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Why The Vikings Still Need Kyle Rudolph

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He seemed replaceable and expensive - but is he ?

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings just inked an extension for Kyle Rudolph, making him one of the highest paid tight-ends in the league, on a per-year salary basis.

Rudolph will turn 30 around mid-season this year, and has declined in his blocking and pass catching ability, according to PFF, the past couple years. In addition, the Vikings just drafted Irv Smith Jr. in the 2nd round, and have other TEs in Tyler Conklin and David Morgan that could also prove worthy of significant reps at TE - along with Smith.

All that, combined with the Vikings rather dismal salary cap picture, seemed to be pointing toward Rudolph being traded or eventually becoming a salary cap casualty. As negotiations stalled, it seemed more likely that Rudolph may be traded - despite the Vikings saying they wanted to keep him.

But the rumors proved false, and the Vikings and Rudolph signed a 4-year, $36 million extension - which makes Rudolph the 4th highest paid TE in the league based on his new $9 million average salary.

So why pay Rudolph, who may be more accurately described as a solid, rather than elite, tight-end, like his was elite?

The answer lies in the details.

Why Rudy Fits

There are a number of reasons why extending Kyle Rudolph, along the terms that were agreed, makes sense for the Vikings - and Rudolph too.

Scheme Fit

The first reason has everything to do with Gary Kubiak and his scheme, which the Vikings are committed to for the foreseeable future. One aspect of Kubiak’s scheme is a greater use of double tight-end formations. That allows the Vikings to use both Rudolph and presumably Irv Smith Jr. more often on the field together. Both Rudolph and Smith may be lined-up in-line, in the backfield, in the slot, or even outside. The combination gives the Vikings more blocking man-power, whether run or pass, as the extra tight-end can either run block, stay-in to pass block, or chip block on his way out on a route.

Of course the Vikings have other options that they could pair with Smith, but could they do so as well- or better - than Rudolph?

As Pro Football Focus pointed out in a recent piece on Rudolph, he has had middling overall numbers for the most part throughout his career. But where he has excelled is in money situations - late down and red zone receptions. Last season was Rudolph’s best on late downs - producing a passer rating of 124.8 when targeted last year. He ranked third behind only Evan Engram and Travis Kelce among tight-ends in that category.

His 84.2% catch-rate last season, with only 1 drop, was also a career-high. Rudolph also had the lowest drop-rate in the league last year among TEs with at least 50 targets. His 111.9 passer rating when targeted in the red zone the past three seasons adds to his value.

Rudolph also was in the top 5 among TEs when lined-up in the slot last season, including yards per route run, catch rate, TDs, drops, and receiving yards among TEs with at least 175 snaps in the slot, according to PFF.

It may be that a guy like Tyler Conklin can eventually develop into a tight-end who can replace Rudolph, but at this point throwing him out there with a rookie TE in Irv Smith Jr. is a rather risky option - both TEs having little to no NFL game experience at this point. For a team needing to improve offensively, and adopting Kubiak’s scheme, it would seem a bit of a disconnect to get rid of Rudolph in favor of an unproven successor - and pairing him with a rookie. Tight-end can often be a position, like many others, that takes a couple years to get the hang of in the NFL.

Doubling Down

Being able to run more double-TE sets also figures well for getting the most out of QB Kirk Cousins. Since 2015, Cousins has been the best QB in the league in terms of passer rating (112.8), adjusted completion percentage (83.3%), and yards per attempt (9.39) in double TE formations (12 and 22 personnel groups), according to PFF.

So, keeping a solid veteran TE, along with a top rookie prospect, to (hopefully) field a solid and versatile TE pairing, makes even more sense when trying to maximize the effectiveness of the overall offense.

Saving Salary Cap Today, We’ll See About Tomorrow

The other aspect of extending Kyle Rudolph appears to be the way in which the contract was structured. The final details have yet to be released, but so far we know, according to Ian Rapoport, that only $16 million of Rudolph’s salary is guaranteed, and $9 million of that is this year’s salary.

We also know, per Tom Peliserro, that the Vikings also managed to save about $4 million in salary cap space this year with Rudolph’s extension. Presumably that cap savings was generated by making $5 million of Rudolph’s salary this year into a signing bonus, which would spread that amount of salary cap hit out over the remaining years, and creating additional dead cap if Rudolph were to be released or traded. That being the case, the Vikings could release Rudolph in 2 years with a $3 million dead cap hit.

It’s unclear if Rudolph’s salary cap hit is level throughout, or if it’s backloaded. For example, the salary cap hit could be $7.5MM, $8.5MM, $9.5MM, and $10.5MM over the additional four years.

Overall, that would effectively give the Vikings some salary cap space now, while taking a wait-and-see approach to Rudolph in the future - beyond 2020.

Super Bowl Window Still Open

Last season was a disappointment, but the Vikings Super Bowl window remains open. The Vikings defense remains strong, and likely a top 10 unit again this season. Meanwhile the Vikings offense, under the guidance of a veteran offense mind in Gary Kubiak, having quality at all the skill positions, and (hopefully) an improved offensive line, looks as promising as ever.

Keeping Rudolph around, if only to move the chains on occasion and catch the occasional TD, makes sense as the Vikings prepare for a deep push into the post-season. He’s not the athletic TE that many of the elite names like Travis Kelce are, but he knows what works - which is often using his length to catch a ball only he can reach.

And it’s good to have a safety valve like that on money downs to keep drives going - or finish them.

Poll

Was Extending Kyle Rudolph The Right Move For the Vikings?

This poll is closed

  • 83%
    Yes - he’ll earn his salary cap and the offense could use his experience at TE
    (1383 votes)
  • 16%
    No - other guys could replace him and/or others more of a priority to extend
    (270 votes)
1653 votes total Vote Now