Everyone knows that Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL today. Not only was the 22-year-old an All Pro team selection in 2011, but he also holds the NFL records for both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a single season.
With the 42nd pick in the 2010 NFL draft, the New England Patriots selected Gronkowski, and he has been elite QB Tom Brady's go-to guy ever since—and honestly, he's probably the main reason why the Patriots are representing the AFC in Superbowl XLVI.
The thing is, the Vikings have a guy on their roster who reminds me a lot of Gronkowski. While he hasn't had the same immediate impact, now-second-year TE Kyle Rudolph has a very similar ceiling.
With the 43rd pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected Rudolph to give rookie QB Christian Ponder a reliable target to grow with. The two shared their first NFL touchdown in the final preseason game of 2011 against the Houston Texans.
Both Rudolph and Gronkowski were considered the best tight-end prospects in their respective draft classes, but both came with red flags as well. Gronkowski was criticized for being somewhat injury-prone, and was also short-sized by many analysts for coming out of the Pac-10—a conference that was anything but notorious for good defense. Similarly, Rudolph was battered up at times in his college career—even missing most of his junior season with a torn hamstring.
Criticism aside, Gronkowski set several school records for receiving on his way to becoming an All-American as a true-sophomore out of Arizona. Meanwhile, Rudolph displayed his keen athleticism by stretching the field for the Fighting Irish—just like he did when he torched Michigan's secondary for a 95-yard touchdown pass in 2010.
Along with being incredibly talented football players, the two are both impressively athletic as well. Both men are a massive 6'6" tall, but Gronkowski outweighs Rudolph by seven pounds at 265. Gronkowski ran a 4.68 40-yard-dash time at the NFL combine, while Rudolph—who didn't participate in the combine because of his torn hamstring—posted a 4.82 40-yard time only three weeks after being medically cleared to participate at Notre Dame's pro day.
Like I said, Gronkowski was much more productive as a rookie, scoring 10 touchdowns off of 42 receptions—the team's No. 1. Rudolph, meanwhile, caught 29 passes and three touchdowns in his rookie campaign. The important thing to remember, though, is that Rudolph was the third tight end on the depth chart, and he didn't exactly have Tom Brady throwing him the ball.
With Jim Kleinsasser retiring and Visanthe Shiancoe presumably leaving in free agency this summer, Rudolph will be in the spotlight as the team's No. 1. In an offense built around running the ball and play-action passes to slot receivers and tight ends, Rudolph should be very excited to get going with the 2012 season.
While Gronkowski has been much more impressive as an overall tight end, I would make the argument that with catches like this, Rudolph has better hands.
If Rudolph continues to work himself into NFL shape and size, he certainly has the potential to do all of the things that we've seen Rob Gronkowski do over the course of the 2011 season. Given that both guys are pretty much the same athlete from a physical perspective, I would give them very similar ceilings.
I firmly believe that—if he's healthy—Gronkowski will help lead the Pats to victory over the New York Giants and help Tom Brady earn his fourth ring.
If the Vikings are lucky, they will have Rudolph—with the help of Percy, Ponder and Peterson—lead the Vikings sleigh to victory in 2012 (I know, cheap Christmas joke).
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