One of the reasons the Vikings had problems moving the ball during the preseason was because tight end Kyle Rudolph, certainly one of the team’s top offensive weapons, didn’t see much action in the first two games and didn’t play at all during the final two.
It’s amazing to think Rudolph, entering his sixth season with the Vikings, is the longest-tenured veteran on the team on offense. Last year he set career highs with 83 receptions for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.
Rudolph didn’t make a reception in the preseason, appearing for 13 snaps against Buffalo and 15 snaps against Seattle. He will be ready to play in the opener against New Orleans at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night, and he’s convinced the offense will be much improved over last season once the regular season starts.
“I think for us it’s another year that we’ve played together, especially at the quarterback position,” Rudolph said. “Having Sam [Bradford] here all offseason has been good. Having [offensive coordinator Pat Shumur’s] system throughout the offseason has helped us a lot to get comfortable in that.
“We added a couple offensive linemen through free agency, a talented young runner in Dalvin [Cook] in the draft, so we’re excited for what we’ve built.”
Rudolph said Bradford, with whom he had a great connection last season after the quarterback was acquired from the Eagles last September, will certainly benefit from added familiarity with the offense and his receivers.
“It’s good to have Sam around here all offseason and get those reps we missed out on all last year,” he said. “Those go a long way. A lot of times you kind of lose sight of that, but for us to put in the countless reps we’ve had in OTAs [organized team activities], minicamp, training camp and the preseason games, it really helps us when we get going here when games start meaning things.”
Rudolph said he’s really enjoyed working with Cook, the Vikings’ second-round draft pick from Florida State.
“He’s a really good player. Dalvin is a phenomenal talent,” Rudolph said. “I have been really impressed by the way he has run the football now for a few months. I’m excited to watch him play this year.”
Rudolph also mentioned Jerick McKinnon, who returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers in the preseason, and Latavius Murray, who rushed for 788 yards for the Raiders last season, as running backs who could do some damage.
“I think we have three really good ones,” Rudolph said. “Obviously we have seen what Jerick can do here the last couple of years. He creates a lot of mismatch problems, not only in the run game but in the pass game as well.
“[Murray] is a big back [6-3, 230 pounds] that can do a lot of things for us, so we’re excited for him, as well.”
Rudolph expects the offensive line to be much improved if it can just get some continuity with the personnel.
“I think that last year, if you look at preseason, we had quite a few position battles going on up there,” Rudolph said. “So they didn’t really get to play together much and then obviously [became] depleted through injuries.
“That’s a group and a unit that has to be cohesive and play together a lot to succeed. So I’m looking forward to having those guys out there together. Obviously we added some parts in free agency [starting tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers], drafted the young kid from Ohio State [third-round pick Pat Elflein, who will start at center]. We have a lot of talent in that room, and I think they’ll be a lot better.”
Stressing team goals
While Rudolph said he was happy with how he played last year, it ultimately means nothing if the team can’t contend for a division title.
“Last year was a good year for me statistically; it’s kind of a benchmark for my career and it’s where I’d like to continue to be with regards to receptions,” Rudolph said. “I want to continue to make plays to help my team win games. If that’s by catching 83 balls, then so be it. If I catch 50 balls and we’re in the playoffs and I’m helping our team win, that’s awesome, too.”
Does he think the Vikings can get back to their level of play from 2015 and the first five games of 2016?
“We lost quite a few games in the fourth quarter [last season], games that in critical situations we didn’t execute,” Rudolph said. “We’ve worked on that a lot this offseason. Year in and year out, you’re going to go and look at the four or six games where it could have gone one way or the other. The year before we won 11 games, won the division, and we won a lot of close games in the fourth quarter. This past year we didn’t do that. We need to get back to that.
“You want to be division champ and host a home playoff game. Obviously this year for us, home-field advantage can go all the way through the Super Bowl. We want to be the first team [to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium].”
The first big step for Rudolph and the Vikings will be Monday when they face off with the Saints and their old teammate, Adrian Peterson. Rudolph said he expects it to be a great contest.
“It’ll be a good test for us, obviously [Peterson] will be excited coming back here,” he said. “There has been a lot of energy this week and then you add Adrian on the other sideline, and it’ll be a pretty cool environment in U.S. Bank Stadium.”
Coffey’s NBA potential
The Gophers haven’t produced an NBA draft pick since 2004 (forward Kris Humphries, who went 14th overall to the Jazz), but coach Richard Pitino thinks there’s a chance 6-8 guard Amir Coffey, who had a tremendous freshman season, could break that streak.
“I think he has a realistic chance to play at the next level,” Pitino said. “It’s something that I think is attainable. He’s a hard worker, an easy kid to coach. If he takes all of the steps that he needs to and continues to progress, there’s no reason he can’t play in the NBA.
“The NBA really comes down to size and skill, and he has both. His jump shot is better than I thought and continues to improve. He’s obviously a very good passer. He’s a better scorer than I think we give him credit for. The one thing we don’t talk enough about is he’s a terrific defender. He has all the tools and it’s just a matter of taking the next step, which I think he’ll do.”
• The big question for the Timberwolves remains when forward Nemanja Bjelica, who had surgery on his left foot during the offseason, will be able to return. Training camp begins Sept. 23.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org