MANKATO, Minn. — From his considerable film work to returning from a broken foot and losing 15 pounds, Kyle Rudolph dedicated himself this offseason to getting ready for Norv Turner’s tutelage.
Rudolph, 24, saw the potential with Turner coming in as the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator. Minnesota saw the potential in its big tight end, too.
The two sides hope the offseason work — and putting a five-year contract extension for Rudolph in the rear-view mirror — will lead Rudolph to a bounce-back season as one of the foundations of the Vikings’ offense.
"This group of guys has worked extremely hard, but he’s worked as hard as anyone in this organization," Turner said on Saturday. "And he’s getting himself ready to have a great year. I’m continuing to try to get a feel for Kyle because he’s a little different than guys I’ve been around. But he’s a great part for the quarterbacks."
Tight ends have always been a big part of Turner’s offenses, with Jay Novacek in Dallas, Antonio Gates in San Diego and last year in Cleveland with Jordan Cameron. Turner’s "playmakers’ offense" is tight-end friendly and Rudolph is next in line.
It’s one reason Rudolph hoped to sign an extension with Minnesota, which made him a second-round draft pick in 2011 out of Notre Dame. Rudolph believes in the steps being taken with the Vikings. Feeling comfortable in Rudolph is why Minnesota was willing to sign him to a contract extension, even though he’s coming off an injury and a down season in 2013 after playing only eight games.
"One of the things that I really, really like about Kyle is he’s a pleaser, No. 1," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He’s a heck of a football player, but he’s a pleaser. He wants to buy into everything that we’re doing. I think he really likes the direction of where things are going, and I like having those kinds of guys on the team. I’m anticipating that he’ll continue to flourish, especially with Norv and (tight ends coach) Kevin Stefanski pushing him over there in that, and getting him better.
"He came in much lighter this year than he has in the past and he worked extremely hard in the offseason. He was one of the leaders in the weight room, all the things we’ve done there. We’re happy to have him. I’m happy for him. He’s a good guy and I like when good guys get rewarded."
The Vikings rewarded Rudolph as much for his potential as what he’s done in three NFL seasons. Rudolph earned a Pro Bowl invitation following his second NFL season when he had 53 catches for 493 yards and nine touchdowns, the second-most by a tight end in the league in 2012.
Rudolph won the Pro Bowl MVP honors and talked often about building on the experience and learning from fellow Pro Bowl tight ends like Jason Witten. But Rudolph’s 2013 season, which was on pace to be his best statistical season, was marred by a broken foot that limited him to eight games. He finished with 30 catches for 313 yards and three touchdowns.
Once healed, he went to work again, ready to prove himself.
Rudolph watched film of Antonio Gates and Cameron. The film study wasn’t anything different than what Rudolph had done in the past. He typically will watch film of the league’s top tight ends to hone and add to his game.
Yet, he watched with a different eye this time around.
"It’s fun because having already watched guys like Antonio, now I know why he’s doing things," Rudolph said. "I know the offense he’s running, so then you can study him in a different way. I immediately got every game that the Cleveland Browns played last year. . . it was just something that I did on my own to try and get ahead and try to be as comfortable in this offense as possible."
Losing weight was another part of getting comfortable for Rudolph. A big target at 6-foot-5, Rudolph said he lost 15 pounds to go from 273 to 258 by focusing on his diet, starting immediately in February.
The difference is a quicker version of the tight end that’s been such a reliable target in the red zone because of his size. Rudolph’s 15 touchdowns in 39 career games rank fifth in Minnesota franchise history for a tight end.
"I think for me, I can feel it, whether it’s getting in and out of my breaks — straight-line speed I don’t really notice it a whole lot — but being in and out of breaks is extremely important in this offense," Rudolph said. "The way Norv coaches routes, it’s different than anything we’ve done in the past and definitely being lighter has helped."
Part of Rudolph’s work in Turner’s offense has been a technical change in route-running.
"The way he’s been running routes is to stop and change direction, a lot of moves at the top of routes, cutting, stopping to cut," Turner said. "And we try to keep him on the move a little bit more, quicker change of direction, running out of breaks as they say, not turning and looking for the ball because we know where the ball’s going to be placed. I think some of it is technical stuff and he’s taken to it well."
Rudolph has always had a size advantage against most defenders and his hands allow him to haul in passes in difficult locations. The changes Turner has made in his route running should allow for more separation from defenders.
"With Norv it’s more of a quickness kind of thing," Rudolph said. "Being a bigger, taller guy, that wasn’t always my strength. I have a long stride and I like to keep it going, so that was something I had to work on this offseason."
Rudolph’s work in the offseason, from watching film to losing weight, has Turner with another tight end seemingly primed for a career year. Meanwhile, Rudolph has security with a five-year extension and is paid in a deal, worth up to $40 million, which recognizes him among the top tight ends.
"It’s an honor to know that they have the faith in me and the trust in me to instill that value in me, and I’m going to do everything I can to go out on the field and perform at that level," Rudolph said. "I say it all the time, ‘the only reason I’m out there every day, is to be the best I can be personally.’ I said it when I first got here, ‘I want to be the best tight end on this team and then I want to be the best tight end in the NFL.’ That’s why I go out every day to work the way that I do."