Kyle Rudolph was among the league’s leading tight ends with 83 catches last season. He’s nowhere near that pace this year with 42 receptions through 10 games, but the veteran tight end has played a much more valuable role in the Vikings’ offense because of his usage in the passing game and diligence as an improved run blocker.
The stat that best displays the difference between 2016, when he was the most targeted receiving option on the team, and this year is on third down. Last year, the Vikings targeted Rudolph on 44 third downs and converted just 17. This season he’s 13-for-22 and 11-for-13 on third downs with fewer than six yards to go.
One of the key concepts of the West Coast offense is to use passing plays almost like running plays – extremely high percentage throws that keep the sticks moving. Rudolph has been a significant part of that with screen passes and play-action rollouts setting him up for short – but significant- gains.
Take for example a play late in the third quarter on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. The Vikings and Rams were tied at seven with a third-and-4 from the Rams’ 6-yard line. Quarterback Case Keenum tossed a short pass to Rudolph, who reached out just enough for the first down.
Nothing impressive in fantasy leagues, but a huge play in the game as the Vikings slammed the ball in the end zone with Latavius Murray. Without that first down, the Vikings likely opt for a field goal.
Rudolph did add a downfield catch on Sunday for 28 yards – only his second reception of more than 20 yards this year. Offensive coordinator Pat Shumur has worked to Keenum’s skill set with the types of plays he’s called to go in Rudolph’s direction.
Fitting the ball into tight windows to tight ends – a la Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady – takes tremendous arm talent. Keenum doesn’t have pinpoint accuracy, so trying to fling seam routes between the linebacker and safety wouldn’t be wise. In fact, the last time the Vikings faced the Lions, Keenum missed several passes to Rudolph in which the Vikings’ tight end was open downfield.
Since then he’s simply been used to create successful plays. Last year, the 28-year-old was second-to-last on the team in catch percentage, only ahead of receiver Charles Johnson . This season Rudolph catching 68% of throws his way, No. 2 on the Vikings among receivers/tight ends with more than 25 targets only behind Jerick McKinnon.
Head coach Mike Zimmer mentioned this offseason that he’d been pressing Rudolph to improve his run blocking. Last season he struggled – although some of his issues may have been caused by the Vikings’ shortcomings at tackle. During the regular season, Zimmer has pointed out Rudolph’s improved blocking on several occasions.
The Vikings’ run game is massively improved from last year, jumping from 32nd in 2016 to 8th in total yards. That jump is part of a combined effort, but Minnesota’s starting tight end has played a role.
Of course, you won’t see his run blocking show up in fantasy analysis, so Rudolph may be pegged as having a down year. Instead he’s been an important part of Shurmur’s attack.