Why the Minnesota Vikings and Kyle Rudolph should wait on an extension
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One of every seven catches he's grabbed resulted in a touchdown.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph is the Minnesota Vikings' premiere free agent in 2015 in a group with guard Brandon Fusco, quarterback Christian Ponder and safety Mistral Raymond. Though there's been no sign that the Vikings are seriously considering extending Rudolph, his name has been thrown around as a candidate for a contract extension this offseason.
But it's beneficial for both the Vikings and Rudolph to at least wait until during or after next season to talk a new deal.
Rudolph, 24, was on pace to set career-high marks in both receptions and receiving yards before he suffered a fractured left foot in the eighth game of the season in Dallas. Rudolph broke two bones in his left foot on the 31-yard touchdown catch against the Cowboys. His offseason recovery, coupled with moving parts of a new coaching regime and the continued carousel at quarterback, should be enough reason for Rudolph and the Vikings to want to table an extension for now.
Rudolph has the pieces in place to live up to his pass-catching potential next season - which equates to more bargaining chips in negotiating his first deal out of the rookie contract. Though there's a question mark at quarterback, there's at least Matt Cassel, who is back on a two-year deal. Cassel gave Rudolph his best game last season in the Oct. 13 loss vs. Carolina, which resulted in nine catches and a career-high 97 yards for the tight end.
Rudolph has also only known Bill Musgrave as his NFL offensive coordinator, which means he's been under-utilized in 39 career games. Vikings' first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history with getting the most out of the tight end position, evident by Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron.
Gates made five Pro Bowl appearances when Turner was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 2007-2012. In 2013, little-known Cleveland Browns tight end Cameron emerged and made the Pro Bowl after one year under Turner that resulted in 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns - three against the Vikings.
In three seasons under Musgrave, Rudolph's career numbers (109 catches, 1,055 yards) pale in comparison. His nine-touchdown season in 2012, along with blocking for NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, vaulted him to a Pro-Bowl alternate spot for Tony Gonzalez. Though Rudolph earned the game's MVP honors with 122 yards on five catches, he's yet to top the 100-yard mark in a meaningful game.
Rudolph's Pro Bowl numbers came from Super Bowl quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Eli Manning, in a game that plays little-to-no defense. He's been unfortunate in playing with a carousel of Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Cassel in his career. But as general manager Rick Spielman looks to lock down the next attempt at a franchise quarterback in May's NFL Draft, it's only natural that Rudolph should be the new guy's safety valve on the field, as the relationship often goes with inexperienced passers and tight ends.
With Turner looking to spread the Vikings' offense, emphasize Peterson in the passing game to go along with pieces like Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, there's a legitimate reason Rudolph should want to wait in order to gain more leverage (and more money) off a career year in 2014.
Along with being an integral and effective piece of the Vikings' rushing attack as a blocker, the 6-foot-6-inch Rudolph is the Vikings' tallest and most efficient redzone target. Fifteen of Rudolph's 109 catches have been touchdowns and that trend should only increase under Turner.
Plus, when the Vikings cut tight end John Carlson, the gap widened between the team's No. 1 and No. 2 spots at the position. Rudolph now has very little competition for attention downfield at tight end with third-year players Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford occupying the other spots on the depth chart.
Then there's the financial side for the Vikings. Minnesota had around $12 million in cap space before signing OL Vlad Ducasse this week and have further commitments to make to rookies, practice squad players and eventual injury replacements. They've already tapped current players and restructured Chad Greenway, Jamarca Sanford and Jerome Felton. First-year coach Mike Zimmer, along with Turner, also likely want to wait and see how their players adapt to the new system before making unnecessary commitments -- especially while Spielman still has the bad taste of a five-year, $25 million deal to Carlson in his mouth.
Rudolph may cost the Vikings more after a breakout year, but in the injury-laden NFL, it may not be worth the risk to pay up what Rudolph's camp should demand before that happens.
It's feasible for both sides to wait.