EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has been around the NFL for a long time and stresses the groundwork put in during the summer to set the standard for the upcoming season. But one player is forcing Frazier to calm himself down and realize it’s still only June.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, entering his third year in the NFL, is turning heads at Minnesota’s organized team activities. He’s drawing the praise from his coaches and teammates are predicting a breakout season.
The changes occurring with Rudolph stem from his trip to the Pro Bowl in January, when much of the attention of the football world was diverted elsewhere. Rudolph, as few nationally likely remember, was named the Pro Bowl MVP with five catches for a game-high 122 yards and a touchdown.
The experience playing in his first Pro Bowl has altered Rudolph, according to observers.
“I try not to get too far ahead of myself, but the Kyle Rudolph that I see now is so much more confident and more sure of himself than the Kyle I saw a year ago at this time,” Frazier said Wednesday after Vikings’ OTAs. “It’s like night and day to me, personally. I’m anxious to see how he does when we get to training camp from a blocking standpoint, but that Pro Bowl, it’s flipped the switch.”
The Pro Bowl has slipped in interest and attention in recent years, but Rudolph was one of seven Minnesota players that made the trip to Hawaii this past January for the game. Rudolph, a replacement after Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez pulled out with an injury, took the opportunity to continue his development.
He watched Dallas tight end Jason Witten, who he’s been compared to often since he first entered the league. He tried to learn what he could from Witten and Gonzalez and add to his own game.
“Being with Jason for a week and being able to pick his brain, and whether it’s always perfecting your craft, the way he goes out a season, the way he works, that’s truly what makes him special as a tight end,” Rudolph said. “I always try to emulate his game and incorporate things into mine… Jason, Tony, guys like that that have been doing it for such a long time at a high level, you try to watch them as much as you can on tape and try to pick up things that they do well and incorporate it into your game.”
Winning MVP only boosted his confidence further, and he’s brought that into the Vikings’ offseason workouts.
“He, to me, is going to be the breakout star in the NFL,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “If people don’t already know about what he’s capable of based off the Pro Bowl MVP performance and the year he did have last year … we’re looking for great things from him. Hopefully he can get up to 80, 90 catches; difference-making catches on third-down conversions, touchdowns, big-time in the red zone. He’s just that type of target that you look around the league that everybody wants to have.
“He’s a big body. Can body you, can muscle you and go up and get it. From a defensive standpoint, he’s a mismatch against whoever you put him against. Linebackers are tough from one standpoint and the safety is tough from the other.”
Rudolph says the next step in his progression is becoming more of a complete tight end. Rudolph wasn’t known for his blocking when he was drafted in the second round in 2011, but he’s grown as an inline blocker knowing he would need to block to stay on the field for the Minnesota’s run-first offense.
“We were joking the other day if you turned on film of late college, my early rookie year and turned on film now, how far I’ve come as a run blocker,” Rudolph said. “It’s truly a tribute to (tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson) and the work that we’ve put in day in and day out in our run technique. It’s something that we take pride in. We don’t want to be just a pass catcher. We want to be part of the run game and being there with the big fellas.”
Rudolph had what some might consider a breakthrough season last year. He was second on the team in catches (53) and receiving yards (493) while adding a team-high nine touchdown catches, which was tied for second among all NFL tight ends.
Rudolph wants more consistency catching the ball and matching up with quarterback Christian Ponder, too. In six games last year he had two or fewer catches and 20 yards or less receiving. He had two catches over a three-week span in the middle of the season and Minnesota lost two of the three games.
“I feel like that’s a big part of the NFL, is just that consistency week in and week out,” Rudolph said. “Just being able to be counted on every week, knowing when we need a play, I want to be that guy.”
Rudolph has the potential, and now is brimming with confidence that makes the even-tempered Frazier effusive in his praise.
“He knows he has a chance to be a premier tight end in this league after what he did over there being MVP,” Frazier said. “So, it’s evident by the way he’s practicing, the way he runs his routes, the control he has in the meetings. I was teasing Jimmie Johnson. I said, ‘Don’t forget you’ve got the MVP of the Pro Bowl running routes for you.’ But it’s obvious he’s taken his game up to another notch. But we’re still only in June, so I got to temper my emotions a little bit. I’m excited about what I see.”