Kyle Rudolph’s seven-year career has been an adventure.
Despite backing up Visanthe Shiancoe most of his 2011 rookie season, Rudolph showed glimpses of top-flight pass-catching ability from the tight end position. The size, physicality and soft hands were all there. All he needed was a starting role.
He got the chance to start in 2012 and thrived, recording nearly 500 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in a run-heavy offense spearheaded by Adrian Peterson’s unthinkable 2,000-yard season. Rudolph quickly became Christian Ponder’s most reliable receiver once Percy Harvin was done for the season by Week 7.
Two injury-riddled seasons left many questioning Rudolph’s future with the Vikings. Many suggested bringing in potential replacement options, whether through the draft or free agency. Nonetheless, the Vikings rewarded Rudolph with a controversial five-year, $36.5 million contract that, in hindsight, looks pretty good.
Over the last three seasons, Rudolph has thrived as an efficient red zone receiving weapon and chain-mover for quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum and offensive coordinators Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur.
The 2018 offseason brought even more turnover at quarterback and offensive coordinator. However, those transactions will vault Rudolph to heights his career has not seen before.
New starting quarterback Kirk Cousins likes to throw to his tight ends, or at least he did as a Washington Redskin. He targeted his starting tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis 126 times in 2017 and 148 times in 2016 — and Reed was only healthy for half of Washington’s games the past two years.
Also, it appears as if Cousins and Rudolph have already built some chemistry during minicamp and OTAs.
“Boy, he’s a friendly target,” Cousins, wired for an OTA practice, said shortly after firing a pass to Rudolph. “It’s like throwing into a mattress.”
Cousins is used to giving big, physical tight ends a chance to make plays in traffic and one would expect him to do the same with Rudolph in 2018. The Cousins-Rudolph connection will be amplified by an offensive coordinator oozing with experience getting tight ends the football.
John DeFilippo will take over as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator this season after winning a Super Bowl as quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles a year ago. DeFilippo’s is most widely known for the recent development of Carson Wentz and his miraculous work with Nick Foles in the playoffs last January and February, but it’s his role in the success of tight ends Zach Ertz (824 yards, eight touchdowns) and Trey Burton (248 yards, five touchdowns) that pertain to Rudolph.
DeFilippo does have a year of offensive coordinator experience. Sure, it was with the Browns and sure, it was just one season. But that one season offers an excellent look into what Minnesota’s offense could look like in 2018. Except, you know, with much better players at pretty much every position.
DeFilippo’s high usage and creativity with the tight end position in Cleveland resulted in a sudden spike in production for Gary Barnidge. Prior to 2015, Barnidge had posted 44 career receptions and three touchdowns in seven seasons (six healthy). With DeFilippo at offensive coordinator, Barnidge erupted for 79 receptions (on 125 targets) for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. The following season (with DeFilippo gone), Barnidge’s numbers dropped to 55 receptions for 612 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Rudolph is already productive in the red zone — he finished 13th in the league red zone target percentage (25.8%) and 14th in target percentage inside the 10 (30%) a season ago. Additionally, his red zone catch percentage of 87.5% (14 receptions on 16 targets) was No. 1 in the NFL among all players with at least 10 targets.
A further look into Barnidge’s 2015 season suggests even more red zone involvement for Rudolph in 2018. Barnidge had a red zone target percentage of 26.4% (12th in the NFL) and his 24 total red zone targets were fourth in the league. Inside the 10, Barnidge was targeted 15 times (third in the NFL) and posted a target percentage of 37.5%, also good for third in the NFL.
What do all these numbers mean? Statistically, Rudolph was one of the most efficient red zone receivers in the NFL a season ago. In DeFilippo’s lone season as an offensive coordinator, his starting tight end was targeted heavily near the goal line. Rudolph now slides into that role in 2018 and adds the superb efficiency to it that Barnidge could not.
Now, you might say, “well Barnidge was Cleveland’s No. 1 receiving option in 2015 and Rudolph won’t be Minnesota’s No. 1 receiving option in 2018.” And you would be right about that. However, Rudolph was the Vikings’ top target specifically in the red zone area in 2017 — and in 2016 and in 2015.
When combine all of these ingredients — Cousins’s strong preference of tight ends, Rudolph’s high efficiency and past red zone usage and DeFilippo’s past emphasis on his starting tight end in the red zone, it creates a recipe that smells a lot like a career season for Rudolph the Red-Zone Reindeer. And he seems excited for it.
“What [DeFilippo] was able to do in 2015 with Gary Barnidge, and then obviously last year Ertz had an unbelievable year in this system,” Rudolph said (via Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune). “It’s not just us. Obviously, he’s had great success with tight ends. What he is able to do with all the playmakers and all of the chess pieces that we have on offense, it’s been a lot of fun to see.”