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How can the Vikings get the most out of Kyle Rudolph?

Dec 11, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (82) celebrates a touchdown in the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. The Vikings won 25-16. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

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.

via GIPHY

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.

via GIPHY

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.

Mismatches

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.

via GIPHY

Two-deep safeties

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.

Blocking

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.

Bottom line

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.

  • styx rogan

    trade him

  • cka2nd

    Rudolph seemed to blossom as a down-the-field threat near the end of the 2015 season but went back to being a short yardage guy last year. I don’t think we’re going to see any great change in his game, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him get less snaps overall.

    • Chip Toof

      In other words, your classmate’s step-mother is paying you for s e x?

  • Gordon Guffey

    Rudolph had a fine year in 2016 IMHO ~ He had a QB who spent much of his time looking up anytime he tried to throw more than 10 yards down the field ~

    JMHO Rudolph will fit in great with Pat Shurmur version of the WCO ~ Healthy has been his only shortcoming to date ~ But this is JMHO and by no means do it mean I’m right or that the Viking agree with me ~ LOL

  • justjoseph

    Trade him for someone who deosnt go down on the first hit. Im sick of seeing a big Notre Dame TE who cant break a tackle to save his life.
    Most overrated Viking, just a medicre blocker, decent on red zone alley-oops. I’d be looking to draft competition for this guy.

    • Andre Esters

      Honestly… that would be Minnesota’s luck. Trade away a solid player they sporadically utilize and he goes off to have some sort of Antonio Gates double-digit gangbuster type of season with a team that has no qualms about feeding the TE endlessly.

  • Andre Esters

    Expecting more from a TE like Rudolph is a given, especially with him becoming a valuable target/safety net for Bradford… but I feel strongly about this offense as a whole doing more to maximize ALL their options instead of just focusing one group or the other.
    Not only is it on Bradford to play less timid and attack more, but the offense/OC Shurmur cannot allow themselves to be soooo predictable. Of course, if its a “run package” on short yardage, there isn’t much fooling defenders. But if they can mix in 2-3 TE sets, 2 RB setups, maybe even a little more motion to help Bradford identify things… ANYTHING is better than just lining up and hoping guys push over the other guys.
    Having Cook wiggle through good or bad blocking, healthy WR’s like Diggs and Thielen zipping around, and monster hands always waiting for a chance in Rudolph, all these weapons can’t hurt the chances of this offense actually moving up and down the field with some semblance of command.

    In my eyes, it really comes down to Bradford letting his onions hang and firing from the hip. To hell with timing and good blocking, there are plenty of options from sideline to sideline… if the QB needs to tuck it and run for a few yards himself, that’s quickly becoming a decent deal as well. There are no more excuses for gimme sacks and dump offs short of the 1st down.

    • Foreman 44

      Think it was hard not to be predictable with: a Head Coach demanding a run game to help his defense, An Oline in shambles getting the least yds per rush of any team in the NFL, so constantly facing 3rd and more than 4 all the time. Every short yardage situation in redzone & 3rd down Vikes wanted heavy sets to set a tone and just lost. Offense was in a bad spot – Damned if you abandon run! Left in 3rd and long with a bad line if you don’t abandon the run. That situation makes it tough to defend an “O coordinator being predictable analysis” as the main problem for Vikes last year. 5 & 7 step drops reading deep coverage windows is not a good choice in that situation either. Drop back make decision in less than 2 seconds and release shortly after that. That was last year – The fix is a better line and a TE who can beat LBers & DBs down the middle of the field. Si or No?

      • Andre Esters

        It’s definitely an uncomfortable exercise in observation… the reasons why the offense struggled so much are painfully obvious, but its mind blowing how easily critics gloss over such details and simply label Minnesota as a lame-duck operation.
        Some claim “potential” is not a proper measurement in the NFL, and that’s fair. But adjust the narrative to fit a handful of NFL elites, and they are given all the potential in the world when good or bad unfolds. That’s unfortunately the consistency curse Minnesota suffers from and gets little respect. Until they can persevere through broken O-lines, coaching hiccups, star injuries, and dispatch worthy opponents, nobody sees the struggle… they only see short-comings and excuses.
        I agree with you Foreman, better TE execution will shine through. The tricky part for Minnesota is the coaches and players lining up across from purple jerseys…

  • Foreman 44

    Kyle cannot transition from catch to runner like regular TEs. Its like Rudolph loses the ability to feel his legs when his hands touch a leather ball. He secures the ball for a full second then begins a multi-step rudder like process to turn his direction upstream.(Catch Tuck – Explode upfield.) It is not complicated. Rudolph doesn’t even dish out punishment while he gets put down by 185 lb CBs. Kyle is not fast but he has a good catch radius and solid hands. He is a poor blocker who constantly takes costly pre-snap penalties in the redzone. He actually was flagged for backing up pre-snap on a called goal line run play last week. Drive Killer! To be fair Rudolph is not awful but he makes a lot of money and gets a ton of fan support for a guy who has little upside, big holes in his game and has been a bottom 1/3 starting TE for his whole career. I think that is a fair assessment.

  • Foreman 44

    My take on Rudolph let him play out his contract. Then let him walk and take the supplemental draft pick when he signs with the Jets.





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