The Minnesota Vikings awarding tight end Kyle Rudolph a $36.5 million extension—despite his lack of a 500-yard receiving season, a career reception average of just 9.7 yards per catch and the eight games he missed in 2013—may look like a classic case of giving up too much money to a player too soon.
But the best contract designers in the NFL pay for future projection instead of past production, a reality that gives Minnesota's five-year extension for Rudolph a legitimate chance to look like smart business down the line.
According to Ben Goessling of ESPN, Rudolph's extension could be worth up to $40 million, based on incentives. It includes $19.4 million in guaranteed money, with $6.5 million coming in the form of a signing bonus, another $960,000 from a guaranteed base salary in 2014 and $12 million from injury-only guarantees.
The baseline contract numbers put Rudolph directly into the upper tier of NFL tight ends. Rudolph's $7.3 million average salary ranks sixth, only $50,000 behind Vernon Davis for fifth and $100,000 below Jason Witten for fourth.
His $19.4 million in guarantees, while somewhat overestimated based on the injury-only money, ranks second behind only Jimmy Graham ($20.9 million). Finally, the $6.5 million signing bonus paid out to Rudolph comes in as the eighth highest for a tight end.
Since being drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, Rudolph has failed to put up numbers that suggest he should be considered one of the NFL's best tight ends.
His 109 receptions rank 22nd among tight ends over the last three seasons. A total of 30 tight ends have more receiving yards than Rudolph's 1,055. Maybe most damning is his 9.7-yard average per reception, which ranks 78th among tight ends with at least 10 catches since 2011. Rudolph's one saving grace comes in the touchdown department, where his 15 scores are tied for eighth most.
|Total||NFL TE Rank|
|Receiving TDs||15||8th (t)|
|Yards per Reception||9.7||78th|
|Yards per Game||27.1||41st|
*Played 39 of 48 possible games
Graham, arguably the best tight end in football, produced 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013 alone.
But then again, context is needed for every set of statistics. Rudolph's career numbers might as well come with a Christian Ponder asterisk. The Vikings haven't had a quarterback (including Ponder) with a final passer rating over 85.0 since Rudolph arrived in Minnesota.
Throw in a mind-numbingly predictable offense and missing nine games to injury in three years, and it's much easier to understand why Rudolph hasn't produced at elite levels. Yet.
There is still some risk for the Vikings here. Projecting can be a difficult task when there's so little past production. Rudolph hasn't always been available, and he has injuries stemming back from his days to Notre Dame, plus a broken foot in 2013 that cost him eight games.
However, the upside for Rudolph in Norv Turner's tight end-happy offense, combined with the added effect of having some semblance of stability at quarterback—whether it's in the form of veteran Matt Cassel or the emergence of rookie Teddy Bridgewater—gives the Vikings a chance to have this deal look like a relative bargain in coming years.
Minnesota's willingness to do an extension now points to an obvious future in which Turner and the Vikings attempt to feature Rudolph in the passing game.
Turner is no stranger to getting production out of the tight end position.
Jay Novacek made three Pro Bowls and averaged 57 receptions per season under Turner's watch in the early 1990s in Dallas. Stephen Alexander made a Pro Bowl for Washington in 2000. Randy McMichael and Vernon Davis began their respective careers with Turner calling the shots. And Antonio Gates (five Pro Bowls) and Jordan Cameron (80 catches, seven touchdowns in 2013) both became stars in the Turner offense.
At 6'6", with strong hands and a wide catching radius, Rudolph has the tools to become the next Turner success story. And while not as straight-line fast as Cameron or athletically dominant as Gates, Rudolph has a wide range of skills that Turner will want to utilize.
Rudolph can still get up the seam and cause problems. Watch his last play of the 2013 season (he broke his foot here):
Rudolph wins down the middle of the field against a shadowing safety. How? He first gets a clean release, then creates the needed separation with a well-executed outside-in move. With the defender on his back hip, Rudolph goes up to get the football before rumbling through a few tackle attempts on his way to the end zone.
This catch against the Panthers displays his awareness and ability to work the underneath portion of the field:
It's third down, and the Carolina defense is blitzing. Rudolph smartly looks for the football at the snap, giving Cassel a "hot" receiver to go to if the blitz breaks free. But when Cassel receives a block and moves the pocket, Rudolph breaks off his route and finds an empty space between the coverage. The play nets 15 yards and a first down.
These are skills that translate to any offense. Add in Rudolph's work inside the red zone (11 career touchdowns inside the 20), and his reliable hands (just eight drops over 166 career targets), and it becomes easier to see why Turner believes he can make the most of his newest tight end project.
The quarterback position also factors into the equation. While Rudolph caught nine scores from Ponder in 2012, his most productive game last season—a nine-catch, 97-yard, one-score performance against the Carolina Panthers—came with Cassel under center. The 10-year veteran entered camp this past week as the offense's No. 1 quarterback.
And even if Bridgewater beats out Cassel for the job, few assets are more important to a rookie quarterback than a big, tall tight end with reliable hands. Rudolph could immediately become Bridgewater's security blanket.
By this time next year, the Vikings' decision to give him a sizable extension may look ahead of the curve.
A big season from Rudolph—a year in the 70-catch, 10-touchdown range isn't out of the question—could have sky-rocketed his value. Now, the Vikings have him under their control, and at a decent price, given the guarantees.
Was Kyle Rudolph's extension smart business, or too much, too soon?
Adding the $6.5 million signing bonus and $960,000 guaranteed base salary in 2014 gives Rudolph roughly $7.46 million in no-questions-asked guarantees. His other $12 million guarantees are for injury only, but can be earned through remaining on the roster in later years of the deal.
This reality gives true incentive for Rudolph to earn every penny of his deal. At this point, the Vikings haven't locked themselves into a great commitment of future money to Rudolph. If he realizes the full value of the deal, he'll have earned it with production on the field.
The Vikings mostly know what Rudolph is capable of. He caught nine scores in a Pro Bowl season in 2012, and he was on pace for career highs in catches and yards last season.
But the Vikings also paid the 24-year-old Rudolph with an idea in mind of what they hope he will become—the next dominant tight end for the Turner offense, and a long-term asset for Bridgewater. Just as important, Minnesota needed less than $8 million in fully guaranteed money to get the deal done, while also keeping Rudolph incentivized in future years.
Not many deals in the NFL can be considered smart and safe. Rudolph's extension in Minnesota looks like a rare combination of both.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.