Let's break up all the Percy Harvin talk a bit, shall we? -Chris
ESPN called 2011 "The Year of the Quarterback." While it's hard to argue that a focus on quarterbacks was wrong, one could hardly complain if ESPN had instead dubbed it the "Year of the Tight End." Yes, quarterback records were broken left and right, but the evolution in the game almost made that shift predictable. It was the tight end position, rather, that has evolved the most in recent years. And surprisingly so. Called to block, catch, and even run on occasion, the tight end is the most versatile and ambiguous position in the NFL.
As the Vikings evolve towards multiple tight-end sets in Musgrave's offense, it's important to see what can be expected of the tight ends on the Vikings' roster. In the 2011 season, we saw two tight ends break Kellen Winslow's 1980 record of 1290 yards (Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski), one tight end break Tony Gonzalez's and Vernon Davis' touchdown record of 13 (Gronkowski, with 17), and one tight end break Kellen Winslow's single-game receiving yardarge playoff record of 166 (Davis, with 180). Tight ends ranked 3rd, 5th, and 8th in total receptions in 2011, and 6th and 7th in total receiving yards. They also ranked 1st and 4th in total receiving touchdowns.
The youth movement that has persisted throughout the ranks of the Vikings' roster has struck the tight end position particularly well - none of the tight ends on the roster are over the age of 28 and only one over 25. With that in mind, fans are particularly curious to see how well the promising tight end from Notre Dame, 2nd round pick Kyle Rudolph, stacks up.
Rudolph has started out with a promising rookie season, with 26 receptions and 249 yards to his name. While this doesn't rival the totals of sophomore phenoms Gronkowski and Graham, there's little to be worried about - the only rookie tight ends with over 600 yards are Jeremy Shockey and our own John Carlson. As you can probably infer, raw volumetric totals do not correlate well with future success when it comes to tight ends. Interestingly, what does seem to correlate well is relative ranking amongst other rookie tight ends in fantasy production. Rudolph seems to be doing fine there, as he was the top ranking rookie tight end in fantasy points.
Still, Rudolph does have work to do (and you shouldn't put much weight into fantasy production, anyway). He has given us some fantastic catches, but also occasionally needs to tighten up his run blocking. He hasn't been asked to pass block very much - only 30 snaps, which speaks more to his pass blocking skills than his actual limited work on the field does. Nevertheless, he's given up no sacks, hits, or hurries.
Kyle Rudolph had two excellent games against Detroit, which I've decided to abridge and highlight below:
Kyle Rudolph vs. Detroit Lions Weeks 3 and 14 (9-25-11 and 12-11-11) (via ArifMHasan)
You'll notice in the first game (Week 3 at home) his performance in the catching game is what sticks out, while his skills as a blocker are on at full display in the away game in Week 14. In Week 3, he has some issues in run blocking, with half of his blocks executed very well while the other half could use some work - he'll miss a block on some plays, but on others he'll hold his man extremely well, and push them out of the play. For example, the two plays that begin at 2:51 in the video have him block, and he does so poorly (sorry to show that 4th and 1 play again). To be fair, the second of those two plays is a problem of dealing with edge speed more than technique. Conversely, the first highlight from Week 14 is very good run blocking from Rudolph (3:52); he sells the route, then pulls in behind the defender in order to get a good block. It's not perfect technique, but he holds the block long enough (indeed, he pushes DeAndre Levy downfield a bit) for Percy Harvin to get to his level. While better technique may have busted Harvin out of the seam for a longer gain, there's not much more you can ask for a downfield block (particularly with two defenders primed to make the play). At about 6:24, you'll see him set a block that helps break open Webb's 65 yard run for a touchdown. He reacted to the play well, positioned his body, and blocked the hell out of Stephen Tulloch. Look for another heads up block by Rudolph from an aborted pass play at 8:02.
In the catching game, at times it seems his hands are made of glue. Bolstered by his large catch radius and excellent body control, there is very little doubt that Kyle Rudolph has the ability to excite Vikings fans with his athletic adjustments to the ball. His catches are at 1:42, 2:04 and 3:21. You'll also see occasional examples of his short routes throughout the video, to get a sense of his route running in general. He does have one drop in this video, and that's in the second game, with a pass thrown to his numbers in tight coverage (5:59). I don't think Elias Sports Bureau or Pro Football Focus recorded it as a drop, but I'm counting it.
He performs less well against New Orleans in Week 17. This has less to do with his catching (which was fine), and more to do with his blocking. Generally a good blocker, you could already see in the Detroit video that his blocks are still a little high and that his blocks sometimes lacked leverage or strength - he'll get pushed around (very) occasionally. His strength and leverage are not as much of an issue as the technique deployed by the person he blocks, however. Usually, he makes up for poor leverage or a strength mismatch (with his 6'6" frame, strength mismatches are rare) with excellent footwork. This is not the case when a defender is quick enough or approaches at an extremely favorable angle - deft hands seem to be a weakness for Rudolph in the run blocking game, although it doesn't seem to be exploited too often. Take a look at faster or more agile defenders take Rudolph on:
Kyle Rudolph vs. New Orlean Saints Week 15 (12-18-11) (via ArifMHasan)
You may have noticed that halfway through, the music for a flash game I had open in the background just sort of starts playing. I didn't recapture the plays without the music because it sounded kind of cool and it takes a surprising amount of effort to capture this video.
At any rate, you'll see what I've alluded to in the preview for the video about his blocking. Once he gets his hands on someone, it's a done deal - it looks pretty difficult to escape a block from Kyle Rudolph as soon as he locks on. Unfortunately, he has some problems locking on to the more able defenders. Generally speaking, he does an excellent job against DBs and LBs who have few moves. It's clear that while his leverage seems like it could a problem, it's not often an issue. Even when he doesn't get under his blocker, he'll often find a way to be overbearing. His blocks aren't textbook (not everyone can be Kleinsasser), but defenders are nevertheless having fits. Still, there is room for improvement, and it all seems technical. He needs work to become a greater threat in the blocking game, and it should focus on recognizing the moves of speed rushers (so that he can be in as a pass blocker when required), maintaining a lower position on his blocks (the angle of his knees seems to be fine, but he'll burst up instead of out when approaching his block and when getting off the line), and using his prodigious arm strength to dig into the pads or armpits of opposing players. These are all things he can do and has done, but needs to be done more consistently to become a more stable institution of our offense.
We know he runs crisp routes with good timing. We know that most linebackers in the league can't cover him. His straight line speed, agility, and acceleration are all good but not great for a tight end (he does not run like he is 260 pounds, that's for sure). He has the body control that some receivers would envy, both in routes and off the snap - his fluidity (particularly at the waist) allows him to maintain control and break from coverage, and the upper body control he has allows him to cheat DBs and LBs while also getting out of presses quickly. His reaction time is quick, and his instincts both on and off the ball are excellent. And his hands are incredible.
His in-line blocking is relatively rare, and he still could improve on adapting to the rapidly evolving blocking assignments. When he lines up as a fullback or a lead blocker, he seems to do fine, although he will get turned a bit too easily. The Vikings haven't invested too much in him as a pass blocker, and I would like to see that change, if not for any other reason than that it means they trust him to pick up blitzes (a skill I have not seen tested for him). His chip blocking is alright, but that's also not a very important skill to continue developing.
Some commentators have compared him to Rob Gronkowski, which is flattering and a bit untrue. If he puts up big receiving numbers, I could see him more in the mold of an Jason Witten or Brent Celek. His blocking would have to improve before I would compare him to a balanced tight end like Gronkowski (or to use a more pedestrian example, Heath Miller). And he's not wickedly fast like Vernon Davis or Jimmy Graham for me to use them as a point of comparison. Nevertheless, I don't think we'd be wrong to be excited about this young man from Notre Dame.
Also, check this video out if you want to see his circus catches:
Kyle Rudolph 2011 Vikings Highlights (via Qoontz)