MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Kyle Rudolph wanted to learn everything he could about the tight end position during the offseason, so he watched video of 12-time Pro Bowl pick and Atlanta Falcons stalwart Tony Gonzalez.
The Minnesota Vikings are trying to emulate what they can of New England’s tough-to-stop two-tight end offense, so Rudolph studied more film of Patriots standouts Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
“It’s a copycat league,” Rudolph said.
Good guys to learn from, sure, but now Rudolph has to put those tips to use on the field, following a promising but inconsistent and injury-influenced rookie season in 2011. He became fast friends with quarterback Christian Ponder, a relationship that has carried over to the field.
“He and Christian have a great rapport,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He is going to be a favorite for Christian, there’s no question about it.”
Last year, Rudolph played in 15 games but had only 26 receptions for 249 yards and three touchdowns. He was still recovering from surgery on his hamstring during his final season at Notre Dame, and he was trying to adjust to the pace and length of the NFL’s 16-game schedule.
“It’s weird when you have surgery because you feel like you’re going as fast as you can, but then you watch yourself on tape and you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s just not me,'” Rudolph said. “Now I feel like I’m running like I used to, and I feel like I definitely have the explosiveness that I had when I was at college that made a special tight end.”
In the offseason, the Vikings chose not to re-sign Visanthe Shiancoe, signaling a belief that Rudolph was prepared to increase his production. The Vikings (29th in the inaugural AP Pro32 rankings) instead added John Carlson in free agency. Their intent is to use two tight ends in the middle of the field to create some mismatches against slower linebackers and smaller safeties the way the Patriots have so effectively in recent years. That, in theory, should also open more room for the running backs and wide receivers. Carlson is currently recovering from a sprained right knee, but he’s expected back in action later this month.
To prepare for the extra workload, the 6-foot-6, 258-pound Rudolph got healthy and watched all that film on his more-decorated and experienced peers, seeing how they run routes and create separation.
“Tight ends aren’t guys that are going to burn down the field, but we’re fast enough and if we can create that little bit of separation, it makes all the difference,” Rudolph said.
He’s more of a Gronkowski-type of tight end, given his height-weight-speed blend and extra-large hands for hauling in seemingly every ball that comes close to his body.
“I needed to get in better shape so I could get in and out of my cuts quicker,” Rudolph said. “I need to use my big body to create some space in the zone.”
With Carlson out, Rudolph has been getting even more work during training camp. Even though Rudolph is just beginning his second season, Frazier said he already sees some leadership emerging from the young tight end.
“He is embracing the fact that he is our starting tight end, and we are counting on him in a big way to be productive for us,” Frazier said. “He has the talent to do it.”
“He’s so athletic. He’s such a big target. He’s got unbelievable hands. He’s a guy I feel real comfortable with. He’s going to make a lot of plays this year,” Ponder said.
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