In a season that's seen the Minnesota Vikings' fortunes go from bad to worse, things picked up a little more steam when one of the team's best skill-position players, tight end Kyle Rudolph, broke his foot against the Dallas Cowboys on November 3.
Rudolph is expected to miss four to six weeks depending on how fast the bone heals in his left foot, which he broke while scoring a 31-yard touchdown against the Cowboys.
Big things were expected from the 24-year old Rudolph heading into 2013 after improving greatly in 2012 and winning the MVP at the Pro Bowl. And while he certainly wasn't having a monster season, he will be missed greatly by the Vikings, as he is perhaps Christian Ponder's favorite target. Rudolph's 30 catches, 313 yards and three touchdowns leave a hole in the Vikings offense.
So, with the 6'6", 258-pound Rudolph sidelined for at least another month, how will the Vikings fill the void at tight end?
The simple and obvious answer is John Carlson, the Vikings backup tight end who filled in admirably against the Washington Redskins, catching seven passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. A more detailed answer is that all the Vikings receivers will need to step up to make up for the loss of Rudolph.
The Vikings signed Carlson to a five-year, $25 million deal in March of 2012, and he was a huge bust last season, catching just eight passes for 43 yards. Carlson, after re-structuring his deal this offseason, was playing slightly better in 2013 before having a breakout game against the Redskins on Thursday night, catching seven balls for 98 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown.
Carlson seemed like an ideal complement to Rudolph at a time when teams were trying to emulate the success the Patriots had with their two tight ends. Rudolph had followed in Carlson's footsteps at Notre Dame, where they had amazingly similar statistics:
The Vikings found out very quickly in 2012 that it helped to have Tom Brady at quarterback to have two successful tight ends. Carlson suffered some nagging injuries near the beginning of last season and never found his stride in the Vikings passing offense.
With Rudolph on the shelf for awhile, that has to change, and Carlson is certainly off to a good start.
Rhett Ellison continues to nurse a sore ankle that he suffered against the New York Giants, and he probably won't play this week against the Seahawks. Ellison is having a frustrating second season for the Vikings; a series of nagging injuries have kept him on the sidelines as he still looks for his first reception of the year.
Rookie Chase Ford, the 6'6", 260-pound tight end out of the University of Miami is next up on the depth chart, and he may see some balls thrown his way with both Rudolph and Ellison on the sidelines. Ford, who was on the practice squad for most of the season, is best known for helping out on Adrian Peterson's remarkable 11-yard touchdown run against the Dallas Cowboys.
With Ellison still nursing an injury and Ford just a rookie, look for Carlson to get a majority of the snaps at tight end. Carlson looked like the player the Vikings thought they had signed against the Redskins. Carlson began his career with the Seattle Seahawks and looked to be on his way to stardom, catching 106 passes for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
While Carlson's career started out great, he's been battling injuries and has basically been ineffective since his second season. It's ironic that his opportunity to resurrect himself comes at the expense of the player who replaced him at Notre Dame. As reported Thursday by the Star Tribune's Mark Craig, Rudolph and Carlson are always pulling for one another, dating back to Rudolph's recruiting trip to South Bend.
Rudolph seemed set to have a big breakout season in 2013, but erratic quarterback play and, now ,his broken foot have derailed his season. While Carlson can be a more than adequate fill-in, he doesn't have the hands or the red-zone presence of Rudolph.
It won't just be Carlson that will have to step up to fill the void left by Rudolph's injury. Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson all have to pitch in by getting open on quick and intermediate routes, where Rudolph has excelled.
The Vikings hoped that renewed depth at wide receiver would greatly improve their passing numbers, but poor quarterback play has kept the numbers pretty sparse.
It's been a difficult year for the Vikings receivers and tight ends. Never seeming to know who will be at quarterback from week to week has kept the group from finding a groove. Christian Ponder seemed to have won the job back with his play against the Redskins, but an injury to his left shoulder has his status in doubt for Sunday's game against the Seahawks.
Regardless of who's at quarterback, the Vikings receivers and tight ends have to approach the last seven games of the season as an opportunity to prove themselves. With Jerome Simpson in the doghouse after a DUI arrest on Saturday morning, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson may get his first chance to start, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling.
With Rudolph expected to miss up to five more games, the door is open for many of the Vikings receivers to establish their worth.
For John Carlson, Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson, it's a chance to show they can still be big contributors. For Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford, it's a chance to earn more opportunities in the future.