So far, one of the biggest stories in the NFL this week was the finalization of a deal that made Jimmy Graham the highest paid tight end in the NFL. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that Graham’s deal is for four years, worth $40 million with $21 million guaranteed. It begs the question, will any other tight end get this kind of money within the next few years?
After all, most of the elite tight ends are currently locked under long-term contracts, like New England’s Rob Gronkowski or Dallas’ Jason Witten. However, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph has been overlooked the past three seasons he’s been in the NFL.
Although his brief three-year career has been full of ups and downs, the 2012 season was his best so far, accumulating 56 receptions to go along with almost 500 yards and 9 receiving touchdowns. In that season he was selected as the replacement for Tony Gonzalez in the Pro Bowl, where he earned MVP honors.
In 2013 I was looking for Rudolph to take the next step in being a great NFL tight end, but he was limited to only 8 games due to a season-ending foot injury. However, 2014 is a contract year for Rudolph, and the Vikings have already decided to not give the young pass catcher a new deal before the season, possibly to motivate him for the coming season.
2014 could be a big year for Rudolph, with tight end friendly offensive coordinator Norv Turner now taking over play calling duties for the Vikings. Norv Turner’s success with tight ends is well recorded– notably with Jay Novacek for the Cowboys, Antonio Gates with the Chargers, and Jordan Cameron for the Browns. All three were big bodied tight ends that excelled at catching the ball in the middle of the field, something that Rudolph is very effective at because of his big frame and large hands.
Rudolph will benefit from the two tight end formations that Norv Turner loves to run, because he will have to focus less on blocking, which would likely be handled by the other tight end in the formation, which will likely be Rhett Ellison or Chase Ford.
Although there may be two tight ends on the field, I would expect Turner to use Rudolph a lot like he used Antonio Gates– lining him up in the slot, on the line, and possibly even out wide on goal line situations. The area I see Rudolph making the biggest impact is in goal line situations. The Vikings are without a starting wide receiver over the height of 6-foot-2, so the 6-foot-6 Rudolph should be catching a lot of balls in the red zone (so for you fantasy football buffs out there, look for Rudolph in the later rounds as he will surely be catching plenty of touchdown passes.)
[Analysis: #1 player to watch at training camp]
As mentioned before, 2014 will be a contract year for Rudolph, who is spending the off season preparing for Norv Turner’s offense. During the offseason, Rudolph has watched tape of the Browns’ offense, and specifically Jordan Cameron to see what Cameron was doing on his way to an 80 reception season last year. Although Rudolph may not be as quick as Cameron, he has been working on his weight, and has dropped 15 pounds this offseason to be more active in the passing game of Turner’s offense. Rudolph was also taking part in Larry Fitzgerald‘s annual training camp in Minnesota, where he’s been working on his speed in and out of his breaks, which has been one of Rudolph’s biggest issues in the past.
Another thing to consider is that the Vikings drafted rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and although it’s not clear if he’ll be the starter in 2014 or not, one thing is clear: a young rookie quarterback’s best friend is a big, athletic tight end. However, if anything has stopped Rudolph from gaining success in the past, it’s the injury bug. As mentioned before, Rudolph missed 8 games in 2013; but he also missed 3 games and 6 games in his sophomore and junior seasons respectively, before declaring for the draft.
Despite an up and down career so far, and calling himself “the best tight end in the NFL” on several different occasions, Rudolph will look to improve in a 2014 season in which he has a lot of money on the line. If Rudolph shows the Vikings he’s ready to be a focal point of the offense, don’t be surprised if they reward him with a big contract. The contract may not reach Jimmy Graham or Gronk numbers, but he could land in the $7 million/year range where guys like Jared Cook of the Rams and Mercedes Lewis of the Jaguars are. Depending on how big Rudolph’s season is this year, the numbers could go even higher for the former 43rd overall pick.