By this time next spring, it's possible Rudolph—who is entering a contract year in a Norv Turner offense—will have a much more accurate case to make about being mentioned alongside the NFL's best tight ends.
Rudolph stuck to his guns this week. When asked by Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press who the best tight end in the game was today, Rudolph gave a simple, confident response: "Me."
"There's a ton of talented tight ends in our game," Rudolph said. "You have guys that play at a high level, like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. But I would put myself up there with them."
The numbers don't agree.
Over his three-year NFL career, Rudolph does not have a single season with over 500 receiving yards or 10 or more touchdowns. He posted career highs of 53 catches for 493 yards and nine scores in 2012, before an injury-plagued 2013 season saw him catch just 30 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He played just eight games after suffering a broken foot in Week 9.
Over 39 career games, Rudolph has 109 catches, 1,055 yards and 15 touchdowns. For context, consider that Graham—who rightfully holds the title of the game's best tight end—produced 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013 alone.
Here's how Rudolph's career per-game averages stack up with the rest of the NFL's well-known tight ends:
|Rudolph vs. Top NFL TEs, Career Per-Game Averages|
No one is going to fault Rudolph for claiming to be the best, even if the numbers tell a much different story. What else is he supposed to say? Every draft season, incoming rookies confidently tell inquiring reporters that they are the best player at their position. New quarterbacks annually claim to be elite. It's a matter derived from exuding confidence rather than insinuating truth.
Rudolph will have his chance to walk the walk in 2014.
Gone is conservative play-caller Bill Musgrave, who coordinated the Vikings' offense during every season since Rudolph arrived in 2011. In is Turner, one of the NFL's most experienced offensive coordinators and a noted friend of the tight end position.
"If you follow his coaching career, all the places he's been, the tight end has been really important in his offense," Rudolph said. "I'm looking forward to being a part of that. ... My goal every year is to be the best tight end in the NFL."
The history between Turner and the tight end position is a strong one.
Jay Novacek made three Pro Bowls and averaged 57 catches per season over the three years Turner was the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys (1991-93). Washington's Stephen Alexander made a Pro Bowl under Turner in 2000. Randy McMichael began the start of his productive career with Turner as the offensive coordinator in Miami. Even Vernon Davis' rookie season came under Turner's guidance in 2006.
|Notable TEs Under Norv Turner, Coordinator or Head Coach|
|J. Novacek||DAL (1991-93)||171||1739||11|
|S. Alexander||WAS (1998-2000)||113||1217||9|
|R. McMichael||MIA (2002-03)||88||1083||6|
|V. Davis*||SF (2006)||20||265||3|
|A. Gates||SD (2007-12)||377||4943||49|
|J. Cameron||CLE (2013)||80||917||7|
Turner's biggest success stories at tight end are still Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron.
Gates, a former college basketball player who blossomed into one of the game's best tight ends, averaged 63 receptions, 824 yards and eight touchdowns over six seasons with Turner as the head coach of the Chargers.
He made five Pro Bowls, with his best season featuring 79 catches, 1,157 yards and eight scores. Only once under Turner did his production dip below 50 catches, and he hauled in at least seven touchdowns in all six seasons.
Cameron blew up for the Cleveland Browns last season.
After catching just 26 passes over his first two seasons, Cameron got his mitts on a career-high 80 for Turner. He finished 2013 with 917 yards and seven scores, plus his first Pro Bowl invitation.
Minnesota knows all about how Turner utilized Cameron; he caught six passes for 66 yards and three scores—with the third beating the Vikings in the dying embers of the game—back in September of last year.
Rudolph may not be as explosive an athlete as Gates, or as fluid and smooth as Cameron. But he's still a tall, coordinated tight end who uses his body to box-out defenders and his length to high point the football. He plays the game similarly to Gates and Cameron, with a basketball-player mentality.
Watch below as Rudolph hauls in a touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys last season:
He lines up off the line in a slot position to the right of the formation. He's shadowed by a safety, but Rudolph makes easy work of the coverage.
His clean release allows him to get inside the safety and then work to the outside, leaving his defender on the back hip as he breaks free to the middle of the field. He then high points the football down the seam, bounces off a few would-be tacklers and scores six points (ironically, Rudolph broke hit foot on this play).
Rudolph's lack of straight-line speed will limit him some in the slot and while working the seam but strong route running and a huge frame should allow Turner to use him much like he did with Gates and Cameron in recent seasons. Both his former tight ends made a living in the middle of the field of Turner's offense.
If Turner's offense isn't incentive enough, the potential rewards of a contract year should be.
Rudolph is set to enter the final year of his rookie deal in 2014. He'll make just $956K in base salary and another $50K in bonuses. His total cap hit of $1.47 million (with prorated signing bonus), per Spotrac, will place Rudolph as the 34th highest paid tight end in the NFL next season.
A big year production-wise could mean a huge bump in take-home pay.
Graham, Gronkowski, Witten and Davis will combine to count—on average—over $7 million their against their respective team's caps next season. Gronkowski, Witten and Davis are all working off big deals, while Graham is currently saddled with the franchise tag. He could break the bank in the coming months.
|Top TE Cap Hits, 2014 Season|
|*Franchise tag Source: Spotrac|
And while all four of those tight ends benefit from the security of a top-level quarterback, Rudolph should gain some stability in that area with Matt Cassel's return. The Vikings' tight end had a career-high 97 yards receiving in Cassel's start vs. the Carolina Panthers.
Even if Minnesota decides to pick a quarterback at No. 8 overall, there's no better friend to a rookie signal-caller than a big tight end with strong hands. Remember, Cameron hauled in 80 passes as the Browns shuffled through three quarterbacks last season.
After three years of mostly mixed results, the time and situation is now ripe for Rudolph to take the next step and join the club of tight ends at the top of the NFL.
With Turner running the Vikings offense and the incentive of a big pay day, 2014 is shaping up to be a coming out party for the former second-round pick. And if that's the case, he won't need to make any more outlandish claims about his status at the position.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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