Two years ago, before a brief contract impasse led to the Vikings fielding trade offers for Kyle Rudolph, the Pro Bowl tight end said that he was confident he and the organization agreed about his value and he'd stay in Minnesota. That prediction came true, as Rudolph and the Vikings eventually agreed to a four-year, $36 million extension in June 2019.
Rudolph, a team captain and the Vikings' longest-tenured player, had a different tone during a recent conversation with former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, now a sideline analyst for KFAN, on Leber's podcast "Unrestricted."
After his 10th NFL season, in which Rudolph was primarily used as a blocker and finished with the fewest touchdowns of his career (1) and the fewest catches per game (2.3) since he was a rookie, he said he won't take a restructured contract for the same role. Rudolph acknowledged the crossroads coming in March with the Vikings as they're currently paying him like a receiving tight end but not using him like one. And cap space may be tight.
Rudolph, scheduled to count $9.45 million against the 2021 salary cap with no guaranteed money remaining on a deal through 2023, steered the conversation to his role when asked by Leber about criticism surrounding quarterback Kirk Cousins. Rudolph said criticism won't end for any quarterback until they reach "the mountaintop," which brought him to memories of the Vikings' 2017 playoff run.
"You could feel the vibe of how much it means to this fan base," Rudolph said. "Personally, that's why I'm here. Obviously, it's not because of the way I'm used. Obviously, it's not a lot. I just block every play pretty much. I think I'm more than capable as a pass catcher, and I don't get to do it anymore, quite honestly.
"I want to be a reason why we win this championship. I don't want to just be a swing tackle. That's not what I do well. I've worked really hard at it and I think I've become pretty good at it, but it's certainly not a reason why we can win a championship."
Rudolph was asked how he anticipates the Vikings' front office approaching him.
"I'm not really sure," he said. "I'm realistic. I see both sides. If I were the Wilfs, if I were Rick [Spielman], I'm looking at this situation like, 'Hey, we're paying this guy a lot of money and you're not using him, so why are we continuing to pay him a lot of money?' I've talked about the salary cap before, but we don't know what it's going to come down to. For the first time in I don't know how long, it's not going to go up.
"Certainly a lot of these contracts that were signed over the last few years, they were all signed assuming the cap would go up like $10 million as it has every year for the last 10 years. I certainly get it. I understand. With that being said, I think I'm worth every dime of my contract. That doesn't mean I'm used to my potential or what I do well. But it will be interesting over the next few months."
Rudolph said he wouldn't entertain a restructure negotiation this time to return in a similar role. He had seven touchdowns in 2019, including the walk-off winner in New Orleans during the NFC wild-card playoff win, but his red-zone role also evaporated last season as the offense further pivoted to tight end Irv Smith Jr.
“I just block every play pretty much. I think I'm more than capable as a pass catcher, and I don't get to do it anymore, quite honestly.”
"You only get to play this game for so many years, and I feel like I have a lot of good football left," Rudolph said. "We fast forward, and I've played these three years on my contract and I'm now 33-34, and they're like, 'Hey, we want to keep you around the next couple years at a much lower number, but we want you to do X, Y and Z, help these young guys out.' Sign me up. We want you to be a tight end coach and blocking tight end, sign me up. [But] at 31, with how I feel physically with knowing what I still can do?"
The 1-hour 48-minute podcast was Rudolph's first extensive interview since the Vikings' season ended. He was not made available to local reporters during the team's final video conferences earlier this month and had not participated in a news conference since before he sustained a Lisfranc injury in the Dec. 6 overtime win against Jacksonville.
That injury ended his 98-game start streak and forced him to miss the final four games. Rudolph said that he didn't need surgery and that he's ready to contribute as a receiver, pointing to four straight years with over a 70% catch rate.
"It's simply a lack of opportunities," said Rudolph, whose 48 touchdowns are the most by a Vikings tight end. "In the past, we get in the red zone, I'm the one getting the targets. I need to go back and check, but I believe I had one ball hit my hands in the end zone this year. And it wasn't even really in the end zone, it was kind of out of the back of the end zone, but it was the only one that came, so I had to grab it. So, I can't sign up for that again. Am I all of a sudden going to derail my career with a lot of football left? You know how it goes, you get in your early 30s, everyone assumes you're done – you're old, you're over 30, you can't do it anymore. If I just block every play, the other 31 teams are going to assume that as well."
Rudolph said he could see the "writing on the wall" two years ago, after he signed the latest contract extension, as then-coordinator Kevin Stefanski implemented then-assistant head coach Gary Kubiak's run-oriented offense. He talked to former NFL stalwarts like Jim Kleinsasser and Tony Gonzalez and decided to embrace the dirty work.
"Now two years later, even guys in the building upstairs will joke around with me like you've messed around and become a good blocker," he said. "Your film is your resume. Am I going to put out [bad] film because I'm doing something I don't want to do? Or, who knows what happens moving forward, but I can certainly stand firm on my film."
The Rudolph family, including his wife, Jordan, and their three children, intend to remain in Minnesota for the long haul, even if he's forced to reroute his career to find more opportunities.
"This is home for us," Rudolph said. "We're in Minnesota for life. Been here for a decade. Like I said, if it were up to me, I'd never leave. But when you play the game as long as I've played, the odds of being in one place for 10 years certainly barely ever happens, but you get to 12, 15, 17 – there aren't many guys outside of franchise quarterbacks who stay one place.
"It's unlikely there won't be a stop somewhere else," he added. "I certainly hope not."