I had debated even posting this, but because the offseason is already slow there was no reason not to.
In speaking with Chris Tomasson, one of the better Vikings reporters on the beat these days, Kyle Rudolph called himself the best tight end in the NFL.
Kyle Rudolph was asked Wednesday to name the NFL’s best tight end. He didn’t hesitate with his response.
“Me,” he said.
. . .
“There’s a ton of talented tight ends in our game,” Rudolph said after an event promoting Second Harvest Heartland launch and its Great American Milk Drive in St. Paul. “You have guys that play at a high level, like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. But I would put myself up there with them.”
There’s not really much to say about this. He isn’t, but I don’t really care to contest the point too much. For me, the most interesting thing about this statement was how willing he was to be harsh about himself when I talked to him at training camp last year. He was very critical of his blocking, which had improved significantly at that point, and was very unhappy about his production between the twenties.
It is difficult to compare Rudolph to other top-tier tight ends from a receiving standpoint, given that Brees, Brady, Romo and Kaepernick were all significant parts of their productive capability, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he’s not in that tier by any means.
To me, Rudolph’s limited 2013 film (I only looked at the Pittsburgh and Cleveland games for him with any particular scrutiny) doesn’t look as impressive as he would want from a technical perspective. He’s a very deliberate route-runner and he hides his true speed by trying to sharpen up other route-running skills, which means he can’t quite maintain deceptiveness and speed as he goes through the route tree. He slows up at the break and can’t explode out of his route like Davis and Graham can.
His hands are very good, but a little overrated by Vikings fans. He has made some spectacular circus catches and has done more than his fair share of bailing out bad throws, but he’s also dropped easy passes and doesn’t catch the ball with his fingertips as often as he should.
As a blocker, he’s better than both Davis and Graham but that’s not saying much. He is probably better than Witten as well, but he has a long way to go before he can match Gronkowski’s blocking ability. While he has improved a lot as a blocker, he’s still trying to win consistently at the point of attack and usually hits second (less hammer, more nail). He understand leverage, though, and despite his 6’6″ frame has been able to use his strength and footwork to move some players around. That said, he didn’t quite have a feel for the running game and would sometimes miss assignments or block in unfavorable directions without correcting.
As both a route-runner and blocker, he’s late off the snap, sometimes incredibly late. It puts him at a massive disadvantage and should probably be the first thing to correct.
Of course, he’s a natural red zone threat, and not just because of his height or ability to climb the ladder. He locates the ball easily, has great positioning, good timing and attacks the ball at the catch point. His strength allows him to fight for contested balls in traffic and like any good tight end, knows how to use his length like a basketball player.
But if he wants to be the best, there’s more to it than that. I strongly suspect Norv will better use him than Musgrave and attack the seam with more consistency, perhaps even using the shake routes that have made Vernon Davis’ career. This should hide some of his weaknesses and highlight some of his hidden strengths.
Fans generally have an odd reaction when players call themselves elite. People derided Eli Manning and Joe Flacco for calling themselves elite (and they did so with the best timing on the planet), but praise players like Robert Griffin III and Derek Carr for saying similar things.
When Erin Henderson argued that he was the best fit for the middle linebacker position and was “pissed” about the disrespect at the beginning of the preseason, fans castigated him for what is a fairly normal and even desirable quality in a player. Here, Rudolph wants to be the best tight end league and will play to prove it. Fine by me, but he’s not there.
This isn’t to say Rudolph is a bad tight end. He’s very good, but he also happened to compare himself to the best tight ends in the NFL and invited the comparisons. Rudolph’s growth as tight end, both as a blocker and receiver has been extraordinary, and one of the most underrated things about him: he’s managed to improve nearly every facet of his game without stopping, which is rarer than you might think.
It’s not a bland compliment or a platitude about hard work; Rudolph is unique in his ability to consistently improve in every area of his game and I don’t think there is another player on the roster that shows this universal ability to absorb new techniques. Fans, analysts and personnel executives consistently talk about “upside” as if it were a purely physical thing. It isn’t. Rudolph’s nearly unlimited potential comes from his ability to learn new concepts and techniques and integrate them into his muscle memory faster than almost anyone I’ve seen. If he continues, he could very well end up in the class he put himself in.
But not yet.