Vikings fans are rightfully giddy about the prospect of Kyle Rudolph shredding opposing secondaries in his second season with the Purple. Last season, the rookie from Notre Dame showed flashes of brilliance as he got his feet wet while lurking in the shadow of Visanthe Shiancoe on the team's depth chart.
This year, Shiancoe is gone, and even though the Vikings signed former Seahawks tight end John Carlson as a free agent, Rudolph is expected to emerge as one of Christian Ponder's main targets. A number of factors seem to be working in Rudolph's favor. Consider:
- Last season, 17 of his 26 catches and all three of his touchdowns came after Ponder took over for Donovan McNabb at quarterback in late October. Ponder should be more comfortable in all facets of the game this year, and given a full offseason together – and a full training camp working together with the offensive starting unit – it's not a stretch to expect their chemistry to continue to develop, yielding big results.
- As Rudolph told KFAN on Monday, he's finally 100 percent healthy for the first time as a professional. When the Vikings drafted him in 2011, he was coming off a devastating injury – he'd torn his hamstring from the bone, and it had to be surgically reattached, limiting his final collegiate season to just six games. As a rookie, he was still recovering from that injury. This year, the hamstring is no longer a concern.
- He's already established himself as a threat in the red zone, using his 6-foot-6 frame to box out and outleap defenders in the end zone. With a year under his belt – a year spent learning the tricks of the trade, the weak spots in opposing defenses and how best to utilize his own unique skills – he could become the Vikings' best end zone target since Cris Carter.
- The luck of the Irish can't hurt. Not only did the Vikings sign former Golden Domer Carlson to serve as a mentor of sorts for Rudolph, but they also drafted one of his best friends, Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, and added another former college teammate in cornerback Robert Blanton. Rudolph and Smith already are sharing a house, and perhaps they can help each other wake up the echoes together this fall as well.
Finally, it's an old football trope that wide receivers blossom in their second year in the league, but does the same hold true for tight ends? Consider a few recent success stories from the past decade:
Rob Gronkowski, New England
Rookie year, 2010 – 42 catches, 546 yards, 10 TDs
Second year, 2011 – 90 catches, 1327 yards, 17 TDs
Antonio Gates, San Diego
Rookie year, 2003 – 24 catches, 389 yards, 2 TDs
Second year, 2004 – 81 catches, 964 yards, 13 TDs
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
Rookie year, 2010 – 31 catches, 356 yards, 5 TDs
Second year, 2011 – 99 catches, 1310 yards, 11 TDs
Jason Witten, Dallas
Rookie year, 2003 – 35 catches, 347 yards, 1 TD
Second year, 2004 – 87 catches, 980 yards, 6 TDs
Chris Cooley, Washington
Rookie year, 2004 – 37 catches, 314 yards, 6 TDs
Second year, 2005 – 71 catches, 774 yards, 7 TDs
So yeah, it's not exactly unprecedented for a young tight end to make a quantum leap between his first and second NFL seasons. Thus, check back in about six months to see how we might fill in the following blanks:
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota
Rookie year, 2011 – 26 catches, 249 yards, 3 TDs
Second year, 2012 -- ?????
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.