As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is June 23rd, and there are 82 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means our next player preview takes a look at the longest-tenured player on the Vikings' roster.
Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 82 Days
Player Preview: Kyle Rudolph (No. 82, Tight End)
- College: Notre Dame
- Drafted: 2011 second round (43rd overall)
- NFL experience: Nine years (2020 will be his tenth)
- Age: 30 (Turns 31 in November)
- Size: 6'6", 265
- 2019 PFF Grade: 71.1
- Notable 2019 stats: 39 catches, 367 yards, 6 touchdowns
- Notable career stats: 425 catches (fifth in Vikings history), 4,154 yards (tenth), 47 touchdown catches (fifth)
Kyle Rudolph is coming off of his least productive 16-game season since his rookie year back in 2011. After averaging 63 catches and 625 yards per game over the previous four seasons, Rudolph's numbers dropped to 39 catches for 367 yards in 2019.
Much of that statistical decline had to do with the addition of rookie Irv Smith Jr. to the tight end room; Smith's presence caused Rudolph to play the fewest snaps of his career (excluding his injury-derailed 2013 and 2014 seasons). However, there were also several moments during the season where the veteran tight end looked like a player whose movement ability isn't what it once was. Rudolph, who turned 30 last November, is entering his tenth NFL season.
That context leads us to two pressing questions. What will Rudolph's role look like in 2020 as Smith – who is the team's future at the position – continues to develop? And how does the Vikings' longest-tenured player fit into their long-term plans?
Let's start with the first question. The Vikings drafted Rudolph 43rd overall out of Notre Dame in 2011, and he posted a 26/249/3 line while playing behind Visanthe Shiancoe as a rookie. In his second season – with Shiancoe gone – Rudolph roughly doubled his catches and yards while tripling his touchdown output. Despite missing half of the season to injury in both 2013 and 2014, he has been the Vikings' undisputed top tight end ever since. He was the best TE in the NFC North for much of the decade, peaking with a huge 83/840/7 performance in 2016 and an overdue Pro Bowl appearance following the 2017 season.
Now Rudolph is the veteran who is in the process of passing the torch to a talented young draft pick. His 2019 season started out incredibly slowly; through five weeks, Rudolph had just eight targets, six catches, and 36 receiving yards. That was more due to the Vikings' run-heavy approach than the presence of Smith, but it definitely raised questions about how much Rudolph has left in the tank. He got going after that, catching at least three passes in each of the next seven games and scoring six touchdowns during that time span.
Let's make one thing clear: Rudolph is still a talented, valuable player. His 71.1 PFF grade last year was his best since 2016 and ranked 16th out of 67 qualifying tight ends. He's a smart, capable blocker, and his 6'6" frame and huge hands still make him an incredibly dangerous weapon in the red zone. Rudolph made two amazing one-handed catches during the 2019 regular season and walked off the Saints in the playoffs with his 49th career touchdown (including regular season and playoffs).
Rudolph and Smith will continue to co-exist in 2020 and should again form one of the league's better duos at the position. Gary Kubiak's offense utilizes multiple tight ends more than every team in the NFL but the Eagles, meaning both players will see plenty of snaps. But with many picking Smith to have a breakout season, it's worth wondering what their roles will look like. Smith, who turns 22 in August, offers much more speed and athleticism than his veteran teammate does. It's possible that he will see the bulk of the targets between the two, with the Vikings looking to utilize him on screens as well as short and intermediate routes. That could leave Rudolph as more of a blocking TE and red zone specialist, with his overall numbers staying the same or declining further.
That brings us to the second question: how much longer will Rudolph be part of the Vikings' plans? Amid speculation about his future last offseason, the Vikings signed him to a four-year, $36 million extension. Based on his numbers last season, that deal already looks like an overpay. Rudolph's $9 million average salary is tied for fourth among all tight ends in the NFL, while his 367 receiving yards was tied for 25th. That's a pretty big disparity.
The Vikings can get out of Rudolph's contract without too much difficulty as soon as next offseason. They would have to eat $4.35 million in dead money, but releasing or trading him next spring would save $5.1 million against the cap. If Smith breaks out this year and someone like Tyler Conklin or Brandon Dillon also impresses, that could become a serious consideration. It gets even easier in 2022: moving on from Rudolph at that point would save the Vikings $7.35 million and cost just $2.9 million in dead money.
With that said, the Vikings and Rudolph could also potentially work out a restructured deal that would allow him to stick around in Minnesota for a while longer. He's already become an all-time great for the franchise and could move into third on the team's touchdown receptions leaderboard this season. He's a beloved teammate and a leader in the locker room. He's also an incredibly important figure in the Twin Cities community, with his work with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital earning Rudolph multiple nominations for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Still, the NFL is both a business and a young man's game, and it's possible that 2020 will be the tenth and final season of Rudolph's outstanding Vikings career.
Other TE player previews:
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