By fantasy football measures, Kyle Rudolph was one of the NFL’s best tight ends last season. But the Minnesota Vikings should be reevaluating their veteran tight end’s role to use him more efficiently.
Despite grabbing 83 passes in 2016, the third best in the league among tight ends, Rudolph ranked 22nd in both Yards Per Catch and Yards Per Target and 25th in Average Depth of Target (among tight ends who were on the field for at least 50% of snaps). The conclusion: Rudolph racked up big catch numbers on short throws.
There’s nothing wrong with catches on short throws if they are turning into significant gains or if they are picking up first downs. But throws at the former Notre Dame tight end were only caught 62.9% of the time (the second lowest mark on the Vikings) and Minnesota picked up first downs on just 17 of 44 third-down targets toward Rudolph.
Rudolph can add more value to the team with some adjustments, even if he doesn’t end up with the same boxscore stats as last year.
Big sets and play-action
According to the website Sharpfootballstats.com, the NFL’s best offense in 2016 threw 82 times out of two-tight end sets and 40 times out of sets with three tight ends.
Here’s how they did:
2 TE passer rating: 142.6
3 TE passer rating: 156.3
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Falcons were also the No. 2 team in the NFL in Yards Per Attempt on play-action throws.
As you can see below, the Falcons’ three TE set forces the Raiders to bring in three linebackers. The MLB bites on the handoff, leaving Austin Hooper to run free.
The Vikings threw just four times last season with three tight ends in the game, though they did pass 93 times in a two-TE set and managed a 119.9 rating.
Atlanta wasn’t the only team to use multiple TE sets. The Indianapolis Colts had two TEs on 320 plays, including many during their matchup with the Vikings. They used combinations of Jack Doyle, Erik Swoope and Dwayne Allen to get three Minnesota linebackers on the field. Indy’s three TEs finished the game with a combined eight catches on nine targets for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Playing the role of Swoope this year might be either Kyle Carter or Bucky Hodges. Swoope fits a similar profile to Hodges – a tall, fast, raw tight end. He ended up with 19 catches last year and averaged 19.8 YPC.
Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, found all sorts of ways to get his tight ends open space, including showing run in one direction and sneaking the tight end back across the field. Below, you can see Hooper start on the right side of the line, then go left like he’s going to seal off the defensive end on an outside zone run. Instead, he runs right by the DE and ends up wide open in the flat. Again, Oakland’s linebacker bites on the run.
You might think the Vikings would have had a difficult time with play-action last year because they ranked last in the NFL in rushing Yards Per Attempt and had an extremely unstable offensive line. But they were right behind Atlanta in YPA on play-action throws. The Falcons ranked second while the Vikings were sixth. The difference: The Falcons used play-action on 27% of plays versus the Vikings’ 19%.
Atlanta’s tight ends finished the 2016 season with 54 catches for 745 yards (13.8 YPC). Using big sets and more play-action throws his way could allow for similar results per catch.
The majority of the NFL’s best receiving tight ends are fast. Carolina Panthers star TE Greg Olsen, for example, ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Kyle Rudolph is not one of the faster TEs in the league, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be used downfield at times if he has the right matchup.
When Rudolph faces off against linebackers, many are quick and strong enough to handle him. But defensive backs have a harder time with the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder.
Last year, the New England Patriots occasionally used big TE Martellus Bennett in a spread formation to match him against a corner or safety when opponents played man coverage. Tom Brady took advantage of the mismatch, throwing the ball up and allowing Bennett to win the battle.
After the Vikings demolished the Houston Texans’ single-high safety defense, opponents started playing two deep safeties because they could rush the passer and stop the run with their front seven.
While the Vikings’ run game is likely to be better, teams are still going to scheme Sam Bradford to throw underneath. One way to combat the deep safeties is by throwing seam routes over the middle.
If the Vikings execute plays like the one below to Jacob Tamme, it might force opponents to think twice before dropping safeties over the top to slow down Bradford deep throws to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
The Vikings’ offensive line was mostly to blame for the team’s 32nd ranked run offense, but Rudolph’s struggles with run blocking didn’t help.
Head coach Mike Zimmer acknowledged that his starter will have to improve this season.
“I’ve talked to him many times about it, how it can help the running game if we have a tight end that can block,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s done a good job so far this preseason of working real hard at it, trying to stay on his blocks. I gave him an assignment one time to watch another guy that I respect who is kind of a receiving tight end that is a decent blocker, so he did that too.”
If the veteran TE doesn’t show growth in run blocking, there are a few options to mitigate his affect on the offense.
The first goes back to where we started: Multiple tight ends. Backup TE David Morgan is one of the strongest players at his position and is blooming into a solid run blocker.
Morgan could also play the role of LeGarrette Blount, except the blocking version. Last year, Rudolph played 92% of snaps. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could lighten the load on his veteran and use Morgan when the Vikings are looking to run down the clock in the fourth quarter or in other key running situations.
Many of the tactics above were used at different times by the Vikings last season, but Rudolph’s role was largely on “possession” throws like underneath zone coverages or check downs. Those will still be a needed part of the offense when Sam Bradford faces pressure. However, the Vikings would rather cut out many of the short throws to their tight end and maximize his Yards Per Target whenever possible. So even if we see Rudolph’s fantasy stats drop, he could be in for a more valuable season.