For the past several days, NFL teams have been doing what they always do this time of year: releasing veterans, in large part to create salary cap room and prepare for the beginning of the league year in mid-March. Things had been eerily quiet on the Minnesota Vikings beat in this regard, yet it was obvious something was nigh. Moves need to be made to get them under the cap. The offseason quiet was interrupted by the announcement late Tuesday afternoon that veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, the team’s longest-tenured active player, had been released.
The transaction was at once inevitable and a little sad. Indeed, I used this space to discuss the likelihood of a Rudolph release following the 2020 season last summer. It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Rudolph reportedly informed the Vikings in January that he wouldn’t be willing to restructure the four-year contract he signed in June of 2019, a stance that assured he had played his final game in Minnesota.
Following the announcement, Rudolph posted a thank you on Twitter and linked to an article he wrote for The Players Tribune.
Something tells us he didn’t just pen that farewell this afternoon. This move has been in the works for a while now.
With Rudy’s release comes the end of an era. He leaves the Vikings after 10 seasons, ranked fifth in franchise history in receptions (453), 10th in receiving yards (4,488), and fifth in receiving touchdowns with 48 – the most ever by a Vikings tight end. He worked hard to make himself into an all-around player, honing his blocking skills the last several seasons.
Beyond the impressive stats and on-field accomplishments, Rudolph was a fan favorite and an absolute gem in the community. Over the past decade, he lent his time and support to such causes as the Muscular Dystrophy Association Muscle Team, University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, and several other charities and organizations. This off-the-field work led to him being the Vikings’ nominee for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award three times. That’s a reflection of how highly he was regarded within Vikings headquarters.
General manager Rick Spielman released a statement calling Rudolph “One of the premier tight ends in the NFL and most influential and positive leaders I’ve ever been around.” Spielman added, “Kyle and Jordan have made such an immeasurable impact on our team and community that may never be matched.”
The Vikings will miss him. However, from the sound of it, Rudolph plans to call Minnesota home regardless of where he winds up playing next season.
Now that the anticipated Rudolph move has been made, we are left to ponder its significance.
Rudolph had the Vikings’ eighth-largest cap number ($9,387,300), according to overthecap.com, and his release will save the team a little over $5 million in cap space in 2021. The harsh reality of the business side of the NFL is that the salary cap doesn’t allow for many situations in which paying that kind of money to a 31-year-old tight end makes sense. And when you’re a team like the Vikings that has quite a ways to go to get its head above water, it makes no sense to keep that contract on the books. The fact that Rudolph finished with just 28 receptions and one touchdown in 2020 further cemented the decision.
Part of Rudy’s diminished stats were due to the scheme. Part of it was due to him being used more as a blocker. Even so, when the Vikings pretty much stopped leveraging his best asset – as a huge end zone target with sure hands – the writing was on the wall. Thus, the torch has been officially passed to Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin – a hand-off that has been the subject of many an article here at ZoneCoverage.com. Given what we saw in 2020, the Vikings seem to be in good shape at tight end with Smith and Conklin. That helps cushion the loss, at least on the field.
As for Rudolph, it shouldn’t take him long to find a new team with cap space and a need for a veteran tight end that might have a few years left in the tank. The speculation on where he might land has already begun in earnest on the Twitter machine. He’s an immediate free agent, so he can sign before the new league year begins.
Was the Rudolph move the first of many for the Vikings? Is there more cost-cutting ahead in the coming days? Absolutely.
It’s just a matter of how they proceed. The Vikings likely wanted to give Rudolph his own sendoff rather than lumping him together with other cuts on Tuesday. Or perhaps Spielman and the number-crunchers haven’t finalized the belt-tightening plans. Transactions could come in the form of additional players being released or contracts being restructured. Anthony Barr has reportedly refused to restructure his deal. His cap hit of more than $15 million trails only Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter, making him a prime target to be released. Just below Barr on the list of cap hits is left tackle Riley Reiff at just under $15 million. Of course, his situation has been the subject of much speculation. Letting either one of them go would get the Vikings close to where they need to be in terms of the start of the league year and the salary cap. Harrison Smith has been mentioned as a restructuring candidate. His cap number is just north of where’s Rudolph’s number was, in the $10 million range.
Rudolph was the first purple domino. Letting go of such a class act was hard, and there are more difficult decisions ahead.