Kyle Rudolph believes he is still squarely in his prime.
The Vikings tight end, entering the final year of his five-year extension, has three consecutive seasons ranking top 15 in yards and top 10 in receptions amongst NFL tight ends.
He also turns 30 years old this season at a position that is trending younger leaguewide.
Rudolph, though, has been quick to come to his own defense when lumped in with other long-tenured Vikings veterans.
“I joked around in the offensive team meeting room yesterday. We all had to stand up and introduce ourselves,” Rudolph said Tuesday at TCO Performance Center. “I said my name and Notre Dame and, contrary to popular belief, I didn’t play in the Metrodome when it had Astro Turf.”
Only defensive end Everson Griffen has been on the Vikings longer than Rudolph, the second-round draft pick in 2011. After getting slowed early in his career by injuries, Rudolph has become one of the team’s ironmen, starting every game over the past four seasons. Only Travis Kelce (27) and Rob Gronkowski (25) — with their six combined Pro Bowls in that span — have more touchdowns since 2015 than Rudolph (24).
While Rudolph has voiced his willingness to restructure his contract — presumably to reduce the team’s salary cap hit this year in exchange for a term extension — he enters his contract season unsure of his future but optimistic that his on-field performance isn’t going to wane.
“I’m still in my 20s,” said Rudolph. “I’m still young. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been in my career. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my career. But I’ve played a lot of football in this league and when you’ve played a lot of football in this league and your name’s been around for a long time, everyone just assumes you’re in your mid-30s and on your way out.”
In 2018, the average age of the top 10 performing tight ends (in terms of yardage) was 26.8 years old, based on players’ ages entering Week 1 of the season. According to that same criteria, the average age of the league’s top-producing tight ends has gotten younger every year since 2015, when the top 10’s mean age was 28.6, when five of the top 10 producers were 30-plus.
Rudolph is now on the older end of the spectrum, though 30-somethings have certainly proven capable of producing top-10-caliber seasons: Jared Cook in 2017-18, Delanie Walker in 2015-17, Dennis Pitta in 2016. There are also the Antonio Gates’, Jason Wittens and Greg Olsens of the world — generationally good tight ends — who regularly produced big seasons into their 30s.
From a durability standpoint, Rudolph has proven he can stay healthy. Can he continue producing, though?
The tight end saw a bump in production, particularly in the red zone, when Kevin Stefanski took over play-calling in Week 15 last season. Rudolph finished with his second-best statistical season, totaling 634 yards on 64 receptions. He finished 24th out of 28 in run-blocking and 21st out of 28 in pass-blocking, per Pro Football Focus, out of tight ends who had 50 percent of snaps.
With the influence of Gary Kubiak added to the fold, Rudolph likes his prospects for 2019.
“Obviously, Kevin calling the last three games of last season our production spiked quite a bit in those three games,” Rudolph said. “And then bringing in Coach Kubiak and the tradition he has with the tight end position, so I’m looking forward to a big spike in production and usage.”
Kubiak rode tight end Owen Daniels during his years as a playcaller with Houston, Baltimore and Denver. Daniels was Kubiak’s primary tight end for the majority of Daniels’ 10-year career, and he routinely produced solid, while not spectacular, seasons, maxing out at 862 yards in 2008. He averaged 566 yards per season under Kubiak.
As it stands now, Rudolph remains the Vikings’ third-best pass-catching option behind wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
“He’s going to give us everything he has,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins. “He’s as smart a player as anybody I’ve played with and has as good of hands as anybody I’ve played with. He’s out there leading and really showing the way for the younger players in just two days [of spring workouts]. He’s one of the guys in the locker room that conducts himself in a way that sets a high standard for everybody that follows and comes after him.”
Rudolph attended The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., the weekend before reporting to the team facility, where he watched Tiger Woods win the coveted major championship at age 43. While Rudolph isn’t that old yet, he’s confident he’ll age well with his 30th birthday on the horizon.
“I’ll use a golf analogy,” said Rudolph. “I feel like I haven’t hit the back nine yet.”
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