Vikings’ Rudolph has different look, different feel after injury-plagued 2014

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph finished last season with 24 receptions, 231 receiving yards and two touchdowns in nine games. He's played in just 17 games the past two seasons.  

Bruce Kluckhohn/Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — A tattoo six years in the making stretches the length of his long left arm, with dedications to his family members marking the sleeve-like appearance.

Clean-cut, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph didn’t design his new ornamentation, but he worked with an artist for years to get the image just right before enduring 51 hours over six days to have the ink applied this offseason in his hometown of Cincinnati.

"It’s every piece has a meaning. I think both grandparents, so I’ve got four grandparents, mom, dad, brother and sister, and then I got a shamrock for obvious reasons," said the former Notre Dame star.

Rudolph looks and feels different as he returns to the Vikings’ offense with a renewed sense of optimism with his core finally feeling healthy after last year’s double sports hernia surgery. And if the new tattoo gives him a more intimidating image too, Rudolph approves.

"We’re just going to let people think that I’m tougher now, but really everyone knows that it’s still me," Rudolph said Thursday at the end of another round of Minnesota’s organized team activities.

In some ways it is a new Rudolph, though.

The big tight end had another season disrupted by injury last year. All the promise of the early season with new, tight end-friendly offensive coordinator Norv Turner deflated after Rudolph felt abdominal pain in the third game of the season.

He returned to play in six of the final seven games of the season but was never right.

After 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown in the first three games, he finished the season with 24 receptions, 231 receiving yards and two touchdowns in nine games. He’s played in just 17 games the past two seasons.

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"He’s had a great offseason with his body to try to make sure he doesn’t have those nagging injuries," Turner said Thursday. "When he’s healthy and running like he’s been the last three weeks, it’s exciting to have him. We’ll get some coverage on the outside with the speed that we have, he can open it up a lot. He’ll get matchups. If they’re going to play eight-man fronts, the tight end gets great matchups through the passing game. It’s nice having him."

Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater agrees and can’t help himself in showing his excitement for a healthy Rudolph.

Asked last week about new receiver Mike Wallace, Bridgewater mentioned Rudolph, unprompted.

"I’ll tell you what’s even a better addition is having Kyle Rudolph back healthy," Bridgewater said. "He’s like a whole new player on the team."

Indeed, an offense that started to develop with Bridgewater last year never had a fully healthy Rudolph. After adding Wallace in an offseason trade and getting running back Adrian Peterson back in the fold, Rudolph feels like another new addition.

"I’m a different piece than I was last year," Rudolph said. "Having two good hips and being able to run around like I used to, I feel like I can have a much bigger impact on this offense like I did, say, in last November when I came back after the surgery."

Rudolph appeared on the verge of a breakthrough two years ago after being named to the Pro Bowl following the 2012 season and winning the game’s MVP award. A broken foot cut his 2013 season short.

The injuries, which date back to his time at Notre Dame, have kept the 6-foot-6 Rudolph from truly showing the talent which Minnesota believes in. The Vikings, who selected Rudolph in the second round in the 2011 draft, believed in him enough to reward Rudolph with a five-year contract extension during training camp last year.

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"I like to think that in the offseason I work as hard as anyone else and do everything I can to take care of my body and to prevent injury," Rudolph said. "Sometimes it’s just not the luck of the draw, and unfortunately I’ve had a couple of those. With that being said, I’m still searching to do everything I can to be healthy and to play 16 games. That’s my goal, and I’ve said it time and time again: If I’m out there for 16 games, I think I can help our team win."

Dedicated to getting and being healthy, Rudolph’s offseason led him to the Los Angeles area and the Proactive Sports Performance training facility where he was joined by Bridgewater and other teammates. With the frustration of missing so much time due to injuries as motivation, Rudolph followed a more disciplined diet and incorporated yoga exercises and sand running into his regimen.

Rudolph also concentrated outside of the weight room. He was more disciplined in his diet, for example.

"Just trying to become more limber, and when my body’s put in those situations, I’m able to get up and walk away, versus like last year having to have the surgery," Rudolph said, earlier noting: "Not just be satisfied with rehabbing and being healthy but actually getting back to the player that I was before the surgery."

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