his time in the NFL when healthy – he’s battled through a lot of adversity in his career with the double knee injuries. When healthy, you look at what they did last year and almost throwing for 4,000 yards and Ertz is obviously a good player there in Philly. We’re excited to have him here and look forward to getting him up to speed.”
Only two practices into Bradford’s career in Minnesota, he has taken notice of Rudolph and the massive target he provides for a quarterback.
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“It has been great working with him so far. Obviously, he’s a really big target. His catch radius, I’ve noticed in the past two days, is really large,” Bradford said. “It seems like you can put the ball anywhere around him and he comes down with it.”
The two have spent extra time together after practices trying to develop a rapport and getting a feel for the routes.
Yet, just because Bradford has used his tight ends generously in the past, Rudolph doesn’t see a change coming for the offense.
“Obviously I hope I’m a first or second option the majority of the time, but our plan won’t change,” he said. “We’re going to do what we do and we’re going to try to get Sam up to speed and also we’re trying to get reps with Shaun. We haven’t had many reps with Shaun all summer. It’s been almost all with Teddy. That’s how you prepare with first quarterbacks so for us we’re playing catchup with both of them.”
It hasn’t been decided which quarterback will start in Sunday’s regular-season opener. If it is Bradford, having Shurmur on staff should help the acclimation process. The quarterback said there is some conceptual carryover in the offense from the 2015 Eagles and Rudolph expects that.
“Any time that you’ve got a guy that’s a familiar face and can break down terms for you and relate, it’s like anything in life – when you go to something new, you gravitate toward familiarity,” Rudolph said. “Pat’s a guy that he’s worked with twice before in his career. I’m sure Pat’s willing to help him all he can to get him going.”
While Ertz was a big part of Bradford’s targets in 2015, during Bradford’s last year on the field in St. Louis, it was tight end Jared Cook, now with the Green Bay Packers. In 2013, with Bradford at quarterback, Cook led the Rams with 51 catches for 671 yards and five touchdowns.
Rudolph doesn’t believe the offense will be pared down to accommodate Bradford’s accelerated learning program.
“It doesn’t seem like it so far. They’re trying to teach him as much as possible. Sam is a super intelligent guy. If anybody can grasp it quickly, it’s Sam,” Rudolph said.
“It looks good to me right now. I’m not a quarterback evaluator, but we’ve had two good days with both Shaun and Sam. It’s good for our offense. We have a lot of energy right now.”