The second-year tight end is positioned for a breakout season.
Kyle Rudolph, the last player off the practice field, walked through the gate, then paused.
First impression: The hot afternoon sun doesn't seem so bad when a 6-6, 260-pound guy is blocking it out. And then he shakes your hand. Engulfs it, really, your hand disappearing into a tape-covered paw.
You think, "Aha. Now it makes sense."
Rudolph is the Vikings starting tight end, feeling better than he has in two years, able to once again put a linebacker or two in his rearview mirror, reliable enough to be an XXX-L-sized security blanket for quarterback Christian Ponder. The two are practically joined at the hip pads. Friends off the field, football's equivalent of a battery on it.
"He gets open," Ponder said, simply. "And if he's barely open, I'm going to give him the ball. He has such great mismatches and he has such a catching radius it's unbelievable."
Catching radius is another way of saying Rudolph is one of those guys who catches anything that comes near him, increasing a quarterback's margin of error exponentially. The reasons are simple: He is very big, he has very long arms and hands that are both super-sized and soft.
The man does not drop the ball.
According to ESPN Stats & information, Rudolph dropped just one of the 37 passes thrown to him during his rookie season in 2011. He finished with 26 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
And he wasn't 100 percent. In October of 2010, Rudolph had his junior season at Notre Dame cut short by hamstring surgery. And while he was back on the field once last year's lockout ended, Rudolph said he was never really himself. He was pain-free, but would watch himself on film and think, "That's not me.''
"It didn't really start coming back until late last season," Rudolph said. "There were a few times, late, when I was able to run past a linebacker. Then, to have that time off in the winter to train and continue to work on that? Now I feel I'm all the way back. It's been two years, almost exactly two years, since the injury."
A tough combo
The Vikings bolstered their wide receiving corps in the offseason. But tight end always will be a key in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's system. After the Vikings signed John Carlson during the offseason, it seemed he and Rudolph would provide a dual threat that is becoming more common in the NFL.
We'll have to wait until Carlson recovers from his knee injury to see what the combination can do. But it appears Rudolph could be poised for a breakthrough season. He clearly has the trust of his quarterback, which is a must. His ability to catch a ball is manifest. Add in more speed and attention to detail?
"He has begun to really step up for us, and come out with a lot of confidence," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Of course you know he and Christian have a great rapport; he is going to be a favorite for Christian. ... He is embracing the fact that he is our starting tight end and we are counting on him in a big way to be productive."
Rudolph has worked hard on running crisper routes, exploding out of breaks to create more separation. His speed should be a problem for linebackers, his size for defensive backs; after a recent practice Antoine Winfield talked about that. "He boxes out so well," Winfield said. "It's almost impossible for guys like me to get around him to the ball."
Not that Rudolph needs a lot of room. He has his height, his hands, his health. And a year of experience.
In a recent training camp practice the offense was working against the blitz when Ponder, under some pressure, threw the ball over the middle to Rudolph, who had a defensive back all over him. Guess who came up with the ball?
"He has gained strength without losing any movement," Musgrave said. "He is one of the guys that we are going to count on to contribute who wasn't a full-time starter last year."
Staff writer Dan Wiederer contributed to this story.