It sure sounds like Kyle Rudolph is excited to get back to work today -- and for good reason.
Norv Turner, the new Vikings offensive coordinator and one of the NFL’s most respected play-callers, has a history of turning tight ends into stars and he also helped one future Hall-of-Famer shine even brighter.
Antonio Gates had already established himself as one of the NFL’s top tight ends before Turner arrived in San Diego, and Turner continued to feature Gates, especially in the red zone. Gates scored at least seven touchdowns in each of his six seasons with Turner and had a career-high 1,157 receiving yards in 2009. In addition to being a red-zone threat, Gates was a field-stretcher. He averaged 15.0 yards per catch in 2009 and 2010, the highest two-season average of a career that will get his bust bronzed in Canton.
Gates isn’t the only tight end to benefit from a working relationship with Turner.
With Turner coordinating the prolific Dallas Cowboys offense from 1991 to 1993, Jay Novacek caught 171 passes -- a lot for a tight end back then -- and made the first three of his five Pro Bowl appearances.
In stints with the Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins as either a head coach or offensive coordinator, Turner didn’t have tight ends who put up “Madden”-type numbers. But the position has been a highly-productive one in his offense since he became the San Diego Chargers’ head coach in 2007.
Watching Gates score all those touchdowns probably had a lot to do with that.
After Turner joined the Cleveland Browns’ staff in 2013, third-year Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, who like Gates was a former college basketball player, blossomed with Turner orchestrating the offense. Cameron’s receptions quadrupled from 2012 to 2013 as he caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. And he had 11 receptions of 20 or more yards, which ranked sixth among NFL tight ends.
Cameron did a sizable chunk of his damage when flexed out into the slot, just like Gates has done with the Chargers. According to Pro Football Focus, Cameron ran 375 of his 622 routes -- 60.3 percent -- out of the slot last season. Only Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons lined up as a slot receiver more often among qualifying tight ends.
Meanwhile, Rudolph, who passed up basketball scholarships to play tight end at Notre Dame, ran 40.2 percent of his routes out of the slot before suffering a season-ending broken foot after eight games and 37.1 percent the season before.
While Rudolph got a Pro Bowl nod in 2012 (and was named Pro Bowl MVP), he hasn’t really been featured as a vertical threat. He has averaged just 9.7 yards per catch through three NFL seasons.
But based on how Turner utilized Gates and Cameron, we can expect Rudolph to be less of a traditional in-line tight end and line up in the slot more frequently.
We’ll see if it results in an uptick statistically, but Turner’s history suggests we should probably expect that, too.