As soon as Kyle Rudolph rolls out of bed Monday mornings, the artifacts of his new role with the Vikings are there to greet him.
The tight end, with just nine catches for 72 yards through six games, no longer aches from having his body torqued and twisted by tacklers. The soreness now is mostly in his elbows and hands, the tools of an unfamiliar task for a two-time Pro Bowler who’s now being asked to block more frequently than any starting tight end in the NFL.
Monday morning film sessions are less about Rudolph critiquing his ability to separate from defensive backs and more about the particulars of protecting those who occupy headlining roles in the Vikings’ offense. Did Rudolph give up the first hit on running back Dalvin Cook? Did a pass rusher beat him to contact or pressure quarterback Kirk Cousins?
“Whatever my past roles have been, when we turn the tape on Monday, it won’t matter if I haven’t blocked traditionally. Now, that’s all I’m doing,” he said. “My grade will reflect how well I’ve blocked. There’s no curve. I’m grading out higher now than I ever have; it’s not because I’m running routes and catching balls.”
Rudolph says this with no ruefulness in his voice, even if a shift to an unglamorous role could lead a player in the 29-year-old’s position to harbor resentment. Instead of retaining a key role in the Vikings’ passing game — after agreeing to a restructured five-year, $43.725 million deal in June that helped the Vikings clear cap space to sign their draft class — Rudolph has been pressed into blocking duty, because of the Vikings’ shift to a run-heavy offense and a knee injury to tight end David Morgan that resulted in season-ending surgery.
The Vikings’ win in Detroit last December was, to this point, Rudolph’s high-water mark as an NFL receiver. He caught nine passes for a career-high 122 yards, posting one of his three two-touchdown games in the NFL and hauling in a 44-yard Hail Mary from Cousins before halftime. He has scored four times in the Vikings’ past two trips to Detroit; though he remains confident in his abilities as a receiver, and ready for targets to come his way, he does not expect his role to change in 2019.
“If it hasn’t changed through six games, I don’t see why it would change,” he said. “Nor would I expect it to change; we have two great wide receivers, we have a running back that’s running really, really well, and they have another tight end [second-round pick Irv Smith] that they’re trying to get the ball to. I kind of look at it as, I’m sixth in line. I might as well do what I do every play well.”
Through 40 pass-blocking snaps in six games, Rudolph has allowed only one sack and two pressures (according to Pro Football Focus), while logging 175 run-blocking snaps and playing a key part in the Vikings’ outside zone blocking scheme.
He’s also able to quickly cite the stark contrast in his receiving numbers.
“I have yet to catch a ball further than four yards down the field,” he said, “and I have two targets further than four yards down the field: A throwaway, and a throwaway. Running routes and catching balls is not what I’m graded for any more.”
Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said he doesn’t consider Rudolph an afterthought in the passing game by any means, and both acknowledged there could come a day where his number is called more often. The point of professional pride, for Rudolph now, comes from being known as a complete tight end, from excelling in a facet of the game in which he’s never been seen as particularly adept and from being the one the Vikings can trust in a role they know they need.
“We’re asking a lot of Kyle, but I do believe any success we’ve had so far, I can attribute to him,” Stefanski said. “There’s so many examples of him effort-blocking out front, or the touchdown to Dalvin this week, securing the edge. Or how about the touchdown to Adam this week in the corner of the end zone — blocking Brandon Graham? I see a ton of examples of our success going through 82.”
Embracing the change
Even though Rudolph is playing at 258 pounds — the lightest weight of his career and about 10 pounds slimmer than he was in his earlier years — he’s easily the biggest of the Vikings’ tight ends, three inches taller at 6-6 than Tyler Conklin and 16 pounds heavier than Smith. When Morgan’s injury first appeared serious this spring and summer, Rudolph knew what was coming.
“Early on, everyone kept telling me, ‘The balls will come,’ ” he said. “I hadn’t fully accepted just being a blocker — and really, since embracing that, I take a lot of pride in being a good football player. Right now, if I want to be a good football player, I have to be a good blocker. It’s a change in mentality, taking pride in blocking guys that are some of the best at their position — high draft picks, good rushers — and just trying harder than they do.”
That realization, Rudolph said, is what’s allowed him to excel in an area of the game he admits has never been his forte. He studies film differently, looking for insights on a defender’s rush plan or hand-fighting technique instead of how linebackers and safeties cover him. He knows much of his success, in dealing with players who outweigh him, will hinge on whether he’s willing to expend more effort than them. And he leans on the ethos of tight ends he’s played with (Jim Kleinsasser, Rhett Ellison and Morgan among them) that made a living from the position’s blue-collar demands.
“I took so much pride in being a part of that lineman group,” said Kleinsasser, whose final season with the Vikings coincided with Rudolph’s rookie year in 2011. “Your accountability to your teammates, and how your teammates think about you, is such a huge thing. There’s only one thing that’s going to come, and that’s your teammates thinking that much more of you for going out and doing that dirty work — because the guys on the team see that. The fans may not see that, but your coaches and your teammates especially are going to see that. Once you start getting that, it’s kind of contagious. It’s that mindset switch that flips over for you — especially after you played so many years. You want people to be able to count on you.”
Is it fun for Rudolph?
“It is fun, and I think it’s because it’s something people don’t think I can do, or I haven’t done in the past,” he said. “So yeah, it is fun.”
‘I have a lot of people rooting for me’
The high stakes and lucrative contracts of the NFL, though, have a way of muddying the waters of any role change, no matter how pristine the reasons might have been for a player accepting it. Given that the Vikings are scheduled to carry more than $202 million of cap liabilities into the 2020 league year, it’s not hard to see a scenario where Rudolph is faced with the same choice as former teammates Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Jerome Felton or Brian Robison, who were forced to consider playing for fewer dollars as their responsibilities shifted.
The only guaranteed cash left in Rudolph’s deal would come on the third day of the 2020 league year, when his $7.025 million base salary would become fully guaranteed if he’s on the Vikings’ roster. He’s not blind to the business realities that could follow a season where a new role comes with modest statistics.
“I think the biggest thing is, I know that I have a lot of people around this game that are rooting for me, that know I can catch the football and still run and do all the things that come with being a pass-catching tight end,” he said. “But I almost see it as a way to increase my value, because now people are like, ‘Wow — he can block. We’ve always known he can help us in the pass game, but now he can help us in the run game and in pass protection.’ I’ve just kind of taken that mindset of, I have a lot of people rooting for me, a lot of people supporting me, a lot of people that think I should get the ball more. There aren’t a lot of people that would put me in the category of great blocking tight ends in this league. But if you go back and watch the first six games on tape, an argument can be made for that.”
Rudolph’s evolution, coach Mike Zimmer said, could help prolong his career. Kleinsasser said his former teammate — who was fifth in touchdowns and eighth in receptions among tight ends from 2014-18 — “fits in with the mold” of Jason Witten, whom Kleinsasser considered the standard of a complete tight end. And those players who can be trusted in any situation, Stefanski said, are few and far between.
“How many complete tight ends are there in the game any more?” Stefanski said. “To see him do it at this level, and function in a bunch of different roles, I think, is extremely impressive. You look around the league, and who else is doing that?”
The question of Rudolph’s valuation is probably best left for another day. His value to the 2019 Vikings is clear now.
“I’ve made a living and a name for myself catching the football. I can still do that,” Rudolph said. “But why not dedicate all my time and effort into a decent blocker? If that’s what they’re going to have me do, I want to help this football team win, so I need to find a way to get good at it.”