The Minnesota Vikings have won more games this calendar year than the Minnesota Twins, which still seems really weird to say in July. Their most recent win came when they marched out of New Orleans in January after edging the Saints in overtime of their Wild Card game on a Kirk Cousins-to-Kyle Rudolph touchdown.
Media narratives following the playoff victory focused on Cousins getting the so-called big-game monkey off his back. Lost in the hoopla, however, was the fact that Rudolph had come through in the clutch. Again. And despite the complaints by seemingly snake-bit-yet-actually-karma-bit Saints fans, Rudolph absolutely didn’t push off before grabbing the game-winner.
It was an on-brand moment for Rudolph, who is tied for third amongst all tight ends in touchdowns (47) with Antonio Gates – behind only Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski (69) – since he entered the league in 2011. That’s some impressive company.
A little math tells us that Rudolph will be entering his 10th season in 2020 and a quick check of the Vikings’ current roster reveals he’s the longest-tenured member of the squad.
The Vikings sure will miss him when he’s gone.
One needn’t be a forensic cap-ologist to conclude that said departure might come after the 2020 season. Remember, it was just last offseason that rumors off Rudolph’s imminent release were swirling. That was until he signed a four-year, $36 million extension in June of 2019 that ensured he would be around a little longer while also providing some cap space at the time.
After inking the big deal, he said his home will always be in Minnesota.
That four-year deal, in reality, could shrink to two years if the Vikings decide to release him following this season.
The reasons for potentially doing so should be fairly simple to grasp:
- Rudolph turns 31 in November.
- His receiving numbers, aside from touchdowns, are dwindling.
- He makes an awful lot of money.
- The Vikings have Irv Smith Jr. ready to take the baton at tight end.
On that last point, the Smith hype train left the station a while ago, so if you didn’t catch it, it’s too late. As a rookie in 2019, Smith had 47 targets, 36 receptions and two touchdowns while Rudolph had 48 targets, 39 receptions and six touchdowns. Together they formed a solid one-two tight end punch for the Vikings, but how much longer will they be together?
It is widely expected that Smith will surge past Rudolph in targets and receptions this season, while the veteran spends additional time with blocking assignments and being called upon when the Vikings get near that 10 yards of painted territory on either end of the field. He remains an ideal end zone target: He’s got a massive frame that enables him to post up most defenders, plus his hands are as sure as any tight end’s hands in the league.
However, it feels like Smith’s time to shine now. A peaceful transition of power is nigh. The Vikings spent a second-round pick on Irv in 2019 (50th overall) and his receiving chops are readily apparent. It’s time to unleash him. Ironically, he’ll be taking the reins as the Vikings’ top tight end from a player who was also selected in the second round – Rudy went 43rd overall in 2011.
Maybe Smith will even follow the Rudolph blueprint of making the Pro Bowl following his sophomore season.
Speaking of which, I did a Q and A session with Rudolph in August of 2013 for the Minnesota Vikings Official Yearbook. He was fresh off said Pro Bowl appearance — in which he was named the MVP of the game — and it looked like he might be on the verge of stardom entering his third season. Rudolph was just 23 years old when we sat down for the one-on-one.
A few things stand out as I look back: First, he didn’t have the sleeve of ink that adorns his left arm today. Second, media relations forewarned me that he might be a little soft-spoken. However, I found him to be engaging, talkative and serious about becoming a better football player. Specifically, he wanted to become a better blocker. He did just that. Rudolph wasn’t blessed with great route-running skills, but he had the size, great hands and put in the work as a blocker. He became a complete tight end.
But that’s really only half of the reason the Vikings are going to miss him if and when he gets released following the 2020 campaign.
That big kid who media relations thought might be a little quiet followed his values on a path toward becoming a team leader and valuable part of the Twin Cities community. Many Vikings players do charity work, of course. Rudolph sets the pace.
Rudolph has been the Vikings’ Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award nominee each of the past three seasons. That should tell you something. Voting for each team’s nominee is done “internally by the organization” according to a Vikings spokesperson. “Ownership, executives, football staff, etc., make a collective effort to choose (the player).”
Reading between the lines: No player has more respect inside Vikings headquarters than Rudolph.
Though he has yet to win the prestigious Walter Payton Award, he did win the fourth annual Nationwide Charity Challenge in January 2019 – a month-long social media promotion in which fans were able to cast votes for their favorite nominee for the Walter Payton award. In winning the challenge and in being nominated for the award three times, Rudolph raised money for charity. He has worked extensively with the Muscular Dystrophy Association Muscle Team, University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and several other great causes in the community.
Indeed, releasing Rudolph won’t be easy from a human perspective. It feels inevitable if you look at the salary cap situation, though.
Rudolph’s cap numbers the next four seasons are as follows:
- 2020: $8.825 M
- 2021: $9.4 M
- 2022: $10.2 M
- 2023: $11.6 M
He will be the ninth-highest paid Viking this season. Only three NFL tight ends currently have a higher average annual salary: Hunter Henry, who was given a 2020 franchise tag by the Chargers, Austin Hooper, who signed with Cleveland this offseason, and perennial All-Pro Travis Kelce.
According to OverTheCap.com, if the Vikings cut Rudolph after this season and before June 1, 2021, they will save $5.1 million in cap space for next year. If they cut him after June 1, 2021, the savings will become $8.0 million.
Remember, Cousins’ cap hits balloon the next two seasons, and the Vikings are looking at potentially handing Dalvin Cook a boatload of money. In addition, Anthony Harris becomes a UFA at the end of the coming season after playing 2020 on the franchise tag. Complicating matters, the salary cap will reportedly shrink in 2021, leaving even less room with which to operate.
It’s a business, folks. Not everyone can be retained. Maybe Cousins gets released. Maybe it’s Rudolph. Perhaps it’s both of them. Restructures seem unlikely.
The news that Rudolph put his Wayzata mansion up for sale in June neatly fits the narrative that he sees the writing on the wall. I’m not buying it – not the house (obviously) and not that the “For Sale” sign has anything to do with his situation with the Vikings. Maybe he just wants a different mansion. Or another house. Maybe a ranch. A castle? He thinks of the Twin Cities as home, so he’s probably not going too far regardless of what happens.
That’s a good thing for Minnesota and for Vikings fans.
You’d have to think given the reverence he’s earned inside the halls of Vikings headquarters, the team will do what it can to let him go in a respectful way.
Rudolph ranks fifth all-time among Vikings in receptions (425) behind only Cris Carter (1,004), Randy Moss (587), Steve Jordan (498) and Anthony Carter (478). He’s second all-time among Vikings tight ends in receiving yards with 4,154, behind Jordan (6,307). He also ranks fifth all-time among Vikings players in touchdown receptions with 47 – behind Carter (110), Moss (92), Carter (52) and Sammy White (50). The Vikings will probably do what they can to ensure Rudolph gets to 50 touchdowns this season – and maybe even 53, which would move him into third place in team history.
It would also be cool if Rudy finally won that elusive Walter Payton Man of the Year Award this season. The only bummer about that would be the fact that winners of the award get to wear a special patch on their jerseys for the rest of their careers and, well… his career, in Minnesota at least, might be over after this season.
The speculation about Rudolph’s future will intensify with every big play Smith makes. Vikings fans will be simultaneously excited about Smith and saddened by the end of the Rudolph Era.
Both can and will be true.