Kyle Rudolph reported to the Vikings' offseason program at the TCO Performance Center on Monday wearing a sweatshirt that read "Lots of game left." The wardrobe choice came from a proven NFL tight end who sounds a little tired of smelling disrespect wafting his way.
Rudolph, who will turn 30 in November, said he's out to prove something in his ninth NFL season, which happens to be the final year of his current Vikings contract.
"When you've played a lot of football in this league and your name's been around a long time, everyone just assumes you're in your mid-30s and on your way out," Rudolph said Tuesday. "That's not the case with me. I feel like I'm just now starting to get into the prime of my career. I was at the Masters this weekend, so I'll use a golf analogy: I feel like I haven't hit the back nine yet. I still feel like I have a lot of football left and, as the sweatshirt said, a lot of game left."
Do the Vikings agree? The ball is in the team's court, as Rudolph said his agent has not yet heard from the Vikings front office about an extension or restructured deal that could add years to his contract and reduce a $7.625 million cap hit. Only two NFL teams have less cap space than the Vikings, according to the NFLPA.
Rudolph told the Star Tribune last month he would accept a new deal that guaranteed some long-term money at the cost of his current salary, but the Vikings have made no such overtures to one of their longest-tenured players, according to Rudolph.
"I would love to help our cap situation," Rudolph said. "But that's out of my control. That's between Rick [Spielman], Rob [Brzezinski] and my agent."
"I'm just trying to find out where I fit in," Rudolph added.
Lingering ambiguity about Rudolph's future in Minnesota, where his family and charitable efforts call home, likely only fuels the fire to prove something. But he's proved plenty. Since he was drafted in 2011, Rudolph ranks fourth among all NFL tight ends in touchdowns (41), fifth in games started (104), 10th in receptions (386) and 12th in yardage (3,787).
After dealing with injuries early in his career, Rudolph hasn't missed a game since 2014.
"He's as smart a player as anybody I've played with and has as good of hands as anybody I've played with," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "He's one of the guys in the locker room that conducts himself in a way that sets a high standard for everybody that follows and comes after him."
Should the Vikings pick a tight end in next week's NFL draft, it'd be for the fifth straight offseason. Fresh competition is nothing new to Rudolph, who is also familiar with flipping through pages of another new playbook. Kevin Stefanski is his fifth offensive coordinator in Minnesota. And Rudolph's longest touchdown drought of his career (11 games) ended last season in December, during Stefanski's second game calling plays. Paired with newly hired assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, whose offenses have previously leaned heavily on two tight ends, Stefanski's offense could enable Rudolph to prove himself all over again.
"Kevin calling the last three games of last season, our production spiked quite a bit," Rudolph said. "And then bringing in coach Kubiak and the tradition he has with the tight end position, I'm looking forward to a big spike in production and usage."