Can Vikings’ Rudolph be the next Gronkowski?

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The sight of Kyle Rudolph — all 6-foot-6, 258 pounds of him — split out wide in the Minnesota Vikings’ offense is striking, a stark contrast to the slighter receivers typically lined up in the same area.

Rudolph, the team’s second-round pick in 2011, has found himself in the spot often during organized team activities the past three weeks. It’s also a spot he can see himself growing in and joining the likes of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Teams around the league have witnessed increased production and versatility from tight ends such as New England’s Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. Within the Vikings’ division, Green Bay’s Jermicheal Finley and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew are in the same mold. The growing trend has been using tight ends all over the field to dictate matchups and mismatches.

Rudolph is hoping he can do the same in Minnesota’s offense.

“Definitely,” Rudolph said this week at OTAs. “It’s a copycat league. Teams that are having success, just look across the league with not even tights but the passing game in general — shotgun and stuff like that, how many teams are utilizing that into your offense. We feel like with the success the tight ends are having we can have that same success here.”

The Vikings have tried to address depth at wide receiver with the additions of Jerome Simpson, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright. But more tight end production from Rudolph and free-agent signee John Carlson would go a long way in aiding quarterback Christian Ponder in his second season. The New England Patriots developed the blueprint for dual-tight end success last season with their use of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and Ponder believes using Rudolph in a Gronkowski role can work similarly in Minnesota.

“I think so,” Ponder said. “(Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave) is really trying to spread him out, get him out wide, create a lot of mismatches with him, and he can do it. He’s got the speed and the hands and the agility to do it. We’re definitely working that way as we get more comfortable.”

One reason Rudolph feels comfortable on the outside is because he’s been working on improving his speed this offseason. Rudolph suffered a devastating injury in October 2010 when his hamstring ripped off the bone and ended his Notre Dame career. Minnesota knew the skills were still there for Rudolph and felt comfortable enough with his recovery to draft him with the 43rd overall pick last year.

Rudolph returned in time for training camp last season but never really felt he regained the explosiveness in his game.

“It’s weird when you have surgery because you feel like you’re going as fast as you can and you feel like you are, but then you watch yourself on tape and you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s just not me,’ ” Rudolph said. “But now I feel like I’m running like I used to, and I feel like I definitely have that explosiveness that I had when I was in college that made a special tight end.”

One of the memorable scenes of the Vikings’ 2011 season was Rudolph going over a Denver defender to snatch a touchdown catch. His hands were there, but he wasn’t gaining separation from defenders.

“It was one of those things where I was always used to running by linebacker my junior year at Notre Dame,” Rudolph said. “There was a point halfway through last year where I ran a go route and I ran by a linebacker. I was like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve done that in about a year.’ Now it’s second nature.

“Even Coach Frazier said something to me during our offseason runs. He came up to me and made a point that I look like my old self and look explosive. It was real encouraging to hear that from someone else. As a player, you always think you’re running fast or back to your old self, but for someone on the outside to see my explosiveness, it makes me excited and it makes my hamstring a thing of the past.”

The thing that still stands out about to Frazier and his teammates, however, are Rudolph’s oven mitt-sized hands.

“They’re freakish,” Ponder said. “I mean, for a guy that big, his hands, obviously they’re huge. But he’s got soft hands, catches the ball, plucks out of the air. It’s crazy.”

Ponder will certainly be looking for his good friend Rudolph often this season. The question for Ponder, the Vikings and their opponents is: Where will Rudolph be coming from?

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