An extra step in preparation last week required Kyle Rudolph to be fitted for a helmet with a microphone, because the Vikings’ trust in their longest-tenured player extends to a throwing arm that hasn’t been tested in a game since fourth grade.
Rudolph, the Vikings’ iron man tight end making his 98th consecutive start Sunday against the Jaguars, sets a standard of reliability. That led him to be picked as the emergency quarterback last Sunday against the Panthers behind Kirk Cousins and Sean Mannion, when the normal option, receiver Adam Thielen, was unavailable.
“They trust me that I wouldn’t screw it up,” Rudolph said. “I’d like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of the offense right up there with the quarterbacks, so I have a feeling that if I’m in at quarterback, I’m just handling the ball to Dalvin [Cook] a lot. So, I think I could handle that.”
The Vikings offense is relying more on Rudolph near the end of his 10th season, with the 31-year-old Pro Bowler re-emerging as a receiver because tight end Irv Smith Jr. is sidelined by injury. The catches, including a season-high seven for 68 yards last week, are timely for Rudolph, who is approaching another crossroads this offseason in a contract that is scheduled to pay him like a top-five tight end.
“He’s made more [catches] in the past few weeks probably than he has all year,” coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “That’s a good sign for our team moving forward. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him as a player and have great respect for him as a person and a pro. He’s been doing it a long time.”
Guaranteed money is the NFL’s love language, and Rudolph has none left beyond this season on a deal signed through 2023. He maintained he’s not going anywhere, which is akin to how he publicly faced prolonged negotiations between his agent, Brian Murphy, and the Vikings before agreeing to a four-year, $36 million deal in June 2019.
“I’m under contract for three years,” Rudolph said, “so I’m planning on being here for the next three years.”
‘Injury prone’ to iron man
Rudolph made a name for himself catching the football, but his eventual embrace of blocking in a run-first offense might have boosted his iron man streak.
He hasn’t been listed so much as questionable on an injury report since December 2017 while approaching his 100th straight start, including the playoffs, on Dec. 20 against Chicago.
The Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, with 50 consecutive starts, is the closest to Rudolph among NFL tight ends.
“It means I’ve had good luck over the last six years,” Rudolph said. “[Injuries] are the toughest thing you deal with as a professional athlete, especially in football.”
He knows bad luck. Rudolph started his career fielding questions about being injury-prone while missing half of his third and fourth NFL seasons because of a broken foot, suffered when a Cowboys defender landed on his legs in 2013, and hernia surgery in 2014.
“I remember going through it at the time and knowing that there was nothing that I could do about it,” Rudolph said. “Oftentimes you constantly search for a solution. But it wasn’t my nutrition. It wasn’t the way I was training. It wasn’t the way I was taking care of my body. It was just simply the fact that the ball has to bounce your way at some point, and now here we are at the back end of about six years straight.”
It’s a product of luck and early mornings in the training rooms and cold tubs, according to coach Mike Zimmer, who commended the veteran for keeping some of the longest hours at TCO Performance Center among players.
“I’m trying to make it that long, too,” Zimmer said of Rudolph’s 97 straight starts.
Only left tackle Riley Reiff has been named a captain by Zimmer as often as the four-timer Rudolph, who is among a small circle of players Zimmer consults.
“He’s got a good presence in the locker room,” Zimmer said. “A good presence with the rest of the offensive guys on the team. I rely on him quite a bit on things that come up. I’ll ask him his opinion of things, along with some other guys.”
Rudolph has weathered years of trade rumors and drafted competition but reached one of the more disappointing points in October, when the team was 1-5 and trade talks resurfaced. The deadline came and went last month with the Vikings fielding some interest in Rudolph, according to a league source, but not enough to move him.
There has been no indication Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was as serious about moving Rudolph this fall as he was during tenuous contract talks that broke off in 2019. Rudolph eventually agreed to give the Vikings some cap relief for financial security in last year’s extension — security that effectively runs out after the next five games.
None of Rudolph’s nearly $26 million in salary over the next three years is guaranteed, making his $9.45 million cap hit, fourth among tight ends in 2021, a possible target for the Vikings’ cap-strapped front office.
Rudolph and his wife, Jordan, have raised three children in Minnesota and set deep roots in the community. But he’s said before they’ll remain involved in Minnesota regardless of where he plays.
The Rudolph family on Friday starred in a fundraising virtual fashion show for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where the pandemic has limited their typical holiday events.
“They were all excited about that a couple weeks ago, to get to dress up and record that,” Rudolph said. “Trying to find creative ways virtually to still raise money for the patients and families and the hospital and the research. But then also, doing virtual visits and things like that where we can still interact with the patients.”
On his cleats Sunday, Rudolph will represent the hospital and bring awareness to children’s health for the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” weekend. This, in the same week Rudolph was named the Vikings’ nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award.
“It means a lot,” Rudolph said. “You see the guys that are always nominated for that award, and they’re usually guys that have been around this league for a long time and both have success on and off the field. I always try to pride myself on being a good teammate, being one that’s there for younger guys who are in the situation that I was once in.”