He won’t take a pay cut. He is unsatisfied with his expanded role as a blocker. And he believes he has many good years of football left.
After suffering a Lisfranc sprain in his foot during overtime of the team’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Rudolph missed the final four games of the regular season as the Vikings dropped out of the playoff race. During that time, the 31-year-old tight end did not speak with reporters about his uncertain future. However, Rudolph opened up on the “Unrestricted” podcast with Leber in a nearly two-hour conversation.
“[The fans] are the only reason I’m here,” Rudolph said. “Personally, it’s not because of the way I’m used. Obviously, it’s not a lot. I just block every play pretty much. I think I’m more than capable as a pass-catcher, and I don’t get to do it anymore, quite honestly. The only reason that I’m still around and do the things that I do is because the only thing I want to do is win a championship.
“I want to be a reason why we win this championship,” the 10-year vet continued. “I don’t want to just be a swing tackle. That’s not what I do well. I’ve worked really hard at it. I think I’ve become pretty good at it, but it’s certainly not a reason why we can win a championship.”
Rudolph even recalled bringing his frustrations to friend and Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“I remember calling him,” Rudolph recalled, “being like, ‘Hey, here’s the deal. All I want to do is run around and catch the ball. I don’t even get to do that on pass plays. I’m in pass protection now. We get down in the red zone. I’ve made a living catching passes in the red zone. I don’t even get to run routes. I’m in pass protection on pass plays.”
Rudolph credited Gonzalez with motivating him to embrace his role as a blocker and expand his skill-set. In 2017-18, Rudolph’s average ranks as a pass blocker and run blocker were 50th and 63rd. He showed improvement in Gary Kubiak‘s wide zone scheme the last two seasons, ranking 33rd and 42nd on average. Still, the run-heavy scheme correlated with a drop in Rudolph’s targets and production. He recorded just 39 targets in 2019 with 367 yards and saw the numbers drop further to 28 catches, 334 yards, and a career-low one touchdown in 12 games last season.
Just an absurd touchdown catch by Kyle Rudolph. Somehow tapped the right foot inbounds as he was coming down with the one-handed grab pic.twitter.com/3iNlhcd6kk
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) September 27, 2020
Rudolph believes his value, not only to the team but across the league, is diminishing in his current role.
“If I were the Wilfs, if I were Rick [Spielman], I’m looking at this situation, ‘Hey, we’re paying this guy all this money, and you’re not using him, so why are we continuing to pay him a lot of money?
“If I just block every play, the other 31 teams are going to assume that as well. … They don’t get to see me on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays when I’m running around.”
In his career season of 2016, Rudolph led the league in routes run with 539, and under pass-happy play-caller John DeFilippo in 2018, Rudolph ran 546 routes. That number dropped to 338 in 2019 and 247 in 2020.
It’s not as if Rudolph was asked to block substantially more in 2020, however. He had averaged 81 pass-blocking snaps and 338 run-blocking snaps in the previous four seasons. Before his injury in 2020, he was on pace for 64 pass-blocking snaps and 356 run-blocking snaps. The difference, as evidenced above, was his dropoff in routes run. Former second-round pick Irv Smith Jr.’s inclusion in the offense bit into Rudolph’s share, leaving the longest-tenured Viking wanting more.
Rudolph signed an extension before the 2019 season that runs through 2023. Still, he can be released before the 2021 season with only $4.35 million in dead money, saving the Vikings $5.1 million against the salary cap. He is set to make $9.45 million if he remains on the roster.
“I think I’m worth every dime of my contract,” Rudolph said. “That doesn’t mean that I’m used to my potential, and I’m used to do what I do well.”
Considering the decreasing salary cap and the Vikings’ other pending expenditures, it will be tough for them to justify paying Rudolph his current salary and his same level of production. They also got a glimpse late in the year of what life might be like without him, and it looked promising. Smith and Tyler Conklin combined for 30 catches and four touchdowns in the final four weeks of the season, ranking in the top 20 in yards per route run over that span.
When asked if he would consider a restructured contract at a reduced salary, Rudolph said, “it wouldn’t happen.” Considering the Vikings have voiced their desire to continue with the same offensive scheme under their next offensive coordinator following Kubiak’s retirement, Rudolph may have caught his final pass — and laid his final block — as a member of the Vikings.
“I can’t sign up for that again,” Rudolph said. “Am I going to all of a sudden derail my career with a lot of football left?”