MINNEAPOLIS — Since bouncing from tight end to split end to slot receiver to H-back and back again at Elder High School in Cincinnati, Kyle Rudolph’s long had the notion he might join the cabal of field-stretching, pass-nabbing tight ends currently sweeping the NFL landscape. The possibility continued to germinate when Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar shifted him around the Fighting Irish’s offensive sets from time to time.
"It’s what the (NFL) is evolving to," Rudolph said after the Vikings’ preseason victory over Arizona on Saturday. "Any time we can create matchups that favor us, we’ve got to be able to move all over the place."
There’s an ideal osmosis of philosophy, skill set and transformation taking place in the offensive meeting rooms at Winter Park this preseason. Sage offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s long had a penchant for getting his tight ends involved in manifold ways, and Rudolph’s got the hands, build and now the lither, 6-foot-6 frame to execute Turner’s schemes.
It’s the result of dieting his way to a 15-pound decrease this summer, an effort borne from rehabbing from a broken foot and amplified when Turner asked him to slim down and get ready to catch more passes.
And it was on full display Saturday in Minnesota’s wild — as exhibitions go — 30-28 win a day after breaking camp in Mankato, Minn.
In a first half that saw the Vikings starters play every series, Rudolph caught four passes for 89 yards, 51 of them coming on a long, perfectly placed touchdown toss from Matt Cassel. Several play calls isolating Rudolph in space allowed him to display his improved gait.
He played last season at about 275 pounds. Today, he checks in at 260.
"I have noticed I feel a lot lighter on my feet," said Rudolph, who signed a five-year extension worth up to $40 million. "I feel much better running, and I think it shows up on tape."
His salary places him among the upper financial echelon of NFL tight ends, including noted receiving targets Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. He got there by following a strict nutrition plan while rehabbing from the broken foot that cost him half of last season, and studying up on past Turner tight ends Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron.
He received a taste of their exploits Saturday when he fired out of his traditional three-point stance on the right side of the formation, ran a deep post across TCF Bank Stadium’s right set of hash marks, and blazed past Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers and linebacker Alex Okafor on the way to the end zone.
In the Vikings’ preseason opener against Oakland last Friday, he caught a 22-yard deep throw and nearly scored.
Almost prophetically, Turner told Rudolph two plays before Saturday’s 51-yard touchdown a big play was coming his way. "’It looks good,’" Rudolph recalled him saying.
"He came up to me when he was out in the first half and said, ‘That guy you’ve got upstairs is a genius,’" head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Said Rudolph: "(Turner) sits up in the box like he just kind of has this little glass ball he can look into and he always seems able to dial up plays at the right time."
Having the right-sized tight end helps, too.
Rodney who?: The more than 50,000 fans at TCF on Saturday night might not have known much about fringe Vikings wideout Rodney Smith.
But those who stuck around for the duration won’t soon forget the name.
Smith caught four passes for 55 yards on Minnesota’s game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, the last reception a 2-yard jump ball in the end zone from rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Smith started last season, his rookie campaign, on Minnesota’s scout team before joining the 53-man roster five weeks into the year.
"When we left the huddle, (Bridgewater) told me to be ready," said Smith, who outjumped cornerback Jimmy Legree in the end zone’s right corner for the winning score. "Once I heard the call, I already had my mind set because I knew it was going to be 1-on-1, so I just had to win it."
He may have inched closer to claiming more than just a game-sealing catch.
With Jerome Simpson awaiting word on an NFL suspension after his arrest last season, Smith is a likely candidate to join the active roster, at least until Simpson comes back. Smith’s competing with Adam Thielen, Kain Colter, Andy Cruse, Donte Foster, Kamar Jorden, Erik Lora and Ty Walker for the fourth and fifth wideout spots behind Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright.
Thielen is likely to get one of the slots. And if Smith keeps performing like he did Saturday, he’ll remain a strong candidate to snag the other.
NFL rosters must be trimmed from 90 players to 75 by 3 p.m. Aug. 26 and down to 53 by 3 p.m. Aug. 30.
Wild play: Bridgewater’s late connection to Smith never would’ve been necessary if not for one of the more wacky plays in recent NFL annals.
With less than 1 1/2 minutes remaining, Cardinals third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley lined up on fourth-and-goal at the Vikings’ 6-yard line. The San Diego State product mishandled the snap, and Minnesota appeared to have sealed the victory — enough that the TCF game ops crew sounded a Viking horn signifying a win.
But the whistle hadn’t blown.
Arizona center John Estes dove after the ball and swiped it out of the pile. Running back Zach Bauman scooped up the rolling ball and rumbled in for a touchdown.
It’s illegal for a player to intentionally play a ball on the ground forward, but, like a lateral, backward swipes like Estes’ are legal — even though the ball began careening in a forwardly direction before Bauman recovered it, referee Craig Wrolstad said.
Wrolstad offered the following explanation of the play afterward.
"The ball was snapped, it was a backwards pass," he said. "The snap is considered the backwards pass. Any backwards pass can be advanced by any team, any direction, on any down. It wasn’t a fumble because the snap was never possessed by any of the players. The ball was snapped, it rolled around, it was knocked around a couple times, nobody ever had control of the ball. Nobody ever had control of the ball, so nobody ever had possession, so it was not a fumble."
Injury report: A pair of cornerbacks in line to make the 53-man roster left with injuries Saturday.
Shaun Prater came off in the first half with a head injury and didn’t return. Zimmer characterized his injury as a "mild concussion" after the game.
Fellow reserve defensive back Jabari Price took a hit to his right arm late in the contest, was helped off the field and didn’t return. He said afterward his hand was "tingling" but felt fine, though he left the Vikings’ locker room with a sling on his arm.
After being claimed off waivers by Minnesota last October, Prater played in eight games and started three, recording one interception and six tackles. The Vikings picked Price, a 21-year-old out of North Carolina, in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft.