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Updated: May 12th, 2011 11:29pm
Pelissero: Kyle Rudolph could be a big-time steal, if he stays healthy

Pelissero: Kyle Rudolph could be a big-time steal, if he stays healthy

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

The knocks against Kyle Rudolph are blocking and durability, and the two may not be entirely unrelated.

Notre Dame's star tight end knew his left hamstring wasn't right months before he pulled the first tendon off the bone on Sept. 25, then the second two weeks later.

Somehow, Rudolph racked up 328 yards and three touchdowns on 28 catches, including a memorable 95-yarder against Michigan, in six games before surgery ended his third college season.

But it stands to reason a rare and significant lower-body injury -- coupled with a heavily "flexed" role in new coach Brian Kelly's spread offense -- did nothing to help Rudolph prove he has the inline skills to belong in the NFL Draft's first round, healthy or not.

"He's got the frame and the body type to develop and work into a point-of-attack role," an AFC personnel director said of Rudolph, a matchup nightmare in pattern at 6-foot-5¾ and 266 pounds who slipped to the Minnesota Vikings in the second round (43rd overall).

"He needs some blocking development from inline positions. He needs to get a little bit stronger. But you've got to remember now, this kid's a true junior and he missed a lot of time here with his hamstring. So, the ceiling and the upside factor is pretty high on him."

A consensus preseason All-American last year, Rudolph has proven he can catch the ball. The onetime Wake Forest basketball recruit had 90 receptions for 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns in 29 college games and wowed scouts with his hands at a campus workout on April 7, less than six months after having the two torn tendons screwed back into place.

"Heck, the guy caught everything. Didn't miss a beat," said the Midwest area scout for an NFC team. "You could tell he wasn't back to full speed, but I was impressed, especially with the limited amount of time he had to come back. Obviously, he wasn't completely healthy, and really, he kind of just jumped in. He only had like 2½ weeks to work out."

The question is whether Rudolph can hold up against the pounding of a 16-game NFL season, especially if he's asked to handle a substantial number of snaps along the line of scrimmage.

His sophomore season ended prematurely because of a Grade 3/Grade 4 separated shoulder. Then, last July, Rudolph felt the minor twinge in his hamstring that became a major pain by September, forcing him to grit it out on 1½ legs until the second tendon gave out.

According to Dr. J.R. Rudzki, a sports-medicine specialist who has worked with the St. Louis Rams and a handful of other professional sports teams, hamstring tendon avulsions haven't been well-studied in NFL players. But research "suggests patients have roughly a 70 to 85 percent of being able to return to their desired level of sports activity.

"For him," added Rudzki, who hasn't examined Rudolph, "obviously, he has functional demands and an activity level as an elite professional athlete that are significant and leave little room for residual weakness."

There was enough interest within the NFL medical community that Rudolph was asked to return to Indianapolis for a check-up last month. But Rudolph said that exam showed he's fully healed, and several league sources confirmed Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman's statement the team had "no issues with him medically after he was cleared by our doctors."

Said the AFC personnel director, who rated Rudolph as a high second-round prospect even before the injury, "At the end of the day, I think most teams felt comfortable long-term with what the projections would be. He may need to keep moving along here with getting him back to 100 percent, but that wouldn't necessarily be a long-term detriment."

The Vikings surely wouldn't have turned down trade overtures and waited to fill several holes on defense with their only Day 2 pick if they felt differently. They'd already selected quarterback Christian Ponder at No. 12 overall and didn't have another pick until the fourth round, 63 picks later.

Considering they lacked an "A"-level priority need at the position, at least in the short term -- veterans Visanthe Shiancoe, Jimmy Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan all can become free agents after the season -- it was clear the Vikings' decision-makers viewed Rudolph as a game-changer in new coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense, which could lean heavily on two-tight end sets.

"When I looked at him and I studied him on tape, I said, 'You know what? This guy can impact our entire team,'" coach Leslie Frazier said. "He has some unique skills, being 6-foot-6, 260 pounds and running -- he's capable of being able to run in the 4.7s, 4.6 area (in the 40-yard dash)."

The best Rudolph could manage was 4.78 seconds at his campus workout, where he posted a 34½-inch vertical, a 9-5 broad jump and 19 bench reps of 225 pounds -- numbers that would have ranked around the middle of the pack for tight ends had he participated in February's scouting combine.

More significant are the 10¾-inch hands and 80 5/8-inch wingspan that make Rudolph so difficult for smaller defenders to cover, especially when flexed into space.

"He's never been to me necessarily a top-end speed threat," the AFC personnel director said, "but he's got competent enough speed to at least, when he goes out and plays in space, he knows how to use his body.

"He's got zone and coverage awareness. He can run a route fairly well. He's got good body control. He can adjust to the ball. He's got 10-plus size hands, so he can snatch the ball and he's got a very good catch radius. He's a good target to have when he's out there in space, and once you get to the red zone, he'd be a guy that you'd probably want to be aware where he is."

The first of 13 tight ends drafted, Rudolph admitted at his introductory media conference that blocking is "definitely" a phase of his game that needs to improve. As for durability -- well, that's something he will have to prove over time.

Still only 21, Rudolph comes with high marks for character and football intelligence from those who have studied him most closely. The NFC area scout spent significant time with Rudolph and described him as "a home run as a kid" who would have been a "no-brainer first-rounder" if not for that hamstring everyone will be watching closely come training camp.

"Obviously, the knock would be the durability concerns, but it's not that he did wrong or anything like that. It's been bad luck," the scout said. "The kid gets it. He understands. He knows. He has a better grasp of the entire picture. He understands offenses quickly and not only what his responsibilities are, but what everybody else is doing on the field. I think he'll be an excellent pro, being able to manage his body and work to be ready for Sunday. He's a good pickup."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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