I’m pretty sure I came close to inadvertently sabotaging the Kyle Rudolph contract negotiations this past weekend. I had no knowledge that the Vikings would be announcing a five-year contract extension with the big tight end Sunday when I asked offensive coordinator Norv Turner just how good Rudolph could be. I prefaced my question -- posed during his Saturday afternoon media availability -- with the common observation that he has previously coached a lot of successful tight ends. I merely wanted to get his initial impressions on how Rudolph stacked up with the likes of Antonio Gates, Jay Novacek or Jordan Cameron.
“Did we say $36.5 million? Norv thinks he’s the best… let’s make that $40 million!”
Okay, so my little question really didn’t come close to meddling with or completely derailing the last-second deliberations between the two sides. But the answer coach Turner gave was a little surprising nonetheless.
Turner submitted that Rudolph “has worked as hard as anyone in this organization and he is getting himself ready to have a great year.” That’s not exactly the same as, “We think Kyle can be a perennial All-Pro” or “He’s right there with Jimmy Graham as the best in the business.” Coach Turner was very measured with his praise and went on to outline the fact that Rudolph needs to improve on the mechanics of his route-running.
“The way he has been running routes has been the stop and change direction, a lot moves at the top of routes, cutting, stopping to cut. We try to keep him on the move a little bit more with a quicker change of direction, running out of breaks as we say, not turning and looking for the ball because we know where the ball is going to be placed.”
This isn’t Turner’s first rodeo. He’s done the training camp thing a time or two before. Needless to say he understands the concept of keeping players motivated. Rudolph isn’t a finished product. He has stuff to work on. The millions the Vikings threw at him suggest, however, that they think he’s on track to be among the best at his position in the NFL.
Having Turner as his coach certainly doesn’t hurt his chances. Norv has worked with aforementioned stars like Gates and Novacek and heavily utilized Cameron last year in Cleveland. To wit, Cameron was targeted 118 times, third-most among tight ends, caught 80 passes (again third-most), for 917 yards (second-most) and seven touchdowns. Beyond that, coach Turner has wrung every ounce of talent out of pedestrian tight ends such as Freddie Jones and Doug Jolley and slightly-above pedestrian-level talents such as Eric Johnson and Randy McMichael.
Rudolph is in a good position, and he knows it. He’s noted more than once that he wants to be the best tight end in the NFL. He’ll have a hard time attaining such a status as long as Jimmy Graham stays healthy and keeps the tight end (rather than wide receiver) label. He’ll also have a tough time surpassing Rob Gronkowski if the oft-injured party boy finds a cocktail which includes a magical elixir that keeps him on the field and off Injured Reserve.
Beyond those two, however, Rudolph can be as good as anyone in the league right now and as good as any tight end in Vikings history, including the likes of Steve Jordan and Joe Senser.
His efforts to do so started with losing 15 pounds this offseason, bringing him down from about 273 to 258. The weight loss provides him a little more quickness, enabling him to glide through his cuts more quickly as coach Turner wants to see him do.
We know he’s a huge red zone threat. He’s a ripped 6-5 with excellent hands -- a perfect target in the end zone. Rudolph caught nine touchdown passes in 2012, the second most by a tight end that season and second-highest single-season total by a tight end in franchise history (Visanthe Shiancoe had 11 in 2009). Now he needs to be more impactful between the 20s.
It’s definitely fair to say Rudolph has been under-utilized to this point in his career. Turner will showcase Rudolph this season more than he’s ever been showcased before. Clearly the Vikings wanted to get his contract extension on the books before he posted a breakout season and could ask for even more.
A quick announcement before we go
Coming soon to a purple corner of the Internet near you, from the folks who brought you TwinsDaily.com: We’ll be launching VikingsJournal.com in mid-August and it will contain a smorgasbord of Vikings content sure to please every Helga-horn-wearing member of Vikings Nation. Don’t bother going there now; you won’t find anything yet. I’ll let you know when the ship sets sail, so don’t worry. I just wanted to give everyone a heads up. That is all.
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell